Some Remarks on new Korean Painting
by Eunmi Lee – Lorànd Hegyi
For almost two decades the general international vision about contemporary Korean painting has been dominated by focusing on the the so-called Dansaekhwa School or the Korean Monochrome Painting. Although at the beginning of the 1970s for Western art critics it seemed to be acceptable and logical to compare the Korean Monochrome Painting with certain Modernist – more precisely Late-Modern – tendencies, first of all with the kind of American Abstraction inspired and theorized by Clement Greenberg as well, as with Minimalism, the Korean and Japanese art critics emphasized the very specific meaning of dealing with white color or “non-color” as a form of active meditation about universe. The artists of the Dansaekhwa School were not particularly interested in examining the capacity of range of color neither in its capacity of suggesting metaphoric spaces and areas, nor in its emotive, evocative intensity to transmit dramatic narratives, nor in exploiting its structural power to create rigorous systems and constructions based on supposed objective visual entities. The Dansaekhwa artists involved the action, the repetitive act of painting into the complex meditation which was focusing on the questioning the relations of different elements to the universe. The lack of colors or the use of halftones, the dominance of finely differentiated shades of white emphasize a certain indifference for definition of particular issues and details and strengthen the concentration on the meditative character of the painting process. The art critic Lee Yil interpreted this basically not-coloristic approach to color as recognition of the universe, as thinking on and evocate the cosmos. The repetitive character of the process of painting, the performative aspect of creating the pictorial surface is deeply involved in the whole intellectual and meditative process of thinking on the universe without focusing personal or anecdotic details.
Lee Ufan, Park Seo-Bo, Kim Guiline, Yun Hyong Keun, Chung Sang-Hwa, Ha Chong-Hyun and Chung Chang-Sup were the main protagonists of this tendency which profoundly influenced the next generation of Korean painters, who basically challenged both the universalistic vision of Danseakhwa and its trend towards a monolithic purity of visual language which consequently reduced the presence of any references of anthropological experiences in concrete sociocultural contexts and any personal narratives.
Among the Korean painters of a new generation emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s the pioneer role of Lee Kang-So should be mentioned in first line. Although he started his charrier with performances and happenings which reflected basic questions about the artist’s role in directing creative processes and about his competency of manifesting models of systematization the different elements of conscious and hazardous activities, Lee Kang-So transferred these interrogations on the medium of painting. As much he questioned the delicate relations between given – social, mental, cultural – contexts and their potential re-interpretation, transformation, human re-organization, re-orientation and re-function, as consequently he opened up his aesthetical thinking towards more metaphoric areas, more connotative fields, in which memories, personal comments and observations could accumulate a poetic, evocative realm of narratives.
The joyful and delicate application of brushwork, with the subtle, elegant, somewhat melancholic chromatic quality of the painterly sensation from one side, the calm, balanced, intellectually controlled, carefully build structural fundament, the analytic observation of pictorial self-determination from the other side, contribute to the complexity of interpretation of Lee Kang-So’s painting. The sensual intensity of the material appearance of the painted surface, the strange, enigmatic fluidity of the formations, the consciously undefined and ambivalent semantic status of the different painterly elements open large free fields of a radically liberated imagination of different possible narratives.
Lee Kang-So’s oeuvre offers a rare, provocative beauty, an immense intensity of painted texture, a richness of material sensations and at the same time rigorous intellectual questioning of basic competences of contemporary painting. With other words, his painting is result of aesthetic considerations concerning the capacity of laboring vivid, effective, suggestive visual metaphors of space-time-movement constellations, which embody basic human realities and mental orientations. His painting doesn’t offer any illusion, any imitation of elements of the world outside of the reality of painting. But it evokes metaphoric narratives, which embody essential, basic questions of human orientation in the universe. In this sense says Kim, Airyung, that Lee Kang-So “approaches the realm of the origin of painting, where truths and illusions are born. His paintings not only subvert the clichés of the landscape genre, but also are simply paintings, clear and refreshing. With this series of new paintings, Lee draws out the very condition of painting, that is, the contemplation on perception and consciousness, imagination and material”. This could suggest, that the immediate, joyful, spontaneous, sensual perception of the subtle pictorial phenomenon would be the intention of the artist. These “simply paintings, clear and refreshing”, offer a wonderful, suggestive, impressive pictorial sensation, indeed. The question is, in which context the recipient interiorizes this sensation, in which spiritual, mental context he concretizes this appealing sensual experience.
