Looking at what can’t be seen
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Dec. 23, 2011
Chul Hyun Ahn's show at Baltimore's C. Grimaldis Gallery will knock your socks off -- or at least your shoes.
Since leaving grad school in 2002, the Korean-born, Baltimore-based sculptor has been creating wondrous light-box constructions involving fluorescent tubes, colored gels and mirrored glass that create the illusion of windows opening onto dimly lit, mysteriously receding passageways.
Just inside the gallery's front door, he's built a new, stagelike structure that you step onto in your stocking feet. Larger than a kingsize bed, and with a clear glass surface that you look through -- down into what appears to be a glowing elevator shaft that descends to the center of the Earth -- "Void Platform" induces a sensation that's part physical and part emotional. It's halfway between awe and vertigo.
The impact doesn't end when you step off the 16-inch platform and put your shoes back on. Two smaller floor pieces in the back of the gallery create a similar, off-balance effect. Standing too close to them feels a little precarious (if also undeniably thrilling). These, however, are not meant to be walked on.
Called "Illuminated Void," the Grimaldis show is an excellent distillation of Ahn's larger themes, which have to do with the contemplation of infinity, the spiritual realm and the unknowable. There are only eight works on view, but Ahn's art has always been more about what can't be seen than what can. It's not just eyepopping, but mind-bending.
Five of the sculptures hang on the wall, like paintings, including two from Ahn's newest series, called "Mirror Drawings." Unlike his earlier works, which typically incorporate exposed fluorescent tubes and light fixtures, the "Mirror Drawings" are back-lit by hidden light boxes, of the sort that photo editors used to examine negatives on. They're an elegant direction for the 40-year-old artist, who doesn't seem content to perform the same trick over and over.
As you look at Ahn's wall pieces, don't be surprised if you notice a smudge on the glass here or there. It might be from someone's nose (maybe even your own). You wouldn't be the first viewer to get a little too cozy with the art trying to figure out exactly how it works.
Trained as a painter, Ahn has long been interested in pure space. But his earliest attempts to capture it rendered 3-D geometric forms in an evocation of the physical universe that the artist himself calls "chaotic."
There's nothing chaotic about his current work. While it's capable of making the heart beat a little faster, it's also, paradoxically, calming and meditative. Space -- the final frontier in Ahn's art -- is at once empty and strangely full.