Jenny Cho

“Painting is the future”: Jenny Cho’s painting through other means, 2021, Chaeeun Lee

The institution of painting

“Is painting valid today?” This meta-critical question about the medium of painting underlies Jenny Cho’s solo exhibition Illuminating Shade for Big Window concurrently on view at Gallery Kiche and Kimsechoong Museum. The contexts in which she asks the question are manifold. On one hand, the post-medium condition sprung by art’s conceptual turn has undermined the search for meaning inherent in a medium. When the modus operandi of today’s art is to choose, adapt, and invent whichever medium that best suits the intellectual project of the artist, is the category of painting something worth holding onto? On the other hand, painting has been the target of numerous critiques that debunked its idealist and elitist grounds, which led critics like Douglas Crimp to diagnose the “end of painting” already underway since the 1960s.1 If the painting should continue to live, then, how might it be able to warrant its existence as a meaningful category and mode of artmaking? Why and how should painting still matter?

In what is now a classic television series Ways of Seeing (1972), art critic John Berger illustrated the set of rules, habits, and assumptions that governed the European tradition of painting. His goal was to disabuse the audience of the painting’s myths—its claims of universality, objectivity, and autonomy—by demonstrating its technology of representation (e.g., the medium of oil on canvas and the linear perspective) as well as its role in shoring up the interconnected ideologies of bourgeois capitalism, patriarchy, humanism, and colonialism. Berger’s critique is bracketed with the wave of critical endeavors in art since the 1960s, from conceptual art and feminist art to institutional critique, which sought to deconstruct and demystify art as an establishment.

In 2021, the legacies of the tradition of painting and its ideological corollaries still remain relevant. The romantic humanist myths of the artist as an individual genius and of the painting as a singular object constitute the backbone of our ever-soaring art markets. The habit of objectification and sexualization of Others still permeates contemporary image production, particularly in advertisement and popular culture. Despite the expanding discourse of globalizing art and art history, the art world continues to grapple with deeply ingrained and internalized forms of coloniality.

Jenny Cho’s works are inspired by the uneasy relation that she, as a Korean female painter educated in the U.S., has with this Western tradition. Instead of utilizing the tools of painting to simply insert herself into that tradition, she tasks herself to question the language of painting and explores alternative ways in which painting as an institution—its laws, customs, and aims—can be reconfigured. This essay examines the key principles of her methodology under the concepts “appropriation,” “palimpsest,” and “relationality,” and considers how this methodological intervention offers a path to reclaiming painting after the “end” of painting.

Painting through other means: appropriation, palimpsest, and relationality

The first part of the exhibition on view at Gallery Kiche consists entirely of painting, many of which harken back to the so-called “masters” in the history of Western art. For some, Cho’s engagement with the past may seem anachronistic—a romantic remembrance of the painting’s glory. For others, it may recall the work of postmodernist artists like Sherrie Levine who, by divesting the original work of art of its inherent value, called attention to the socio-cultural contexts that confer such meaning. Upon close examination, however, Cho’s methods of appropriation do not seem driven by either nostalgia or irreverent playfulness. Instead, her paintings are conceptual experimentations with the temporality of painting, particularly with the possibility of painting as a palimpsest in which the originary moments of the cited images form but one layer.

A palimpsest retains the traces of earlier writing even after it has been reused. Unlike the modern conception of time and space as standardized, linear, and segmented, the palimpsest calls attention to, and folds unto itself multiple temporalities and perceptions of space. In Cho’s paintings, these temporalities and spatial perceptions are indexed by the paintings, films, and novels that she has encountered at discrete moments in the past. For instance, Untitled (after Hunter Gracchus) (2018-2020) appropriates Andrea Mantegna’s quintessential Renaissance painting Lamentation of Christ (1480) as it was mediated by Robert Morris’s 1989 appropriation of Mantegna Prohibition’s End or the Death of Dutch Schultz. The Balcony (after Magritte) (2017-2020) and The Difficult Crossing (after Magritte) (2017-2020) are conceived after the eponymous works by the twentieth-century Belgian Surrealist René Magritte. Extracting only partial elements from the original paintings (the balcony railing in the former, and the painting-within-a-painting of a stormy sea in the latter), the artist has recomposed them with indices of multiple times and places. The Still Life (after L’argent) (2017) depicts a scene from Robert Bresson’s 1983 film L’argent, which is itself based on Leo Tolstoy’s 1911 novella The Forged Coupon. In the Sunrise (after Turner) (2020), the Turner-esque synthesis of the sublime (timeless) and the atmospheric (transient) takes a Surrealist turn with the trompe-l’oeil lettering that marks the year 2020 when the painting was made.