At the same time, the recipient witnesses a rigorous, consequent systematization of all painterly elements and methods, from “motives” to compositional, structural considerations, from representational, mimetic, connotative or symbolic capacities to evocative and mysterious imaginary, from immanent analytical tendencies to empathic, expansive, spontaneous emotional experiences, where the radical simplicity of form doesn’t create a limitation of literary references and associations.
Exactly this complexity, this “parallel strategy” seems to be a central consideration of Lee Kang-So’s esthetic vision: he emphasizes the concreteness of the singular visual-plastic phenomenon, he gives a decisive power to the painterly reality, but this painterly reality exists as materialization of intelligible considerations, it evokes metaphoric perspectives. It is definitely not self-referential, tautological visual system, but a vivid, offensive and suggestive pictorial reality, which poetically evocates possible references on a metaphoric level of significance. The radical concreteness of the painterly surface activates our imaginary, which creates possible connections with referential contexts, with different perceptions of reality.
The recipient also witnesses, that Lee Kang-So suggests different semantic concretizations for his motives. The diversity of his working methods doesn’t challenge the coherence of his vision, contrarily, it relativizes the predominance of one single method, or one single reading of the artistic texture. As Philipp Dagen precisely formulated: “Juxtaposing distinct methods in single paintings and interpreting different styles unpredictably, Lee Kang-So may very well a postmodern artist who paints from a certain distance and enjoys such a method of painting. These painters completely understand the process of painterly creation and take that process as their true subject matter: in other words, they are post-conceptualist painters”.
Lee Myungmi’s painting represents another challenge to the great tradition of the monolithic visual system of Dansaekhwa. While the viewer is invited to enjoy the rich, complex, fresh, sensual, somewhat humorous and decorative quality of Lee Myungmi’s pictorial universe, at the same time there is a clear indication of the painter’s intention to re-valuate and re-form the painting’s semantic references. Through the subversive liberating effects of her painterly method of mixing different visual languages and compositional patterns, different shaping conventions of creating signs, signals, iconic images, she succeeds to dissolve any homogeneous pictural systems and open up the painting towards a sovereign, dynamic eclecticism. Sovereignty means that Lee Myungmi’s painting seems to ignore – or at least not to take seriously – one of the Modernism’s long survived – and for long time quasi religiously absolutized – obsession of de-materialization of the work of art, the obsession of the supposed antagonism between intellectual, conceptional, spiritual relevance and sensual, material – and consequently – transitory, ephemeral, fleeting entity of art. Lee Myungmi sovereignly freed herself from this taboo and emphasizes the joyful sensuality of artistic manifestations, the unique and concrete directness of the singularity of the image and opens free roads towards the irresistible vitality of concreteness, towards the decorative, coloristic richness of the painted world.
She even exaggerates the powerful, appealing, sensual quality of the concrete, primary visual phenomenon, as if the triumphal days of the celebration of coloristic radicality and euphory of Early Modernism’s Fauvism, or the ecstatic admiration of nature and sensation of life in early Expressionism would have returned. But there is something what basically and profoundly disturbs this innocent riot of colors: there are strange elements, alien bodies, inadequate signs, outsider signals, irritating fragments of different objects, inexplicable things which evocate other systems and other connotative areas, fare from the naïve homogeneity of pantheistic Expressionism. Their presence destructs the – apparently unproblematic, natural, fresh and pure – empire of euphoric sensuality; they are somewhat dirty and banal, they are lacking any celebrative, pompous highness, they are rather humorous or grotesque. They pose questions about the way of reading the visual organism of painting. While giving the range of colors apparently a superiority, while seemingly celebrating the supremacy of pure, innocent sensuality, Lee Myungmi’s painting is everything but pure, innocent, naïve or homogeneous: in contrary, it offers – in a very subtle way – complex referential contexts, an allusive openness and a many-layered structure of different ways of reading. Through that her painting demonstrates the simultaneous relevance of diverse models of perception.
This accumulative character, this absorbing capacity of Lee Myungmi’s painting opens up her vocabulary towards banal, primitive, non-hierarchical, non-artistic subjects of every day’s life, towards non-artistic, “dirty” motives and signals of eclectic law-culture, towards unintentional improvisation, towards infantilism, gambling, playing and joking, revealing in this way the multiplicity of different relevant readings and demonstrating the multi-layered process of reception. All these evocate the deeper, hidden levels of consequent questioning the foundation of the elaborated and consciously build monolithic pictorial reality.
