Glue, paper and black ink were the only ingredients when Jae Ko began making her distinctively coiled sculptures from rolls of adding-machine paper. The Korean-born local artist was doing a sort of 3-D calligraphy, working with the same materials used in Asian brush painting. So it was natural for her to expand her palette slightly, adding red ink to the glue that both colors and binds the paper, or brushing the black sculptures with graphite powder.
Jae Ko's "Recent Sculpture and Drawing" at Marsha Mateyka Gallery adds a new color, but it's not really new. Two of the elegant vertical wall sculptures are white, which is just an amplified version of the paper's original color. More surprising are the works dubbed drawings, which were executed with thin vinyl cord on adhesive paper. Painstakingly fashioned, these arrangements in white, black, red and--another color!--turquoise resemble furrows, fingerprints and phonograph records.
The drawings aren't as formidable as the sculptures, whose sleekly twisting forms suggest painted wood or metal. But their many patterns, more abundant than those in the coiled paper, carry the eye in unexpected directions. The spiraling vinyl strips suggest the rolls of paper Jae Ko has used for two decades, while demonstrating her carefully limited gambits can be extended without limit.
Korea-born, Washington-based artist Jae Ko is having her seventh solo exhibition at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, near Dupont Circle. Ko works with ink and paper but makes sculpture rather than drawings: She twists rolls of adding-machine tape into coiling forms, held in place by glue and ink.
After years of using only black ink, why did you add red for this show?
Black goes back to calligraphic writing, part of my Asian background. But I was starting to miss using color. Red is difficult to use; I had to find the right kind of red. In East Asia, red is the color of happiness.
Why do you add graphite to the ink?
Glue mixed with pigment often dries to a shiny, rubbery color. Graphite reduces this quality. I rub the graphite powder lightly on the work to enhance the details and bring out the layers of the paper.
Do you think you'll ever exhaust this technique?
I once took a roll of paper to the ocean, buried it in the sand and recovered it several hours later to discover how the paper changed. I don't feel I will ever get exhausted because there are so many other ways I still have to experiment.
What interests you about these forms?
The shape right at the point the work's almost collapsing--another push or pull might ruin the work. I am inspired by pushing the limits of shaping paper into these forms.
"Exhibit adds up to a thrill: Jae Ko's sculpture leaps to sinuous, sensuous life at Marsha Mateyka Gallery"
There's an inherent tension in Jae Ko's sculpture, on view at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery in a handsome installation of nine new pieces, including three unusually large works.
The most obvious tension is physical. Made from fat, ropelike coils of the artist's signature adding-machine tape that she manipulates and twists like taffy—see "The Story Behind the Work"—Ko's art has the springy energy of a snake about to strike. It's pure potential, like a muscle that has contracted in anticipation of throwing a punch.
The impact is not just visual; it's visceral.
There's another tension, too. Ko's latest works straddle a line between the biomorphic and the machine-made. From some angles, they don't look made so much as grown.
Inspired by the gnarled trunks of bristlecone pines—which the artist encountered on a trip to California and which are said to be the oldest organisms on the planet, living thousands of years—they seem shaped by powerful, unseen forces. But they also resemble giant, misshapen augers, rejects from some Bunyanesque tool-and-die plant.
One serpentine floor piece is 13 feet long. Two wall pieces---spiraling in thick ringlets—stretch more than six feet.
For this show, Ko has restricted her palette. Roughly half of the works are black which underscores their cold, industrial feel. The others are covered in a bright, lipstick-red pigment, bringing them to sinuous, sensuous life. The tension between opposites lends visual interest to Ko's work, which has for several years been among the area's most formally elegant sculpture.
Once known for flat, wall-mounted pieces that were all about the quiet contemplation of surface, a la Anish Kapoor, the artist's latest sculptures are a leap forward. They seem to hold an implicit threat.
That makes them ever so slightly dangerous, but in a way that thrills more than chills.
The Story Behind the Work
Jae Ko's chosen medium is rolled paper, in massive quantities.
Although she sometimes works with loose rolls of brown Kraft paper—as in her recent installation at the Phillips Collection—Ko more typically uses adding-machine tape, which she painstakingly removes from the small spools it comes on and rerolls into tight, heavy coils, using a modified potter's wheel.
