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Chul Hyun Ahn explores the Infinite Void

The humble materials in Ahn’s work help preserve an approachable quality

Photo: Michael Northrup, License: N/A

Michael Northrup

Chul Hyun Ahn with His “Tunnel Iv”

Chul Hyun Ahn’s Infinite Void

On view at C. Grimaldis Gallery through Jan. 14, 2012.

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You can walk all the way around it for hours, but to fully experience artist Chul Hyun Ahn’s “Void Platform,” you have to take off your shoes (as signs prompt you to do) and walk out onto it.

The “out” inserts itself in that sentence because of the nature of the piece. In the front gallery at C. Grimaldis Gallery on North Charles Street, Ahn has constructed a low 10-foot-by-8-foot plywood-faced platform that appears to cover a yawning pit descending through the floor as far as the eye can see, albeit a pit lined with subtle bands of greenish lighting. You find yourself testing the surface with your sock-encased toes, curious to know if it will hold your weight. It will, but you hesitate a little anyway. You step onto the smooth surface and stand over what seems to be infinite space receding away below your feet. But if the surface of the piece didn’t hold your weight, you’d drop a mere 16 inches onto Grimaldis’ wooden floor.

“Void Platform” is the literal centerpiece of Ahn’s current show, Illuminated Void, and it sums up the quality that has built and defined the Baltimore-based artist’s career to date. The piece provides the kind of whoa-dude illusion that grabs you on the most basic visual level (it’s almost impossible to resist taking a cameraphone photo once you’re on it) while at the same time it presents a slightly awe-inspiring vision of infinity, literally laid out before you—a reminder that infinity exists, in a way. Yet the humble materials evident in Ahn’s work, from plywood and concrete to the familiar glare of fluorescent bulbs, help preserve an approachable quality—an infinite void you could imagine in the corner of the living room. It seems both patently simple and deceptively so.

Slight, composed, and thoughtful, the 40-year-old Ahn speaks English with a strong accent; he was in his mid-20s when he arrived in the United States from his native South Korea in 1997 to continue his graduate studies, first in Michigan, then at Maryland Institute College of Art. He had studied printmaking and painting in Korea, but even then his art was leaving the conventional two dimensions behind.

Sitting in the rear gallery at Grimaldis, a room dimmed to best show off his work, Ahn describes his early art as “hard-edge painting,” devoted to geometric abstraction, but even then, he says, “I tried to paint space, so there were a couple of layers of hard-edge [paint], off-set looking” to create an illusion of three-dimensional depth. “It’s hard to express [space] on canvas,” he continues, “so I started making three-dimensional boxes with paintings [inside] or I put some object in there. Then I started using mirrors.” He first added one mirror to make the space inside a box seem bigger, then two or more mirrors facing and reflecting each other to create the illusion of infinite space—what he calls “the barbershop-mirror effect.”

Ahn eventually arrived at a series of 1-foot-square wooden boxes with peepholes in one side and an object like a plastic rod inside. Peer into the peephole and you saw the object and a light source reflected infinitely inside the mirror-lined box. Then he started playing around with the same sort of box with the idea of a one-way mirror replacing the limited view of a peephole, allowing an unimpeded view through the entire side of the box but preserving the infinitely reflecting barbershop-mirror effect. He says that when he brought his first piece of one-way mirror into his studio in 2000, he installed it wrong side out. “I was a little disappointed—it doesn’t make a deep effect,” he recalls. “[I wondered if] maybe the light is not bright enough. I did it a couple of times. But a couple of hours later, I flip it . . . and then, wow, it makes infinite space. It works.”

The one-way mirror proved his breakthrough. After finishing his MFA from MICA in 2002 and securing representation by C. Grimaldis Gallery, Ahn expanded the application of the concept to much larger pieces, such as 2005’s “Well,” a piece consisting of a squat concrete cylinder and a central column of fluorescent light that, thanks to the combination of mirrors inside, created the illusion of a bottomless pit—a long, skinny tube of rec-room basement—plunging through the floor. For 2008’s “Mu Rung Do Won (Infinite Garden),” he used tree branches, shrubs, rocks, gravel, and mirrors to create an infinite landscape that could be installed on any sizeable wall.

Asked about his focus on creating space in his art, he acknowledges, “I don’t know why. Since I was a freshman in college, all my work is titled some kind of ‘space.’ All my art career, space is my number one [interest].” He adds, however, that for him, space isn’t necessarily blank: “My mother is Buddhist, so every time I call her, she told me about Buddhist ideas—regenerations, infinity, reincarnations, that kind of thing. I guess subconsciously I had to make something meaningful—not just [a] visual effect, something meaningful. I make it as simple as possible. The Buddhism idea is that empty is not really empty. It looks empty, but it’s filled with something.”

His current Grimaldis show features, in addition to “Void Platform,” two more floor-based pieces, both constructed of cast concrete, mirrors, and fluorescent lights: “Tunnel IV” and “Tunnel V, After Dan Flavin,” the multicolored (white and yellow) fluorescents and title of the latter invoking the ne plus ultra light artist. Flavin remains an important touchstone for Ahn, not least in their shared dedication to using commonly available items. Ahn buys most of his materials “off the rack” at hardware stores, including the quotidian fluorescent lights and fixtures favored by Flavin; he orders specific sizes of one-way mirror from a local glass company. “Concrete you can see pretty much everywhere,” he says. “Fluorescent lights we can see in, like, the bathroom or the basement. I try to make it as easy as possible to get the source [of materials].”

The new show branches out from Ahn’s past work by including a number of wall-based pieces that, while using the same one-way/barbershop-mirror mechanism, slightly reconfigured, explore line and color in a way that his more geometric pieces have not. “Mirror Drawing #3” features thick, simple lines—like glowing white neon tubes—repeating against an inky-black background in an abstract pattern that nonetheless calls to mind the branches of “Mu Rung Do Won.” “I started as a painter,” Ahn reminds, and the piece is an attempt to bring a bit of that artist’s-hand feel back to his work.

Another plainspoken title, “Vertical Lines #1” applies to another new piece that features a whole Pantone catalog’s worth of jewel-like tones variegating a series of neon-like stripes, visually echoing in the same black void. (He often uses subtle color in his compositions, but never before anything this vibrant or riotous.) “Some work is trying to make [something] meaningful,” Ahn says. “Some work is more, like, joyful. I could do just one color just to show the space, but I put a little more joy in there.”

The pieces that pull you in most remain those that subtly threaten to pull you in, literally. The interactive quality of “Void Platform” expands the uncanny power of Ahn’s floor pieces. In addition to their meditative qualities, their trompe l’oeil riddling calls into question the solidity of the very ground on which we stand, one of the things we most take for granted at any given moment. And scaling up is among the things Ahn wants to explore with future work—albeit horizontally, not vertically. “If it gets bigger, I think it gets more convincing,” he says. “I want to make a big tunnel, like life-size, but it’s not two miles long, just two yards deep.” He’s also interested in adding movement to his palette. “Every work [now], the space and image is still,” he says. “I want to use machinery movements for the next one.” He smiles slightly. “Make people dizzy.”

Asked about the various reactions to his work, he says, “Pretty much, people say, ‘Wow.’” But he adds that the spectrum of reactions “sometimes makes me think about the art hierarchy. Many people don’t have an art background . . . but people see [my work] and enjoy it. I watch them enjoy my work, and sometimes I’m satisfied. I did my job. And sometimes . . . [people say], ‘Oh, it’s an illusion, it’s a mirror trick.’ It’s too simple. At that time, it makes me think about the art hierarchy. Art for artists or art for people. I have a lot to think about, in terms of my art and the next step.”

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