Yoo Geun-Taek has been exploring the issue of redefining visual narratives since the 1990s, when he composed large, dense paintings from simple, repetitive elements. Calm, monotonous and objectively epic, in a way, these paintings conveyed fundamental human orientations and existential experiences, and an impression of temporality, transience and impotence when faced with history or fate, by means of specific, poetically powerful and archaic visual metaphors, such as rivers, forests or cities. Yoo Geun-Taek considers paintings as the specific realm for sensualizing intelligible realities, as the visually perceptible terrain for embodying spiritual, emotional and imaginary experiences. He does not seek to depict tangible, material things, or familiar, mundane and ordinary objects – though such tangible materials do appear in his paintings through painterly transformation – but instead to convey his complex perception of the world, in which his own, immediate experiences in the course of his personal life and pragmatic actions combine with the intellectual considerations and meditative, mental constructs involved in internalizing the universe.
In this complex, intelligible narrative, the perception of time – the internalization of the chronology of events – takes on a central, integral role that interlinks the various realms of life and forms of experience through a tangible awareness of time, through the real and specific experience of temporality. The nature of the universe consists in a constant, inexorable progression of events – general yet at the same time specific, manifesting in infinitely numerous, diverse and peculiar forms; it is fundamental, inevitable and universal, yet always and necessarily knowable through the specificity of singular things. Yoo Geun-Taek’s paintings are filled with these infinitely varied specificities, all of them animated by the experience of internalizing the temporality of existence.
His visual universe is extremely coherent, as the narrative reified in that visual universe is coherent. He does not propose complete stories in the classic sense – stories that have a beginning, a goal and an end, or feature an inner journey and resolution – because he is not necessarily interested in individual, particular stories; instead, he explores the inexorable, material duration and the constant, general progression of events. In the visual realities he creates, he does not tell anecdotes about time, but tries to convey the experience of all-encompassing temporality in all its unstoppable, downright objective and nearly vegetative, constant capacity for generation. This generative capacity of the chronology of events is the source of ever-new narratives that emerge almost as uncontrollable processes in the fictional, imaginary realities of his paintings.
To achieve this, Yoo Geun-Taek creates a complex, multilayered system of painting, in which the temporal, intelligible and immaterial realities restructure the fictional, imaginary space of the painting – materially shaped, and extending visually and sculpturally across the painting’s surface – and materialize the fluidity of the unstoppable chronology of constant events, of perpetual motion, within the material, stable and compact reality of the painting. The material, sensual structure of the painting, solid and densely filled, involves the evocations of immaterial, intelligible, imaginary temporality, or of movement, mobility, flexibility with a fluidity that dynamizes and permeates the solid, stable space of the painting. As Sung Wankyung notes: “…what’s fascinating about his work comes from the point that it reveals time and movement. His work has body and energy. The conversation between the body and the subjects, the repetition of the movement between the two, such as speed reflecting the body, a slope and slide, the energy or breath and attitude of the body that confronts the subject, builds up the captivating quality of his painting”.
The material, tangible reality of his paintings conveys an experience of the intelligible reality of fluid temporality, which suffuses the visual manifestation to evoke an impression of temporality, transience and fluidity, of the constant transformation of all formations. Although fluidity, transience, instability and mutability act as destabilizing and disorienting factors, Yoo Geun-Taek’s painterly oeuvre is in no way determined by fatalistic passivity or negativity. To the contrary, specific new narratives unfold in the fictional, imaginary, visual realities of his paintings, evoking new horizons of mental and emotional connections between each current state and potential, imagined developments.
These evocative suggestions of the inexorable nature of the constant progression of events, or of constant – and necessary, even inevitable – change, also involve the potential emergence of ever-new realities, ever-new narratives that reveal unforeseen alternatives, unexpected renewals and perspectives. This is the source of potential new narratives, of new poetic and imaginary realms, on which Yoo Geun-Taek has put ever-stronger accents within his visual universe. In recent years, the emergence of these new narratives has been at the center of Yoo Geun-Taek’s artistic creation.
Behind the seemingly uneventful, static world of the painting, which appears calm and quiet, monotonous and immobile, time – all-powerful, shaping all life and all changes – flows calmly, persistently and irresistibly; and it integrates everything that touches us, the inevitability and inexorableness of the passage of time, the temporal limitation of our presence, and our unavoidable participation in this material, unstoppable process. In this, the dramatic element remains subtle, concealed behind the seemingly calm, densely filled and repetitively structured world of the painting, which suggests a kind of material objectiveness, a static stability, a calm, constant, even archaic materiality, even though our unavoidable involvement, our compulsive human engagement, the fact that we are at the mercy of time, fills this seemingly indifferent materiality with empathy, restlessness, doubt and melancholia.
