In recent years, the Dansaekhwa movement in Korea has had a moment, to say the least. The practice of abstract painting attracted an abrupt appreciation both in his home country and abroad; some of the avant-garde works have won seven-figure auction results.
Of course, sometimes distinct cultures, with little direct interaction, come up with the same idea, and even execute it in the same way. Like opera – both in the East and in the West, this form appeared separately.
Likewise, Korean painters independently developed an abstract practice similar to the Abstract Expressionism that took hold in the post-war United States, but reflecting a more Confucian approach to the kind of meaninglessness this work is meant to convey. , after the Korean War.
With a strong emphasis on materiality and in earthy, muted tones, Dansaekhwa painting resembled in many ways the work of Barnett Newman or Agnes Martin in the West, although such comparisons may be impolitic or unnecessary.
In 2014, an exhibition at Kukje Gallery, by far the most invigorating in Korea, brought the once-forgotten Dansaekhwa movement to light, and the art world took notice. A 2015 auction at Christie’s focused on Dansaekhwa; the new yorker performed a feature.
But at least some of the Dansaekhwa artists are tired of being compared to Western painters and analyzed by Western standards. They seize the moment of movement in the sun to talk about Korea, Koreanness, post-war at home, and the future of art and politics (to name a few minor topics). Of course, there are also cracks in the perception of Dansaekhwa, undeniably Korea’s most exported art, among Koreans. A later movement, Minjung, or “people’s art”, faced violence and repression in the country’s 1980s. It receives far less international attention and is surely less marketable internationally, raising questions as to why the most palatable painting also had the most institutional muscle behind it.
the Observer recently met three artists in or near Seoul who have done at least some of their work in the Dansaekhwa mode. Here’s what they had to say.
Ha Chong Hyun
Chong-Hyun’s works, mostly in earth tones and grays, often feature his distinct process of pushing paint through the back of the canvas. In his studio in Ilsan, Korea, he greeted Western journalists in August with a strong warning: don’t compare me to Western painters. (Too late, and we’re sorry.)
The technique, however, may have been a means of making his work distinct when he did not have all the resources that other painters had. “Livelihoods were difficult,” he said. “Even getting the right oil paints or canvases”, was often not possible.
He used things he had, like barbed wire, which was plentiful in post-war Korea. But these objects are used as real materials, not found objects, to create abstract textures and surfaces.
“Western journalists were always trying to identify references,” he said, “which was very difficult for me.” He was uneducated in the West and rejects the idea that even barbed wire is a symbol. “The barbed wire was easy to get,” he said. His works are generally simply about “the action between hemp and oil paint”.
Octogenarian Chong-Hyun has finally achieved a comfortable life. But that wasn’t always the case. For years, when he had to move, making his massive canvases loaded with inches of thick oil paint was a huge logistical problem. He endured, however, and “they become more meaningful to me every year.”
Ha Chong-Hyun’s solo exhibition at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles opens November 12.
Seo-bo’s first solo exhibition in New York was held earlier this year at Galerie Perrotin; he also turned 84. His textured, disciplined squares are not “conceptual,” he insists, in another rejection of Western imposition of his vocabulary and ideas on this movement.
In his workspace in Seoul’s Hongdae district, paintings are stored all around him, but there’s none of the paint splatter or disorganization one might associate with a typical artist’s studio. This is perhaps related to his conception of Dansaekhwa painting, which is like a discipline: the final repository of the Confucian process of self-purification is painting.
He spoke of “painting as song” and called art “the foam of emptying itself”. Nor does the West have a monopoly on artists’ dramatic descriptions of their work.
The deep veins of his almost geographic works are the result of a months-long process of dipping and layering paper. Many are in monochrome.
He is also quick to resist Western assumptions about the significance of artists’ choices. “Monochrome is not the same as in Western art,” he said. “The burning stove creates a black… different from absolute black”; it’s more sober.
“Ecriture, Black and White” by Park Seo-bo opens at the Tina Kim Gallery in New York on November 11.
Yong-Ik, younger than the main Dansaekhwa artists, began his career making abstract works, but moved away from what he saw as a kind of abstraction-related amorality in the 1980s, after a political awakening, he said. His works currently occupy two floors at the Ilmin Museum and his evolution from monochrome painter to conceptual artist and politically irreverent provocateur is evident in this exhibition.
One of his criteria for a good work of art is the very practical stipulation that it be mobile, and therefore easy to transport from studio to gallery. Pointing to a large assemblage of found objects – his recent work – he says “that’s not good work. It’s hard to wear that.” Eye, at least? Via a translator, it’s hard to tell, but with his broad smile and inviting gestures, it’s clear he’s having fun anyway.
He recounts his sudden switch to a job more rooted in the world we live in: he was sick, and found no cure. Nothing was medically fine with him, but he couldn’t leave the house. Finally, he understood. He “was so sick…because of modernism”.
Looking at one of his early abstract works, he says “those dots are just meaningless signs”. But the 1980s in Korea, when citizens couldn’t leave and government paratroopers massacred leftist students, weren’t the era of meaningless art. So he abandoned it.
Many later works by Yong-Ik deal with his death and his body. His latest found assemblage type works are awash in bloody colors, footprints, bits of trash.
Yong-Ik isn’t precious about his job or his life. He worked to receive a doctorate, but when he finished his thesis, he simply printed out the pages and went to a remote part of southern Korea’s countryside, where he buried the entire thesis in a hole in the ground. He became a very productive artist later, while in college, he said, only because he needed more money.
The wall text next to Ilmin’s upper floor describes his latest pieces, while perfectly illustrating the artist’s current approach to his work.
“…the ‘coffins series’ was inaugurated in 2015. As if washing and dressing his own corpse, it was through this series that the artist began to humbly embrace the destiny of the modernist. Collecting his work inside crudely constructed wooden boxes with texts and images from the Kristigarbha, the coffins seem to be the inevitable conclusion of the artist perceiving his steps – from modernist experimentations to expression against political situations or l self-reflection and struggle with one’s own ethics – in historical context, and organizing funerals for one’s works.
“Closer…Come Closer” is through November 6 at the Ilmin Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea, and Kim Yong-Ik’s solo exhibition at Kukje Gallery opens November 22.
The interviews were conducted with the help of a translator.