Opening hours: Tuesday- Sunday 10am- 6pm
I’m pleased to say that this post is regarding two of Korea’s leading abstract artists. I have been feeling guilty that I’ve been concentrating too much on ‘Western’ art, but I can’t help it… what’s on offer is just too tempting! However, this exhibition of Kim Hwan Ki and Yoo Young Kuk’s work caught my eye as I passed by the other day.
Luckily, I’d been to a very informative lecture on Korean Modern Art, given by Dr. Chaeki Freya Synn, Assistant Proffesor of Art at Keimyung University, just the other week, hosted by the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch. (These lectures are bi-weekly and really interesting; check them out!) I recognized some of the paintings from her slide show and understood a little bit about the history of these paintings. Both Kim Hwan Ki (1913- 1974) and Yoo Young Kuk (1916- 2002) lived and studied art in Japan during the 1930′s and 40′s, as did many Korean artists in this period of Japanese colonialism. They were influenced by abstract art in Japan as well as Europe and were involved in the setting up of various progressive art groups which rallied against their stuffy, fuddy duddy forbearers. Sound familiar?
Yoo’s 11 works on show hark from the 1980′s and 90′s. They are visual assaults with their bold plains of colour. Red seems to be a favourite and they vibrate off purples, greens and blues. The smallish paintings are abstract in that they strip forms down to to basic geometric patterns, but there is only one work that doesn’t retain clear reference points in nature. However, the shapes of mountains and water are still only evocations, and the harmony and balance of bold plains of colour becomes the primary focus of the works. In ‘Mountain,’ (1993), Yoo reduces a series of mountains to simple forms and colours them in only three different tones of red.
It was Kim’s paintings that I really stole my attention, however. His work on show ranges from the late 60′s and 70′s, at which point he’d settled in New York. Many of the works, like Yoo’s, use plains of colour, except that his are abstract in the true sense that they can’t be easily pinpointed as recognisable forms. Muted greys are brought to life by jagged and awkward lines of pink, red, green and blue. Some paintings are executed on newspaper stuck on canvas and he uses thinned down oil paints on others, so that the weave of the canvas becomes part of the work. The most eye catching pieces for me, are pieces which reflect an individual style he devised during the 70′s, wherein he composes paintings completely of small repeated dots within tiny boxes, all in the same colour. The pieces from this show are ‘Untitled I-VI-70 #174′ done in blue, and ‘Untitled 1970,’ done in a yellow ochre. In her lecture, Dr. Synn had said that each of these individual dots apparently represented a person from his home country that he missed. A lovely touch, I think, to paintings that in all other ways are abstract.
Writing this has highlighted the fact to myself that there is so much that I need to learn about Korean Modern art. There is a lot of critical debate as to just how ‘authentically’ abstract some Korean art which claims to be abstract really is. It has been argued that Korean artists of the 50′s and 60′s became aware of what Jackson Pollock et al were up to by means of readily available magazines such as ‘Time,’ and simply appropriated this new style without any individual blossoming of the technique. I think that often, as an Art History graduate from the UK, I fall victim to the Western art canon and it’s trappings, and find it hard to look at Korean paintings without comparing them to Western counterparts. However, if this exhibition is anything to go by, I’ll definitely be rewarded by further explorations.