The 1974 born Park Kyung-A represents a new generation of Korean artists who are travelling frequently abroad and visiting systematically the different contemporary art centers all over the world. Among them we find several artists who also study abroad and became acknowledged members of artists communities in foreign countries. Their work often reflects an amalgamating of certain artistic traditions, concepts, aesthetic visions of their original country and their new homeland. In Park Kyung-A’s painting some significant reminiscences of aesthetics of the German Romantic are melting with some deeply Korean metaphoric imaginary. She interprets the motive of forest as terrain of uncertainty as well, as substantiality, where existential relevancies appear and thoughts on destiny embody themselves in highly sophisticated painterly shapes. As she lived for 10 years in Germany and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts Münster, her painterly methodology wears some influences by German painting and aesthetical discourse. Her oeuvre evokes deepness, obscurity and complexity of imaginary virtual space. During the last decade she created a series of semi-abstract paintings with a certain mimetic character, which figured landscape-like motives, reminding us on dark forest with fields where the shadows of large trees and the playfully depicted lights create an imaginary space of potential happenings.
These virtual spaces emphasize the deepness as metaphor and suggest mysterious places where certain kind of imaginary events might happen. Later on, during the last years, Park Kyung-A developed a sophisticated visual vocabulary in order to be able to transfer her deeply poetical, polysemantic vision of subtle narratives borrowed from the great Romantic tradition as well, as from different literary sources. In her more recent paintings, the mimetic character of presentation of shapes seems to be reduced and the emotional intensity will be enforced. The virtual deepness of the painterly space often gets a somber atmosphere, which transfers dramaturgical, theatrical happenings. This inner dynamism supports the power of freed imagination which opens up towards great old metaphoric narratives like the forest, as embodiment of obscurity, as visualization of the mysterious place where human destiny will be decided.
It seems to be paradoxical but it is not, that while Park Kyung-A’s painting loses the concreteness of shapes and tends toward more spontaneous organization of color blocks and partly gestural, almost non-mimetic forms, the metaphoric narratives get more and more an almost literal character, which transfers complex connotations deeply rooted in old mythological and literary recitals. The often-used title “Walk” should be understood as “walking in the forest” where the mysterious deepness and the enigmatic obscurity evoke hidden happenings which guide our life and determine our destiny. The painterly universe of Park Kyung-A manifests the turn towards a new metaphorical narrativity and poetical sensibility, towards free re-interpretation of old recitals, towards an empathic approach to nature and human experience.
The 1971 born Yi Joungmin belongs to the same new generation and her activity became widely known and acknowledged surprisingly quickly in the whole Fare-East contemporary cultural context. Yi Jongmin’s work is based on the strong devotion to questioning the sociocultural and anthropological realities in the immediate concreteness of material and immaterial, intelligible, cultural, mental phenomena of contemporary Korean society. Yi Joungmin’s profound engagement for critical observation and analysis of structures and hierarchies of everyday life, her unchangeable devotion for serving in a helpful way the processes of discovering, understanding and changing certain sociocultural phenomena legitimated her personal artistical experiences as research for new, adequate narratives and as manifestation of elaboration sociocultural perspectives. Yi Joungmin is working in a wide range of media, which reflect our epoch with all its contradictions and complexities. As an independent contemporary creator and analytical thinker her work offers a deep, inquiring, intellectually founded survey of contemporary mental realities.
She is also actively participating in various international projects, performances and exhibitions as a founder as well as a major member of <Okin Collective> Artists Group since 2009. <Okin Collective> (consists of three artists: Yi Joungmin, Kim Hwayong and Jin Shiu) is an artists group that was initiated to address the eviction of the residents of the Okin Apartment complex in Jongno District due to the tearing-down of the apartment complex. The group has been interacting with audiences inside and outside of the community through its videos, performances, and radio broadcastings while delving into the social issues in the cities under redevelopment. Their work focused on the relationship between communities and individuals. They tried to intervene in the social challenges through unconventional approaches: for example, the Collective’s members with the residents organized a party on the rooftop of an apartment building while presenting screening, exhibition, and concert.