Often, the elements the artist chooses to amplify, add, or otherwise manipulate work toward metaphorizing her sense of belonging across and in-between places, times, and cultures. The enlarged pattern of metal railing in the Balcony (after Magritte) is an ambivalent device that both separates and connects the world of the viewer and the unidentifiable space of floating flowers. In the Untitled (after Hunter Gracchus), Cho has substituted the deathbed of Jesus with the death boat of Gracchus from Franz Kafka’s Hunter Gracchus (1931), who is portrayed by Kafka as neither dead nor alive and is destined to eternally wander the seas. The Sick Prophet and Old Magician (after Jean Baptiste Oudry) (2020) rehashes the French academic painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s Wolf and Lamb, which depicts a moment of fatal encounter between the prey and the predator. At times the reference is more personal. The Future Is Painting (2017-2020) is a still life that brings together the devotional artifacts and other miscellaneous items that the artist’s grandmother, who had converted from Buddhism to Catholicism, has collected from the U.S. and Korea. Here, the replicas of the various iconic representations of the Christ and Virgin Mary, the statuette of Pope Francis, the snowman-shaped souvenir celebrating Christmas, and the calendars and clocks indexing the time of the painting’s making form a labyrinth of spatio-temporal connections at the same time as symbolizing the artist’s (and of course, her grandmother’s) mobility across cultures.

If Cho’s individual paintings allegorize the in-betweenness of the artist’s fluid and plural identity as well as the multiple forms of temporal and spatial relations, the artist has further designed the entire body of works to bring attention to the relationality between paintings. Despite their divergent motifs and styles, the paintings are organized in ways that conjure up resonances between them. Consider, for example, the juxtaposition of the deathbed/death boat of the Untitled (after Hunter Gracchus) next to The Bedroom Painting (2017-2020), whose stripped-down interior adds an austere, modern resonance to the somber image of the death of Christ/Gracchus. The Bedroom Painting’s hazy, lifeless mood is inspired by American writer Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which is set in New York right before the 9/11 terrorist attack on World Trade Center and tells a story of a post-collegiate woman who drugs herself to as much sleep as possible in order to withdraw herself from the world. The two miniature-sized works Sick Prophet and Old Magician (after Jean Baptiste Oudry) and Sunrise (after Turner) echo one another in their semi-abstract rendition in gestural brushstrokes and monotonous or near-monotonous hues. Together, they invoke powerful emotional responses to the laws of nature—the earth’s rotation and the strong preying on the weak. Cho’s paintings thus form a network of meaning and affect that converge, dissipate, and transform as the viewer moves from one painting to another.

In the second part of exhibition on view at Kimsechoong Museum, one finds the principle of relationality extending to other mediums. The Hinge Frame Set (2015-) and the Patron Goddesses for Idle Fellows is the Clouds (2020) transpose Cho’s conceptual experimentations in architectural and virtual terms, respectively. The Hinge Frame Set is a modular structure consisting of aluminum bars that meet perpendicularly to one another, which can be arranged variously to serve as flexible frames for hanging canvases. To this structure, the artist has installed glass panels that bear printed images of the urban and natural sceneries that she photographed in Seoul, New York, and Houston as well as the shots of various painters’ exhibitions (e.g., Park Seo-bo and Min Joung-Ki) she viewed in Seoul. The images are photoshopped and assembled in a way that blurs the boundary between images and are installed in a number of different positions and angles that undermine the conventions of displaying pictures in a white cube.

