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As a writer with a seminary background, I wanted to unquestionably support Hanna Hur’s recent spiritually-inflected solo exhibition, Signal at the Wheel, Hover at the Gate. “Art” and “spirituality,” already unwieldy words on their own, have had a complicated history—so much so that it’s often easier to nod our heads along with Harry Cooper, senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, who argues that “art has replaced religion: In a secular, modern, disenchanted world, art is as close as we can come to the divine.”1
But a quick glance around recent museum and gallery exhibitions will reveal that this viewpoint oversimplifies a much more complex relationship. Today, monks host meditation practices in museums,2 artists self-identify as witches,3 and exhibitions with spiritual themes break attendance records.4 The belief that art replaced religion—that it was an easy switch, like a change of clothes—misses how art and spirit are blending in complicated ways now. I wanted to leave Bel Ami celebrating another show that could deftly navigate these two worlds, more proof that spirituality and religion continue to offer vital ways of engaging with art. Instead, I left feeling conflicted and struggled for weeks to understand why.
For Hur, her paintings function as documentation, notes from spiritual quests. Her investigations developed out of her departure from Korean-American Christianity and later work she did with Korean shamans (mudangs) in Seoul to navigate spiritual and ancestral realms. More than dabbling in spirituality, Hur’s return to shamanism reads as postcolonial recovery. A religious practice long-banished by missionaries, shamanism’s revival in South Korea has been decades in the making as the country recognized its cultural importance as a “repository of Korean culture” with rituals that have “preserved traditional costumes, music, and dance forms.”5
This religious biography directly entered Hur’s exhibition as subject matter: in Mother ix (2019) and Moonbather (after Laurie) (2018), clothed figures, evoking the costume of the mudang, open geometric gates and walk through metaphysical borderlands. In The Wheel (2019), ethereal figures congregate around central orbs on a translucent silk surface. These bulbous, Matisse-like figures reappear in The Gate and The Gate iv (both 2019), drifting through geometric patterns of soft grids and circles like spirit guides in action.
Hur’s spiritual quest also influenced her geometric abstractions, works in dialogue with a long history of artists painting patterns to reach beyond the canvas.6 Like Hilma af Klint’s spiritualist abstractions, Hur’s Through and Through ii (both 2014–2018) balance whorls of organic and geometric shapes in harmony. Elsewhere, as in Signal (2019), delicate circular grids endlessly repeat and transfigure—meditative movements that slow down the viewer’s eyes like the faintly drawn repetitions of an Agnes Martin. All of these works felt hypnotic, even centrifugal— as if by staring at the patterns long enough, they might expand beyond the frame. There was a meditative repetition that Hur invited her viewers to experience, a kind of visual mantra to encourage a common spiritual practice: the difficult task of slowing down the ego to see beyond its limiting boundaries (what the novelist Iris Murdoch calls “unselfing”).
But more than just depicting religious subject matter or translating spirituality through geometric abstraction, Hur sees these artworks functioning as ritual artifacts created to transform consciousness and literally limn the otherworldly. Certainly, Hur is not alone in this blending of ritual and artistic practice (see fellow L.A. artists like Carolina Caycedo, Candice Lin, Betye Saar, and Veronique D’Entremont), but the press release—a genre meant to contextualize a gallery artwork, and ultimately position it for sale—pushed this spiritual function of her work hard, describing Hur as opening channels to “another dimension, immaterial and unseen” somewhere “beyond the veil.” In preparation for this show, the artist performed private ceremonies in the gallery space to “open a gate for spirits to enter” and co-mingle with gallery goers. Viewers were asked to not only look at contemplative paintings, but to believe in them as literal gates to other dimensions.
It’s this uncritical merger of explicit spiritual claims with the actions of art-making that can feel transgressive, especially for viewers unfamiliar with (or uninterested in) religion. According to the logic of the press release, there would be little difference between looking at the artworks and participating in hours-long gut rites performed by a Korean shaman—both open the same doorways “to an alternate world.” So if both Hur’s painting and the ritual objects of the mudang serve the same purpose, what is the artwork or its gallery for? Or the shaman for that matter?7 It’s a similar dynamic that L.A. art critic Christopher Knight noticed in LACMA’s didactic show on Buddhism. Troubled by how the “embodiment of a religious philosophy” obscured the materiality and aesthetic properties of certain art objects, he ultimately concludes that “an art museum cannot be a Buddhist shrine.”8
In our current moment, art and spirituality can be in fruitful dialogue, even as they allow each other slippage between genre and context. This complex relationship works as long as both traditions remain distinct enough that neither obscures the other. When placed within a gallery, an artwork, no matter how spiritually inflected, should be freed from its author enough to function as a stand-alone aesthetic object, open for multiple interpretations. In Signal at the Wheel, Hover at the Gate, the preemptive spiritual claims for the artworks exaggerated the role of the gallery to religious dimensions. Dislocated from its historical function, the gallery space became ambiguous: is this a space for viewing (and purchasing) art objects or for participating in the rituals of Korean shamanism? This ambiguity of the purpose of the show worked against the viewer’s ability to see Hur’s work as aesthetic pieces in their own right. Without this pretext, Hur’s graceful geometric works would have done plenty to slow the breath and the eyes—offering if not a doorway into another world, at least a clearer vision of our own.
Michael Wright is a Los Angeles-based writer with an interdisciplinary MA in art and religious studies. He is the Art and Religion Editor for The Marginalia Review of Books.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 17.