On-Keong Seong: Graft

One day after Massachusetts rescinded all COVID-19 restrictions and effectively declared the pandemic “pretty much over,” Atlantic columnist Tim Kreider published an ode to the kind of emotional padding that a year in solitude has afforded the fortunate, and a blunt acknowledgment of the deep outrage felt by those who were hit the hardest.  

“The forces of money and power would certainly like us to forget all about this year and go back to exactly the way things were,” he writes. “But a lot of people went very far away over the course of this past year, deep into themselves, and not all of us are going to come all the way back.” He argues that confronting “normalcy” will look different for everyone, and it won’t always be pretty. He places us at arguably the grossest state of metamorphosis for a caterpillar. 

“Before caterpillars become butterflies, they first digest themselves, dissolving into an undifferentiated mush called ‘the pupal soup.’ People are at different stages of this transformation—some still unformed, some already opulently emergent. Some of us may wither on exposure to the air. Escape from the chrysalis is always a struggle.” 

I can’t think of a better artistic expression of the past year than On-Kyeong Seong’s exhibition Graft. Perhaps this is because I am clinging to arbitrary markers of time in my own life—Seong’s exhibition Embedment, which was on view last March, was my first real introduction to Kingston Gallery. Now, as I conclude my residency as the Emerging Arts Writer, her sprawling and chaotic approach to the natural world returns as a kind of checkpoint, a place to stop and evaluate how exactly we are stitching our world back together. 

On-Kyeong Seong, I will be a bird 1 (2021), collage and mixed media.

While Seong makes liberal use of all available media, from oil paint to cutouts to fabric, her style is unmistakable. In Graft, Seong explained the addition of a sewing machine to her repertoire. Likening it to the “automatic drawing” that was popular among spiritualist artists like Hilma af Klint in the early 20th century, Seong revels in the ability to be at once mechanical and entirely freeform.

“Machine stitchery is freed from rational control and may represent something of the pure sensation in the subconscious, residing in human nature and in nature itself.”

A joint drawing by Hilma af Klint and her spiritualist group “The Five”

“Observing nature under magnification is a discovery of something mystical and magical,” says Seong. “I often find the distinctive features of such shapes and forms resemble unusual and monstrous objects. I acknowledge that beauty and ugliness both exist side by side and together. Influenced by those contrasting figures, my works show distorted realities, which are transformed into abstractions to evoke both the beauty and ugliness of the natural world.”

The ugliness of the world is never too far from its surface. Though they pale in comparison to the glaring inequities across purportedly indiscriminate institutional efforts to keep Americans safe, the mental and emotional struggles that others of us have endured may have lasting effects. However, just as Seong pairs beauty with ugliness, this mentality can perhaps be seen as bringing forth a blatant rejection of social conventions that confine us. 

“A lot of [people] don’t want to return to wasting their days in purgatorial commutes, to the fluorescent lights and dress codes and middle-school politics of the office,” writes Kreider. He adds wryly: “service personnel are apparently ungrateful for the opportunity to get paid not enough to live on by employers who have demonstrated they don’t care whether their workers live or die.

“More and more people have noticed that some of the basic American axioms—that hard work is a virtue, productivity is an end in itself—are horseshit.”              

As the prospect of a “normal” summer approaches and the pupal soup is brought from its year-long simmer to a frenzied boil, a show like Seong’s is a welcome continuation of the kind of break from “rational control” we may want to hang onto.

On-Kyeong Seong, Summer Days 1 (2021), mixed media on canvas.
On-Kyeong Seong, Bluegrass (2021), mixed media on canvas.

A personal favorite in Seong’s show is Bluegrass. Wild sunflowers burst out from the pixelated chaos of virtual life, almost snarling their way towards freedom. Like Kreider said, clawing our way back to a semblance of normalcy is not always pretty. In Bluegrass, the juxtaposition between what Seong calls “controlled medi[a]”—oil and collage—and the frenetic thread lines is at its most evident. The thread, while adding undeniable dynamism to her work, is also functionless, superfluous. Where does it lead? What is it holding together? What is left to hold? Will we remember the tangles of this last year, where our collective thread snags? In embracing the ambiguity and ambivalence that an answerless reality might possess, Seong’s work is strangely comforting and alien at the same time.

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