Lee Jungwoong: A Brush with Treachery

Lee Jungwoong’s artworks are formidably executed and eminently collectable. His Brush (Plate 5) (2014) is a magnificent example of trompe l’oeil in its deception of the viewer’s eye—we’re entitled to ask: Is this really a painting and not a photograph? Furthermore, Jungwoong’s paintings of paint brushes are, really, appealingly intellectual.

The Treachery of Images, René Magritte, 1928-29, oil on canvas

The Treachery of Images, René Magritte, 1928-29, oil on canvas

Brush (Plate 5) suggests something of René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1928-29). In this famous painting, the surrealist artist wrote, or rather, painted, in perfect schoolboy cursive, the following statement: ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ So, let’s first consider Jungwoong’s Brush (Plate 5) upside down: the subject of the painting, the brush, now confronts us (albeit, with wrong shadowing) above the smear of paint just as the former’s pipe confronts the viewer above ‘Ceci n’est pas un pipe.’ Jungwoong’s smear of paint might as well read: C’est de la peinture. Or, this is paint. It’s a playful but neat “take” on a canonical artwork. We might say: the “paintbrush” is not a paintbrush or ce n’est pas un pinceau for the “paintbrush” is itself paint. We might say: the treachery of the image is mitigated by the declaration of its medium.

It’s worth considering Magritte’s The Treachery of Images in the context of early twentieth-century academia. His ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ toyed with the concepts of representation (qua images) and their relation to the things they represent. Similarly, Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale (posthumously published: 1916) advanced the divorce that properly characterises the relation of the signifier to the signified. Simply put, that the word “tree” signifies tree is purely arbitrary, i.e., that it signifies tree is only because “tree” doesn’t signify, say, flower, or house, or table. It follows, then, that there is nothing in the word “tree” that already suggests tree and vice versa. Of course, this doesn’t always hold for onomatopoeias, etc. Crucially, this offers us a “look-in” on conceptual and postmodern art. For e.g., Robert Weiner’s A Rubber Ball Thrown on the Sea (1969) which consists of just those letters painted in capitals across the gallery’s wall. Isn’t this, well, just meaningless? Isn’t this, well, just words without real reference to what they signify? They’re divorced from the signified and displayed in the unique setting of the gallery. And so, this very meaningless is the work’s point of ruminative departure. We might, then, offer a slightly cynical critique of Robert Indiana’s Love (print: 1964, and sculpture: 1970) along much the same lines: “Love” doesn’t signify love. Of course, there are plenty of loveless couple who’ll buy some ersatz version of this (un)justifiably famous sculpture to adorn their living rooms—which might suggest yet another sad and arbitrary relationship…  

Influenced by de Saussure, Michel Foucault’s remarkable Les mots et les choses (1966) traced the discontinuous history of the relation of the signifier and signified that together comprised the sign. It’s unsurprising, then, that Foucault was drawn to Magritte and wrote a short collection on the artist, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (1968). Foucault’s contemporary, Jacques Derrida, then propounded deconstructionism, which is one of postmodernism’s defining philosophies.

However, let’s return the painting to its original orientation: once again, the painted paintbrush is below the smear of paint. Is it a representation of the brush that, presumably, painted the smear above? Strange, isn’t it? It’s almost a label. It’s supposed to detail the above stroke’s providence. And yet, that providence’s providence is clearly there above. It’s paint. C’est de la peinture.

Jungwoong’s BRUSH (2017) plays on the same themes as Brush (Plate 5) but emphasises the action painting aspect of the work. The smear is now a splatter: you can imagine the artist thwacking the brush into the delicate rice paper. Below, the brush again, painted. Of course, action painting is one of the progenitors of postmodern performance art. However, if performance art seeks to redeem the intimacy of immediacy and the impermanence of the art, then what does this brush achieve? I’d like to suggest that it commemorates the event of the action or performance in its own medium. It’s but the mark—dare I say, trace—of the happening. The ambiguous presence of its own impermanence and absence, just as the paint suggests the very absence of the clearly visible brush. Jungwoong’s paintings communicate this far more succinctly that the written word. For this, the artist must be commended.






D.S. Graham