Andrea Chung: …Only to meet nothing that wants you
Klowden Mann, Culver City
through October 12
Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
A lot of what Andrea Chung does in her work — like, how she makes it and what she makes it with — presents as traditional, even quaint in a way. Cyanotypes and their distinctive blue hue and precise yet ghostly images evoke the centuries-ago time when the technique was first popularized. Additionally, she uses the process to depict the same kind of botanical and zoological natural history iconography that was the most commonplace in 19th-century usages. In this case, it’s coral. But ultimately, using the material language of that bygone era serves to potently underscore the geopolitical, economic, environmental, and social power structures Chung is dressing down in the context of a modern reading of complicated, violent histories.
All the pieces, from intimate gems to multi-sheet assemblies, are named for the species varieties of coral they depict — Toadstool Leather, Brain, Mushroom, Tube, and Tree; one, the largest, combines multiple species and is titled “A Litany for Survival.” The mesmerizing deep blue of the cyanotype process perfectly replicates an underwater luminosity of warm ocean waters. The eccentric lines, textures, porous skins, branches, bulbs, and flourishes of the corals themselves is shown wonderfully intact, but segments pop against the indigo in stark white where the image has been finely or gesturally bleached out using a supersaturated sugar solution. All works list simply “cyanotype and sugar” as the medium.
Chung’s sugar-bleaching process does more than complexify and brighten the images, however. In its material and aesthetic it refers to and replicates the death coral reefs in warming oceans, an indictment of the kind of environmental violence that attends industrial imperialism — such as the rise in the global sugar cane trade which both amplified and depended upon slavery and forced, colonialist labor to thrive at around the same 19th-century era invoked in the artist’s style. A 19th-century style brass chandelier is adorned with vials of sugar where its crystals ought to be, highlighting the degree to which remote fortunes were once built on the backs of cane workers and at the expense of indidenous cultures. Today sugar remains at the heart of much of the world’s physical disease and ecological degradation, if in a new guise.
To make her point about the fragile, sickly, crumbling nature of patriarchal violence even more explicit, she fuses crystalline sugars to the surfaces of the prints, lending them a geological and organic dimensionality of cracks, crevices, flakes, and fractals. The sugars work like refractive impasto, their sharp outcroppings building up off the surfaces, and, throughout the exhibition outgrowing them. Accumulations of sugar crystals expand and calve, leaving traces like snowfall along the floor, subverting the economics of fine art as static luxury objects and instead understanding the interactive responsiveness of all things and beings to their environments.