Yi Joungmin was a prominent player in the group as well, as an innovative artist with her own individual activities. Yi Joungmin’s paintings of the last decade focused on a complex, multi-lever, poetically suggestive, metaphoric system of meanings and references, on the contextualization of real social experiences and poetical, fictive-imaginary, alternative prospects, which create an amalgam of the different levels of reality. Yi Joungmin has been consistently working with images from the organic world including motifs such as biological processes inspired by nature, plant cells or food produced by the contemporary society, like the splendid, quasi architecturally shaped gateaux. In her paintings, the monumental fancy cakes look somewhat irreal and unstable, showing the melting process on the brink of collapse interactively with the human condition. Her narrative transfers the contradictions and uncertainties, doubts and disbeliefs as part of our contemporary state of mind. Yi Joungmin’s work is mirroring current social and cultural realities, which can be seen directly or indirectly in her sophisticated painting. Although she has been in the last years basically active in Korea, her very specific approach to nature, to human body, to architectural, artificial – industrial, mechanical – artefacts and the melting of these two referential territories received great acknowledgement and vivid interest from the side of art critics, theoreticians, aesthetes. The sources of the strange narratives of her paintings and drawings witness deep literary and socio-culturally interest and somewhat even more respectful engagement in archetypical, deeply collective symbolism, which became the center of her basically sensual, transparent, clearly structured visual shaping processes. Self-conscious pictorial maturity, subtle revisitation of Old Masters’ compositional and structural equibalance, conceptual coherency and a hidden but strong tendency towards personal narration signalize the evidently importance and the paradigmatical typicality of Yi Joungmin’s oeuvre in the contemporary Korean artistic praxis.
The 1980 born Youin Yi also represents the new Korean artists generation whose members are not only travelling frequently at all the continents but also are often studying abroad, sometimes as students of highly influential professors. These young artists are completely involved in the international art world and contextualized in the different art centers in Europe, America and Asia. Youin Yi’s professor at the famous Akademie der Bildenden Künste in München was the German painter Günther Förg who introduced her into a certain Western tradition of painterly praxis as well, as aesthetical thinking. After her studies Youin Yi decided to stay in Germany where she became part of the very vivid and dynamic German art scene. In her work she developed an extremely sophisticated painterly texture based on the intelligent and subtle mixing of certain Occidental tradition of exercising painting, with certain Oriental way of creating images and their pictorial surrounding around some simple but ambiguous motives. All of Youin Yi’s paintings, drawings, sculptures evoke an unknown, hidden territory of exciting imaginary happenings and obscure processes of permanent transformations of existing or fictive, thought or dreamed figures and shapes where strange, obscure transfigurations offer fairytale-like anecdotes. In these narratives’ human and animal figures, motives from the nature are appearing and disappearing or transforming into something else, where the fictive-imaginary space suggests obscure deepness with uncontrollable associations. Landscapes with dark forests and shiny fields, hills and rivers, animals and human bodies are connected with each other and penetrating in each other, in a fluid process of accumulation different possible ways of reading.
Light and darkness are painterly interpreted in Yi’s oeuvre as potential sources of narratives which enable to generate a metphoric aura of references. Meanwhile, through her special treatment of colour, through the dramatic confrontation between light and dark fields, between shining and obscure surfaces, an unexpected, multifaceted, imaginary space appears on her canvases, where figure and background, or inside and outside are constantly reversed. Yi is quoted as saying: “Lines in this process become spots that create openings, instead of establishing limitations”. In other words, line is not a division that separates and defines things against each other but a specific place where certain happenings can occur between the boundaries, between interior and exterior, material and immaterial, or reality and dream. Experiencing the deepness of this confrontational territory seems to be a central issue in Youjin Yi’s painting. She is continuing to examine the methods of shaping imaginary spaces through light effects, to create virtual deepness inside the structure of the painting through the range of colour, to borrow an undefined character to the motives and keep them in a state of unstable, undetermined obscurity. The multi-layered semantic system in her work opens different interpretations of possible narratives and offers a large, almost unlimited territory of literary associations or psychological connotations, while an immanent pictorial discourse based on questioning the narration-generating competence of the visual structure is continuing. Youin Yi strengthens the emotionality and the poetical coherency of this fictive-imaginary aura, and doing so, her painting reveals a certain hidden Romantic, a highly personal approach to spirituality. In this sense, her painterly universe could be seen as an encounter between East-Asian tradition and European pictorial methodology.
 Yoon Jin Sup, The World of the Dansaekhwa: Spirit, Tactility, and Performance, in: The Art of Dansaekhwa Kukje Gallery, Seoul, 2014.
 Airyung Kim, Lee Kang-So, in Lee Kang-So: the river is moving. Exhibition catalogue, Artsonje Museum, Seoul, 2003.
 Philipp Dagin, Lee Kang-So’s Paradox, in: Lee Kang-So: the river is moving. Exhibition catalogue, Artsonje Museum, Seoul, 2003.
 Sung Wankyung, Rhythmic Chaos – The texture and breathing, in: Yoo Geun-Taek’s paintings. In: Yoo Geun-Taek: Skin of Life – Drawings on the Diagonal Lines that Sustain Me. Catalog, Dong San Bang Gallery, Seoul, 2007.