Ko then wrestles and wrenches the coils out of shape, twisting and pulling them into strange forms (in the case of her latest work, spirals). Once the sculpture looks right, she holds it in place with strong clamps, applying a mixture of wood glue and pigment that fixes it permanently. (Ko uses Japanese sumi ink for the black pigment, calligraphy ink for the red.) The dried pieces are then sanded to a matte, woodlike finish.
The intensive process is a kind of strenuous, back-and-forth dance—between where Ko wants the paper to go and where it, by virtue of its own energy, wants to stay.
"Jae Ko at Marsha Mateyka Gallery"
For her exhibition at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, Jae Ko doesn't deviate much from her formula. That's not a bad thing. The sculptor, one of the Washington area's most consistent, has tapped an active vein with her rolled-paper sculptures, which she treats with glue and sumi ink. The works stand on the knife's edge between sculpture and drawing, and with every return to this format, she pushes them in one direction or another. These latest works fall decidedly along the drawing end of the spectrum. In black sumi and red calligraphy ink, these paper sculptures are elongated versions of works she has done in the past, like unwound springs; the twisting forms represent nothing so much as some sort of calligraphic script. And they look like the result of painstaking work, much as many drawings do. But the works are grounded in sculpture, too, with symmetries and rhythm that resist perfect regularity, just as in nature.
Jae Ko's most recent sculptures are more aggressive in their physicality and more complex in their surface treatment than her earlier work. Ko uses large, tightly bound spools of adding-machine paper that she wraps, folds, and contorts like taffy. Her previous exhibitions featured low, largely symmetrical iridescent black or colored wall reliefs-round, ovoid, and square- whose subtle surface modulations suggested labia, the glyphs of Asian signature seals, or topographic models of old, eroded hills. The Washington, DC-based artist, born in Korea and educated in Tokyo, travels extensively in North America, finding inspiration in unusual and extreme natural forms. The wall reliefs and floor pieces in her new show were in fact inspired by the wind-blasted trunks of the ancient bristlecone pines that the artist encountered on a trip to California's White Mountains.
Ko's new work is notable for its defter manipulation of the chosen medium, its expanded visual vocabulary of subtle, awkwardly elegant forms, and its greater sense of authority. Ko now forcefully torques and twists the spools, yielding more expressive results. As with Richard Serra's early thrown lead pieces, these objects make us immediately aware of the artist's active participation. Compositionally, she fuses the swooping curves of Bernar Venet with the ebullient swerving ribbons of Karin Davie and the efficient excessiveness of Joel Shapiro. The new works suggest tornadoes and the great, exaggerated hair bun that Marsha Graham sported in her later years. There's also a palpable sense of animation, as though these works were bodies in motion suddenly frozen, another point of difference from her earlier work. "Untitled (Jk 508)", (all works 2006) suggests a whirling dervish channeling the rearing motion of a hooded cobra; "Untitled (JK 521)" rifts on the giant cylinders of a turbine generator; and "Untitled (JK 506) resembles a portion of an enormous drill bit or an endless coiling column. Several groupings of works suggested animals, especially "Untitled (JK 516) and "Untitled (JK 520) ", which together looked like a bitch and pup.
There's a degree of spontaneity and imperfection to these forms that makes them convincingly organic, a reminder that they are the results of an evolving dialogue between artist and material. Unlike, say, Hiroshi Sugimoto's recent sculptures of idealized objects, Ko's pieces sag and flop in places; they're mildly ungainly and off-kilter; and there is a naturalness to them that makes them more credible, as though they are experiments gone awry. "Untitled (JK 513)", for example, resembles a couple of wheels on an axle where one wheel has collapsed, while "Untitled (JK 501)" appears to be spinning our of control.
Ko's surface treatment are particularly beguiling: While her earlier works were soaked in traditional Asian inks, the new sculptures are also coated in glue ( and the darker-colored ones additionally in graphite ). The treated paper's hard carapace could easily be mistaken for fiberglass, plastic, or ceramic. In its natural state, the mix has a dull, cream color, while the addition of graphite yields a matte, ersatz metallic sheen. Overall, this body of work evinces a combination of maturity, liberation, and self-assuredness that marks a significant shift for th artist, away from an early tendency toward overproduction and irresolution and toward a system of objects that feels both complete within itself and poised for further development.
