Essay: Wonchun Che

Posted on January 12, 2014

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Wonchun Che. "Twenty-three layers of Williamsburg Oil Cadmium Red Light applied using brush strokes based on the blanket from van Gogh's 'Bedroom'." Encaustic on canvas. 2012

Wonchun Che. “Twenty-three layers of Williamsburg Oil Cadmium Red Light applied using brush strokes based on the blanket from van Gogh’s ‘Bedroom’.” Encaustic on canvas. 2012

Wonchun Che is a monochrome painter. In his home/studio hang a pair of cadmium red canvases side-by-side, identical color tests on the white wall. On an adjacent wall hang a black canvas, two green canvases and a purple canvas. Nearby is a white canvas. In a box on the floor is a yellow canvas, recently returned after an exhibition.

The two red canvases are built to the same size and proportions, and at first glance they appear identical. Their most striking quality is the purity of their red—the color at maximum saturation—and the chief fact (emotional, perceptual, physical) of them is the absolute warmth of their color. The way the canvases are painted quickly draws one’s attention to a secondary fact: the tactility of their surfaces. Both are painted with a visible brushstroke, and have been built, layer-by-layer, into small peaks and valleys, so that their surfaces have come to resemble the surface of the ocean on a day of gusty wind. The impasto reacts to light in exactly the same way the ocean does; the planes of paint that face the light reflect it, while those facing other directions do not. The canvases are distinct from each other only insofar as each has a unique history of brushstrokes that have contributed to its final surface.

Che began making monochrome paintings a number of years ago, and the two red paintings are some of his first efforts. They came out of a desire to explore paint not as a tool of depiction, but as a physical reality in and of itself. The project, as Che came to explain it, was to make “portraits of pigment,” in which he would examine the physical properties of painting by employing empirical means of comparing one pigment, or medium, or method of application, to another.

The red paintings are from a series called “32 Portraits of Lefranc&Bourgeois Finest Oil Colours N°401-363 Rouge de Cadmium Pourpre HM-Serie 8e FRANCE PAINTINGS.” This project required thirty-two canvases of identical size, onto which layers of paint were applied in successive order. The first canvas was covered by one layer of paint, the second by two, the third by three, etc. The two hanging in Che’s studio are numbers 31 and 32. On its face the project seems like nothing but a carefully controlled experiment (subject: properties of Lefranc&Bourgeois’ cadmium red; controls: application method, canvas size; variable: number of layers), but the number of canvases involved was dictated by a historical precedent; Andy Warhol’s debut exhibition of “32 Campbell’s Soup Cans” in 1962. If Che’s working method was strictly empirical, his project was, from its very conception, deeply art-world conscious.

An art-historical factor dictates a significant control in each of Che’s series of paintings. In a green painting, the pigment is combed across the surface in a tight pattern of rippling parallel marks. The surface is that of a finely woven textile, the slight waver of the line suggesting a weave that has been stretched by use over time. The inspiration is a series of Richter paintings that did much the same thing. The teal paintings employ a language of thickly-painted groupings of parallel hatch marks. Their inspiration is a passage in a van Gogh. Yellow paintings, teal paintings, red paintings, green paintings, black paintings and white paintings; each have been informed by the brushwork of a famous painter. Such referents dictate the final surface of each painting, and naturally affect how the paintings are read, but one wonders about their deeper function. Are they arbitrary nods to past painters, as ideologically shallow as a skin on the paintings, or do they function in some more integral way?

Wonchun Che. "Nine layers of Gamblin Viridian applied using brush strokes based on Gerhard Richter's 'Building' painting series." Oil on linen. 2012

Wonchun Che. “Nine layers of Gamblin Viridian applied using brush strokes based on Gerhard Richter’s ‘Building’ painting series.” Oil on linen. 2012

To consider this question is also to consider what makes these paintings so compelling and relevant, nearly a century after the debut of the monochrome. Despite the beauty of one of Che’s monochromes, and the stimuli that each one offers, grasping the full meaning of any one is dependent upon understanding its place in a larger conceptual project that it only obliquely refers to.

Using the metaphor of the fashion industry, Che likens himself to a handbag designer making samples for an upcoming season of sales. A yellow painting. A green painting. A red painting. None is, in the artist’s conception of it, a painting in the strictest sense. Each is a sample of “lines” of paintings that could be made, according to the demands of the market. Che envisions clients identifying a sample they like and pre-ordering a number of paintings, naming the size, color and brush stroke of their fancy. Large orders would put him at the head of an assembly-line production. Because each painting would be made uniquely, but be also subject to the strictures and controls of his method, Che would be in the business of producing unique paintings en masse.

Wonchun Che. "Fourteen layers of Williamsburg Oil Mars Black applied using brush strokes based on the buildings from van Gogh’s 'Café Terrace at Night'." Encaustic on canvas. 2012

Wonchun Che. “Fourteen layers of Williamsburg Oil Mars Black applied using brush strokes based on the buildings from van Gogh’s ‘Café Terrace at Night’.” Encaustic on canvas. 2012

The realization of the project would be the complete ubiquity of these canvases—A monochrome in every home!—a feat made all the more astounding by the uniqueness of each. Prices would ensure their accessibility to all; the cost of materials plus a small hourly wage for the artist’s time would make each no more than a few hundred dollars. A unique canvas with the brushwork of van Gogh, or Cezanne, or Richter? How about the Mona Lisa? Some of Che’s clients might ask themselves the meaning of commissioning a teal monochrome the exact size of Leonardo’s masterpiece. If they get as far as doing so, and, after waiting for the painter to fulfill his commission, receive their painting in the mail, they might look for a place around the house to put it up. Above the couch, or on the mantel, they might see an old landscape or still-life they’ve lived with for decades. Putting their new painting in its place, they might hold their old stand-by in their hands, and ask themselves for the first time what historical style had been taken for its template, and for what market had it been made?

It is for this that Che has employed his art-historical brushwork, not as a mere surface affectation but as a way for each painting to refer back to its conceptual directive. Pure painters might object to such work on the grounds of its reliance on more than what meets the eye. Conceptualists might object to the work on the grounds that it relies so heavily on what does meet the eye, put off by Che’s unabashed pleasure in painting. As both monochrome painter deeply at odds with the historical practitioners of his craft and conceptual artist who works with the pure delight of a painter, Che is, like his project, a compelling hybrid of the two. As such, he has cleared new ground for a strikingly ambitious project, having conceived of the mechanism by which he can replace the average art in the average home with a beautifully painted jewel of the avant-garde. It’s a conceptual gambit that has its roots in questions of style, quality, rarity, uniqueness, accessibility and value, and as a philosophical inquiry into where painting and the market meet, it’s one of the best things going.

Wonchun Che. "Eleven layers of Gamblin Cadmium Yellow Light applied using brush strokes based on the moon from van Gogh’s 'Starry Night'." Encaustic on canvas. 2012

Wonchun Che. “Eleven layers of Gamblin Cadmium Yellow Light applied using brush strokes based on the moon from van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’.” Encaustic on canvas. 2012

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Posted in: Essays