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Wayan Karja

at Chouinard, through March 30

Byung O. Kim

at Contemporary Art Workshop, through March 30

In Mark Rothko's best known paintings, horizontal rectangles stacked vertically loom like mysterious, psychologically freighted icons. Wayan Karja's Untitled 03, one of 20 paintings at Chouinard, echoes such works, but the differences are what make the piece striking--it's much less expressive of an individual's consciousness. Though Rothko's paintings are famous for their ambiguous depth, I've never felt that his color fields led into the far distance, whereas the built-up layers in Karja's work make the depth almost infinite. Gazing into the reds that occupy much of the image in Untitled 03 is almost like staring into water with no clear bottom, color emanating from within. And though the image includes Rothko-like rectangles, they're superimposed on one another, which defuses the power of any single shape. Where Rothko's forms suggest the desire to leave an individual mark on the world, Karja's evoke a universe whose flow transcends any one person's consciousness.

Though the yellow and black central line in Vertical does have an iconic power, the varying relationship between the black and yellow portions doesn't suggest any absolute meaning. Instead the line serves as a resting point for the eye between two different but equally seductive fields on either side of it, one a faintly mottled red and the other a very mottled white. The line feels like a knife-edge, a mountaineering term for an extremely narrow ridge with steep drop-offs on either side--and both sides here look almost frighteningly bottomless, voids suffused with light. One seems to contemplate the infinite, as if the Cartesian grid by which we measure things had been replaced with a glowing, peaceful state entirely separate from the material world.

Karja was born in rural Bali in 1965 and lives there today. Influenced early on by the lush jungle vegetation around him and by traditional Balinese figurative painting, he also made trips in the 1990s to the United States and Europe, earning an MFA from the University of South Florida. Though inspired by Rothko, Diebenkorn, Rauschenberg, and Klee, he continued his interest in Bali's Hindu traditions, which hold that colors have "symbolic meaning," he writes. "Every single color" is connected to the mandala, which has "eight directions plus the center, each associated with a color, gods, attribute, number, place in the body or chakra." Though not immersed in such associations, I found Horizon 01 evocative for other reasons. A series of horizontal bands grows progressively lighter closer to the top, suggesting a hazy landscape: a large red field at the center turns to orange, yellow, and near white, though at the very top some color returns. In a seductive approach similar to that in Vertical, the white--an area of least resistance seemingly without limits--draws our attention even as every area is rich enough to dwell on, creating an allover effect crucial to the meditative balance Karja desires.

Karja works sand into some paintings, such as Vibration--a device that typically calls attention to a painting's flatness. But here, perhaps because the sand is painted over and counterbalanced by the depth effects of the areas of pure color, its tactility makes only a fleeting impression, its tiny grains barely asserting materiality. Equally significant in Vibration is the red circle at its center, surrounded by concentric circles, echoing the mandala. Again one area--the tiny center--serves as a focal point and momentary resting place, but the circular bands also set the eye in motion. Here it isn't so much the colors' depth that dematerializes the work as the movements of the eye, encouraged by the circles to travel back and forth between the top and bottom halves of the painting in a continuous whirl. In these far from didactic works, the lesson seems to be that individuals--and the things we make and touch and own--are not all that important.

Like Karja, Byung O. Kim uses abstraction and depth effects to undercut materiality in his six paintings at the Contemporary Art Workshop. But Kim is also responding to our mass culture. Born in rural Korea in 1979, he moved with his family to Chicago when he was eight. Uptown was "a huge culture shock," he recalls. "I was even scared to step outside--I thought I would get lost, because all of these buildings looked alike." At the same time, he'd seen American TV shows in Korea and thought America was "the greatest thing ever." Early on he drew cartoon characters from television shows, and in junior high won art contests.

Once Kim was at the School of the Art Institute, where he earned a BFA in 2003, his teachers found his art "way too conservative," he says, and in his third year he switched to colorful, cluttered abstractions, influenced by pattern painters such as Ross Bleckner and Philip Taaffe. Kim found he was also driven, however, by irritation at the culture around him--"for example, when someone's social status is purely based on what kind of car they drive and what kind of clothes they wear. I started to blame everything on the mass media. I wanted to have something pure, something not touched or influenced by people."

Seeking a universal shape, and inspired by an interview with Joseph Campbell, Kim started painting circles. Lots of them. The two earliest paintings here, both from 2002, are filled with circles of all sizes and colors, some outlined and some filled in, some making eyeball shapes. In Ready to See What You Have Missed? the circles float against a pleasant green field. And in Now, Back to What You're Used To the circles have diffuse, translucent vertical stripes in front of them--almost like prison bars that seem to deny the viewer entry. But neither painting achieves the purity Kim sought; rather they suggest joyous clutter. The bewildering multitude of forms perhaps echoes the Chicago neighborhood where Kim first lived, suggesting both fear and exuberant delight.

Kim's most recent paintings remind me of the circus--they're still brightly colored abstractions but contain a greater variety of shapes. Take a Dozen Light Years to Adjust is traversed by arcs of circles in many sizes and hues, but it also includes warped checkerboards in multiple shades and curved bands of solid color. This Is What We Are Used To sports some bright concentric ellipses near the top and flowerlike bursts in other places. Both paintings sometimes combine circles with solid, flat areas of color and sometimes float them above paler, more diaphanous bands.

The daring heterogeneity of Kim's work isn't completely successful, but at least he's trying to make something positive out of our image glut, the visual assaults we endure daily. His supple labyrinths have no clear goal--no resting point for the eye and no clear thematic conclusion--but offer considerable visual pleasure.

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