The Patron Goddesses for Idle Fellows is the Clouds is an Augmented Reality (AR)-based work that produces virtual images of clouds moving across the gallery space like contrails, revealing and masking randomly appearing images as they move.2 In the Greek comedy The Clouds by Aristophanes, the clouds are described tongue-in-cheek as the “patron goddesses of idle fellows,” by which the playwright ridicules idle thinkers like Socrates as sanctioned only by the clouds—full of pomp but without substance. While the reference on one level reads as a mockery of the status of painting or art in general, the artist has added a twist by transforming the clouds in the AR image into a mobile agent—in a manner comparable to her new conceptualization of painting—that glides along un-predetermined trajectories in a dynamic relation to the space and images around them.

Painting is the future

In Cho’s works, the traditional notion of painting as singular and self-contained transforms into something more fluid, plural, and relational. This may be understood in part as a result of her ongoing dialog with recent discourses aimed at reconceptualizing painting. One of the examples she cites is what art critic Jan Verwoert has theorized as the “adjacency” of painting, which refers to the possibility of painting to serve as a “portal” or “passageway” to the concepts, objects, and worlds that lie outside of painting.3 Verwoert aptly proposes that we think of painting as analogous to a cellophane curtain: that the painting is neither a window onto the world in the traditional sense nor reducible to the modernist flat surface—a dead end—but a semi-transparent screen that provides an incomplete view of what lies behind, and ultimately, can be lifted to allow the viewer into the world beyond it. Cho’s references further include the notion of “transitivity” advanced by art historian David Joselit in his essay “Painting Beside Itself.”4 Analyzing the works of Jutta Koether and R. H. Quaytman, among others, Joselit argued that their works provide a new model of painting that visualizes the painting’s continuous circulation within networks of artistic and social relations and its subsequent translations. As he writes, “When it enters into networks, the body of painting is submitted to infinite dislocations, fragmentations, and degradations. . . . [T]hese framing conditions cannot be quarantined.”5 Whether by emphasizing the role of the painting as a connector between discrete worlds (Verwoert) or by underscoring the instability of the painting itself (Joselit), these new conceptualizations of painting argue for the contingency of painting in a marked departure from the established ideology of the autonomy of painting. One could observe a similar discursive orientation underpinning Cho’s project, whose methods of appropriation, palimpsest, and relationality displace the traditional notion of painting even as they call attention to the so-called “canons” of Western art.

And yet, what I find the most meaningful in Cho’s work is that she has arrived at painting’s fluidity and plurality via her self-identity on the margins of the history of painting. Historically, the dichotomies underlying dominant modes of aesthetic judgment—e.g., between the Self and the Other, between the avant-garde and the belated, and between the universal and the particular—have functioned to trap marginalized artists in a double bind. These artists would be denied from the hegemonic cultural sphere of white male artists masquerading as avant-garde and universal, at the same time that their works were insistently framed as gendered, racialized, late, and derivative, thus artistically inferior. It seems to me that Jenny Cho’s reconceptualization of the painting provides an opening for liberating the painting and the artist from this double bind. Her work refuses to perpetuate the logic of either/or, and sheds light on the various forms of entanglement that undergird our world and identity. In this sense, the painting is valid today; and perhaps still more, as one of her paintings declares, painting might indeed be “the future.”

Chaeeun Lee is a Ph. D. candidate in Art History at CUNY Graduate Center in New York. She received a BA in Art History at Seoul National University and an MA in Modern Art at Columbia University. She is currently writing her dissertation on Asian American and Asian immigrant artists in the U.S. during the 1960s and the 1970s with a broad interest in art that traverses the boundaries of culture, institution, and nation states. She has been a lecturer at Queens College and Brooklyn College since 2016.

1 Douglas Crimp, “The End of Painting,” October 16 (Spring 1981): 69-86.
2 This work was made in collaboration with the following individuals: Bowon Kim (AR), Doyeon Kim (AR), Jiwon Kwak (sound), and Seungmin Choo (sound).
3 Jan Verwoert, Presentation at Cranbrook Academy of Art, April 23, 2013,
4 David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself,” October 130 (Fall 2009): 128.
5 Ibid., 134.