Any sculptor who employs biomorphic shapes can count on their primal appeal; such forms are familiar and often beautiful, two qualities that open channels of pleasant communication with a viewer. But beyond its immediate seductiveness, natural form is assumed to be metaphorical to be a carrier of feelings or ideas, which is where the real questions begin to be asked. Jae Ko's sculptures of rolled paper and sumi ink, never stop asking them.
Born in Korea, educated in Japan and the U. S., Ko initiated her mature work in paper when she created an elegy for her deceased father by setting in sand at the Atlantic shore a large roll of paper slit vertically to its center, and exposing it to the rhythms of the tides. The resulting natural chaos in the forms of the paper constituted the beginning of her inquiries into the poetics of flow, which have continued in her recent works.
Her wall-mounted and untitled works range in scale from under a foot to over a yard in their largest dimension. Each involves bending or turning rolls of ink soaked paper into themselves, creating folds or whorls of curved forms. As metaphors, they often speak of wombs both as sexual and generative organs or they may refer more abstractly to power points, voids which attract concentric lines of force and flow around themselves.
Her works encompass wide variations of form. In one 1999 piece, a horseshoe configuration with pointed ends surrounds a central point that extends vertically. In its linear organization of layer after layer of thin, ink-soaked paper, to the inner edge of a surrounding paper circle. In a smaller work of the same year, two whorls are brought together symmetrically in a shape recalling fallopian tubes; they also suggest the fluid dynamics of oil poured on water. In all her pieces, Ko has left no personal mark, only the autonomous sensuousness of her powerfully enigmatic signs.
When Jae Ko's strange, austere sculptures made from rolled paper and black ink appeared in "Artsites'98", the sprawling group show by Washington area artists, they were an immediate hit. But that sudden success by a relatively unknown young artist also raised questions about whether she was a flash in the pan.
The answer, a resounding no, can be seen in Ko's extraordinarily evocative exhibition of new works at Marsha Mateyka Gallery. The show reinforces Ko's reputation as one of Washington's most interesting young artist. It also highlights one of the most exciting developments on the local art scene over the past few years: the emergence of a group of talented young female sculptors, including Yuriko Yamaguchi and Tara Donovan, who work primarily with simple materials or found objects. Ko's work is clearly part of that conceptual trend.
The 11 wall-hung sculptures in the show were all produced with the process that first earned Ko kudos. She takes rolls of paper-usually adding machine paper rolls with varying degrees of tightness-submerges them in a tub, then adds Sumi ink, which is made from ash. The paper absorbs the water./ink mixture and swells into a much larger shape. Ko eventually removes the paper, applies glue to stabilize it while drying and finally adds a wooden backing.
The finished works, all untitled, are somber, sober, sever and beautiful. At first glance, they resemble giant black fungi that have mysteriously sprouted from the wall. But as you look at them, these simple shapes made from simple materials become increasingly complex and intriguing. The sculptures seem to mutate with every shift in the fall of light or the viewing angle, as if they possessed a closed-loop, kinetic energy, like a Mobius strip made from a single, three-dimensional brush stroke.
There's lots of gesture and emotion. And the color, form and texture offer a wealth of allusions. The shadows, created by the rolled paper sinking into itself, are so deep and black they seem to absorb light, like some black hole. The layers of paper call to mind the growth rings of a tree or the pages of a book. From different angles, the blackness can either shine like silk or fade into dusty gray. The forms, which Ko apparently can control more that could those in the earlier works, are equally varied. Some are simple circles, like a tire or doughnut. Others are more complex shapes that look vaguely like a water lily or a baboon's face.
For me, the ever-shifting blackness and sharp tonal contrasts in Ko's sculptures evoked images of Mathew Brady photographs and memories of the shiny, black horsehair sofa in my grandmother's living room. Only a very talented artist can get that kind of evocative punch from an adding machine roll soaked in inky water.