Hanna Hur’s Signal at the Wheel, Hover at the Gate

Written by Zoe Koke
Images courtesy of Bel Ami

Did I see a black haunch slipping
back through the trees?
Did I see the moonlight shining on it?
Did I actually reach out my arms
toward it, toward paradise falling like
the fading of the dearest, wildest hope

-from “The Chance to Love Everything,” Mary Oliver


On Hanna Hur’s studio door there’s a piece of loose leaf printer paper with a photograph of a spider hanging in a window frame. This is an image of a sculpture that Hur made, part of a long ritual of making webs, nets, and spiders from hand-colored thread and small carefully coiled copper loops.  

A few years ago, one of Hur’s webs was fixed between poles and freed against the shoreline of 67th Street Beach in Miami. The resulting photographs are of a billowing grid sheltering moving blue water and a stark sandy shoreline. I believe these photographs bear the layered poetic logic of her work. Hur’s works behold questions of access, freedom, and what lies beyond knowing, while breathing freely, inviting all shapes of uncertainty. Her objects offer accounts of her personal exchanges but they aren’t limited to this function. Her works make space elastic. An object may be a portal, an entryway, or a safe space for the past. A grid may be a shield or mechanism to break through. While everything offers a kind invitation to submerge.

Hur’s paintings follow a coherence that continuously breaks with expectations. Paintings are featherweight linens and sheer silks labored over with measured markings from colored pencils and china markers to create spaces that seemingly defy gravity. Drawings are densely built surfaces of colored pencil, built up with pattern, texture, optical illusion: small spiders, circles, and figures swirling.

Yet, a grid in Hur’s work can’t escape its human made-ness. Shy flecks of neon or red may leap through a structured space. Lines move on fabric surfaces towards a destination, yet materialize as apparitions in their clarity. When I look at Hur’s work, I don’t know how it was made.

It is the elusive quality of the content and form of her paintings, drawings, and sculptures that strikes me most, while being almost purposefully difficult to answer to. One could say that the geometric logic that repeats regardless of media creates both receptacles and shields for the figuration that appears. Figures are often depictions of spirits that have surfaced in various tiers of ritual from Hur’s Korean ancestry, information that was recently volunteered in Hur’s press release for her show Signal at the Wheel, Hover at the Gate at Bel Ami in Los Angeles. However, the artist was hesitant to publicize this information, concerned that it would reduce the work to one linear origin story. 

Alongside her show at Bel Ami, Hur held conversation with Ellie Lee, Executive Director of Equitable Vitrines. Together they discussed the connection between their Korean Christian experiences and Korean Shamanism and how that tension arrives in Hur’s work. Hur described her difficulty with the word “spiritual.” She spoke of her Korean Christian mother speaking in tongues and the bodily quality of worship in her childhood, the church being a space for reckoning and possession. She also attempted to demystify the role of shamanism in her work as she described her shaman as chain smoking with a big tv in her home. She explained that when she’s making the work, she isn’t in a trance. For me, the lack of performativity around her making, her normalization of what are deeply felt personal rituals, gives her objects more agency, while lending spirituality a necessarily flexible definition.

Just in the way a biography doesn’t explain away an art practice, Hur’s work is peppered with art historical influences, most immediately evident perhaps are Bourgeois, Klimt, Martin. Meanwhile the plasticity of experience (and that of the viewer) is so central to these works that it’s tasteless to reduce their content to spiritual or art historical parameters. This work very clearly rejects language and prioritizes the body as the vehicle for knowing. 


Hur’s color palette could be likened to the colors that appear when the sun arrives into bruised sky, blues meeting oranges, over-ripened fruit. Shadows slowly awakening. It is this arrangement of color, somehow haunting and inviting, that brings her work close to the spectrum of light, and to the body.


Many of her works reference a spider and the habit of the spider to protect, nurture, and defend. Bourgeoisienne, but also simply indicative of her personality that is undeniably caring and thoughtful. In a way, the nets in Hur’s works offer protection for both viewer and figure from a possible exchange. With their dense structures, they propose the option to either transcend or to stay safely on the surface. In Hur’s recent show at Bel Ami, in Los Angeles, chainmail tendrils called Mother iii hung in the seams of the room, seemingly offering protection to the entire space.


In opposition to the light formal quality of her paintings, Hur’s copper webs, heave, in spite of their distinct breathing holes. They become the negative to a process. Gravity, earth. 


Can an image heal you?

It’s hard to write about Hur’s work because it implies more feeling than language. It has cast me into my body in a way that much of the art I see today doesn’t. Imagery doesn’t just hover at the surface with explanatory and seductive appeal. Like a complex equation, the surface brings me into another situation. In some way, the characters in Hur’s paintings are accessible icons for the viewer to inhabit: figures, circles, spiders. Lodged between dimensions, as if stilled in passageways, available to us, yet mutually distant, safe, out of reach. The committed quality of her work poses serious questions around the scope of the art space for summoning. But mutually, the art space as a place of healing, something that she connects to her making. The last time I was in Hur’s studio, a blurred photograph of colored cloth in motion perched on her desk, jumped out at me. I then stood in front of one of her new paintings that sparkled towards me joyfully. I told her it was emitting a lot of happiness. She laughed and smiled and explained that this was depicting a ritual with her shaman wherein she was presented lucky colours. The photograph was a source image from the same ritual.

In that moment in front of that painting, I felt the way I did when I encountered Agnes Martin’s gold leaf painting “Friendship” on a cold weary day in New York. Love emerged, and met me in the middle. Like Agnes Martin, I do feel that Hur imbues her art with emotionality and healing. Hur’s paintings are agents of change, kindness, and love regardless of their content.


Hanna and I are friends. There have been a few occasions where I have found her in her studio, patiently coiling copper around a rod to bend into the small loops of metal that eventually become the links in her chainmail pieces. 

Hur’s studio has the intimate and stark quality of a space of worship, but again, if you know her you could say that the way she lives carries this intentionality. She might have small rounded tarot-like cards alongside a neat heap of neon pencil crayons on her desk. I believe she uses these cards to trace some of the circles in her work. Her ever growing chainmail floor piece is different every time I have encountered it. She hopes one day it will fit the dimensions of a room. She describes that the process of making the chainmail becomes a space of waiting—for the images to arrive, those that often repeat throughout her work sometimes crossing into the scope of her sister Laurie Kang’s work. 

Circles fill space in Hur’s work with the same irregular but purposeful harmony of grids. Mysterious place holders, gestures at unity, symbols of cyclicity surely, attempts at precision to carry or free the figures. Or added balance for the recognition or emergence of a new being, or a new reckoning.

A few months ago in the hall of the UCLA studio building, where we both recently studied, I passed Hanna while she was carrying a large book that she had just made. It was maybe 200 pages of printer paper, fastened together un-preciously with gold round metal clips. I asked her what it was she wrote. To which she replied plainly if not shyly, “I recorded my journal entries for the last two years.” I asked if I could look at it. As she opened it, I looked in wonder. Every letter in every word and every sentence was a circle.

Zoe Koke is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. See her work here.
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