Given that he was lost at sea, alone, one day back in 1983, it’s no surprise that water has become a prominent theme among the paintings of Los Angeles-based artist Young Il-Ahn.
However, when you hear the story behind what prompted him to be out on the ocean off of Santa Monica that day, the large-scale water motif seems more like a metaphor than a fixation on something literal.
As the Korean-born Ahn tells it, he had just suffered a major financial setback related to his art, but, even worse, the experience was more devastating to a man who had so passionately supported him and his art.
“It turned out that Mr. Stanley Hietela, an American diplomat whom I had originally met in Seoul and who, like a true big brother, had given me great support and encouragement from that early time, was sued by the owner of my Los Angeles gallery as Stanley was selling some of my paintings which he had collected while in Korea through a gallery in Laguna Beach,” Ahn said. “The owner of my gallery in Los Angeles, with whom I had a 10-year contract, was unhappy with this situation and brought a lawsuit against Stanley which dragged on for years. I was like a shrimp caught between two fighting whales.”
Ahn sais that, as a result of the legal dispute, he was unable to sell his paintings in the United States for several years until the matter was resolved.
“Even though I suffered financially, my heart really went out to my friend Stanley Hietela, as he eventually lost the case at great financial cost to himself,” Ahn said. “This whole episode made me realize how completely naive I was and how little I knew about the real world. I felt disillusioned and disappointed and lost my desire and energy to paint, so instead spent whatever days I could fishing out on the ocean.”
One July day in ‘83, Ahn stowed his fishing rod onto a small fishing boat and headed off from Santa Monica beach out into the Pacific.
“I was hopeful that my time on the ocean would help to wash away the feeling of disillusionment, which had settled over my spirit like a wet blanket as a result of my gallery’s legal wrangling with Stanley,” Ahn said. “I was hoping the sea breeze would blow away the deep frustration and growing sense of regret about how things were going as the boat carried me forward, when I saw of large school of shining fish going by. I had my rod with me on the boat, but somehow, my heart wasn’t in catching fish. Instead, I just chugged along on the waves, letting time slip by almost unnoticed, when I suddenly realized that a heavy fog was quickly descending.”
Despite having made numerous trips out to sea, Ahn had never experienced a fog as thick as this one. He lost his sense of direction and decided that all he could do was cut the engine and sit drifting in the boat.
“The fog was so thick I could barely see my own hand in front of me, and my initial feeling of frustration soon gave way to overwhelming fear,” Ahn said. “I thought death might be knocking on my door. A sense of deep loneliness filled my heart as I drifted between the sky and ocean in the thick fog. I have no idea how long I drifted in that whiteout– it seemed it would never end. At the peak of my dread and despair, I felt a mere speck on the ocean, slowly drifting into nothingness. I bellowed ‘Ahhh’ in anguish.”
Suddenly, as quickly as it had come, Ahn said, the fog lifted and the open spaces of the sea were once again spread out in front of him.
“I felt as if my heart would burst with joy, and my whole body shook with excitement,” he said. “How could I ever describe that wonderful feeling in words or pictures? It was as if the ocean itself was a huge, living thing, with the undulating waves rhythmically throwing off profound color and sound with no single swell’s color and shape ever quite the same as another’s. More than a moment of beauty, this was a moment of reverence and mystery.”
Ahn said he was deeply humbled and moved, and the mysterious vision of the ocean newly reborn moment by moment was indelibly printed on his soul.
“I was locked in meditation, taking in that profound moment as the living ocean, breathing in the rhythm of light and sound, communed with the universe,” he said. “From that moment forward, painting the ocean became a kind of meditation for me, a conversation within myself extended to part of the universe.”
Ahn’s water paintings are now on display at the Long Beach Museum of Art in an exhibit entitled A Memoir of Water, through April 12. (To view more of his work, visit youngilahnartist.com .) The show opened this week, along with two other exhibits at the museum that also highlight California artists: The Milton Wichner Collection and Presence and Absence: Black and White.
The Milton Wichner Collection illuminates a significant aspect of art history in Southern California. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Southern California became a creative refuge for European artists fleeing the ravages of World War II. Milton Wichner arrived in Los Angeles in 1936 to set up his law practice. His interest in European modern abstraction was intensified upon meeting Galka Scheyer, a representative of the artists Oskar Fischinger, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger and Alexej Jawlensky. At Scheyer’s exhibitions, Wichner saw contemporary European Modernist paintings on the West Coast for the first time. Scheyer’s efforts to interest Southern Californians in this work met with minimal success at the time, but Wichner was convinced and was especially enthusiastic about the colorful work of Jawlensky. With this exhibition, the museum welcomes back five paintings by Jawlensky that have been on loan to the Getty Museum since 2011.
Presence and Absence: Black and White examines what happens when artists eliminate color and depend upon the stark contrast of black and white to convey all of their visual expression. Over the last two years, the museum has presented first Seeing Red followed by The Many Moods of Blue, both drawn from the museum’s permanent collection. Presence and Absence: Black and White explores the permanent collection through black and white in many different media and formats including paintings, glass and ceramics. Color, when it appears at all, becomes a nearly fleeting, subtle accent. This selection of artworks offers an eloquent argument for the evocative presence of black and/or white, according to the museum. Rather than the distraction of color, the eye rests on the shapes and forms for the aesthetic experience of the work. The selected artworks may be either completely black or completely white, or they may play with the contrast of the two.
The Long Beach Museum of Art is located at 2300 East Ocean Blvd. and can be reached at (562) 439-2119. Visit lbma.org .