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Lee, Yil <Things White?>

Critique 평론 2007.05.11 10:37
THINGING WHITE?

Lee, Yil
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It has been not long since contemporary Korean art was introduced to Japan. The first exhibition of modern Korean art in Japan which reflected the general situation and broad aspects of recent trends was the one held in 1968 at the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art under the title of "Contemporary Korean Painting Exhibition." The exhibion which was participated in by representative Korean abstract painters, marked a milestone in the history of Korean abstract painting. But its significance was rather limited, as indeed this kind of group exhibition always is, in that this exhibition presented a panoramaic view of current trends, like a summing up of contemporary efforts, without indicating the potentialisties of the next generation. Although a few individual artists were introduced into the Japanese art world on and off, they were rather exceptional cases. It has been the younger artists of Korea who introduced their art to Japan in recent year.

Under such circumstances, Mr. Kim Moon Ho of ther Myung-dong Gallery in Seoul and Mr. Takashi YAMAMOTO of Tokyo Gallery in Japan have long been talking about exchanges of contemporary art between the two countries. At the initiative and prodding of these two, Mr. Yusuke NAKAHARA of Japan and this writer were enabled to organize this exhibition of contemporary Korean painting at the Tokyo Gallery.

What does white mean? More concretely, what white means in Korean painting is the focal point of this exhibition. In fact, white has long been traditionally associated with the Korean people. It has been not only the representative color of our traditional aesthetic sensibility, but also a symbol of our spiritual bearing. Furthermore, it has been part of our essential vocabulary which regulated our thinking.

When we call ourselves a "white-clad people," it implies more than the simple allusion. Let me cite another example. When we hold the white porcelains of the Yi dynasty in high esteem, it goes beyond simple likes and dislikes. In retrospect, our traditional art has not dwelt exclusively on white. For example, Buddhist paintings employed stronger original colors, and the mixture of original colors in what is known as Tanch'ong colorization of official and religious edifices is testimonial to our sense of color, comparable to that of Europeans.

In short, white has been more than that it manifests. In other words, it is something spiritual to us before it is a color. White represents to us a small cosmos before it assumes a color. In fact, rarely have we perceived white as a physical phenomenon, because white as a physical phenomenon means the non-existence of color. It is also for this reason that Mondrian defined white and black as "non-colors."

On the contrary, to us white along with black demonstrates the existence of all possible colors. The reason why our ancestors painted landscapes in India ink was not because they perceived the landscape in terms of black and white, nor because they had no other means of painting. Rather, it was because they believed that they could better grasp the essence of a landscape, or the universe, in terms of India ink. And this essence they believed in could only be grasped through a conception of nature transcending the senses.

Perhaps we have taken white as an esprit of nature, the breath of life, which breathes in the abode of our spirit. Thus we live in the same spiritual space as that of nature. In sum, white is a basis for formation of all possibilities.

The five Korean painters to be introduced in the Tokyo Gallery exhibition differ one from another in the formation of their personalities and temperament, and in age, ranging from the fifties to the twenties. (The age and generation have nothing to do with the selection of artists in this exhibition.) Neither do they represent their own generations. The oldest among the five, Kwon, Yung-Woo, is an Oriental painter, as it is called in Korea. The course of his growth as an artist seems to have exerted considerable influence on the formation of his artistic world, and as such his recent paintings seem to be a tenacious search to transform his world of painting into another visual language in the context of modernity. Park, Seo-Bo is in his forties, an energetic painter who was more sensitive to international experiments in plastic art than others in his formative yerars. The world he has shown in the series of his "Descriptive Method," may be taken as an expression of strong will toward self-denial, a return to the pristine state of nature, which rejects all phenomena and expression.

On the other hand, Suh, Seung-Won, in his thirties, is an intellectual artist who reminds one of an aristocratic elite. Belonging to a generation after the enformal, he has been pursuing from the beginning a pure optical world based on geometric patterns, and he has been consistent in his pursuit. He develops pictorial space by means of minimal composition. The remaining two younger artists, Heu, Hwang and Lee, Dong-Youb, seem to have intuitively plunged themselves into the world of possibilities their elders have implicitly suggested. In the case of the former, it seems that his spiritual anxiety provides a basis for his art in which the spaces form images; and in that of the latter, we may find in his paintings a fable in which life becomes inorganic.

These paintings by artists who differ one from another in personality and temperament may be grouped into a category of monochrome. To these painters, monochrome will not end as in the case of Western Europe as "a new method of dealing with colors." But to them the white monochrome reveals a vision which accomodates the universe.

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