Art So Real It's Called UnoriginalThe rise of abstract expressionism in postwar America suggests the art world's refusal to depict bitter reality. By strictly avoiding material references and symbols in their work, abstract expressionists attempted to "escape" reality and focused instead on the esthetic values of their work. The hyperrealist movement, which followed abstract expressionism, is significant in the sense that it was a reaction to a style of art that resisted confronting reality. On a more general plane, it was a critique of conceptual artists in general and of their obsession with academic translation of art, which was often completely removed from social reality.
Under the title "Illusion and Reality: Hyperrealism Painting in Korea and America," the Hoam Gallery in central Seoul presents a blockbuster exhibition that features the labor-intensive works of 24 artists. The works on display complicate the viewer's perception by playing with the notions of created images versus existent reality.
One of the major focuses of the exhibition is the difference between American and Korean hyperrealist paintings. The show's organizers have arranged the paintings from the two nations next to each other, so that the viewer moves from Korean to American, American to Korean. Such an arrangement allows the audience to easily pick up the differences between the two types of approaches.
The Korean hyperrealist paintings share technical similarities with the American ones, in that they both reflect the accurate rendering of reality.
However, there are differences concerning the way the painters of the two nations went about their work. Rather than depicting the retrospective view of a landscape or portrait, Korean hyperrealist paintings focus on representing the tactile physicality of their subjects. Paintings illustrating this tendency include close-up views of substances like cement, water and leather. Kim Tschang-yeul's waterdrop paintings stand as the best example. If the Americans' paintings were to provoke visual illusion through their photo-realism, the Koreans' put more emphasis on the sense of touch and the texture of materials. In fact, to enhance this effect, artists like Kim Chang-young and Lee Suk-joo actually coated their canvases with sand and cement powder, respectively, before starting to paint.
Hyperrealism paintings started to appear in America in the mid 1960s, about 10 years before hyperrealism's introduction to the Korean art world. Rejecting the often-esoteric minimalist and abstract expressionist styles that dominated the American art world in the 1960s, hyperrealist painters were influenced by pop art, which valued popular culture over everything else. Reflecting American culture in the '60s, when the country had reached the peak of its consumer-driven industrialization, the artists frequently used subjects such as trucks, supermarkets and shop signs.
On the other hand, the hyperrealist movement in Korea was a reaction to the abstract monochrome painting style that dominated the local mainstream art world in the 1970s. The trend began with a group of young artists whose critique of conceptual abstraction was that it was becoming more and more isolated from social reality and the general public.
The use of photographs is also dramatically different between the two countries. While American artists used photographs as the vital source for their sketches, Koreans used them simply to refresh their memories of their subjects. This, in part, reflected their scepticism of academic realism, a figurative art form often used for training purposes in art schools that concentrates solely on the work's technical mastery.
In contrast to abstract paintings of the past, hyperrealism was immediately understood and appreciated by viewers, quickly gaining considerable popularity among art dealers. Naturally, there were mixed reactions from art critics, who raised questions about the artists' ethics. Their concerns, in particular, were about the artists' originality and the technique of tracing, which they considered to be lacking in "artistic spirit."
"Hyperrealism is a statement about perception, one of those 'What you see is influenced by how you feel' tactics used by painters. It challenges the photographer's role, which is the opposite of what happened to painters about 100 years ago when photography was introduced to the world. That was when painters started to use abstraction and distortion, things which could not be done with photography. Now it is being said that photographers should find the way to be more creative than simply pressing down on the shutter," says the curator of the exhibition, Tae Hyun-sun.
The debate about definitions of originality in art continues to rage. Though the perception is slowly changing, some art schools still forbid their students to use photographs to base their paintings on.
However and whenever the debate ends, the exhibition certainly provides the audience with viewing pleasure. The change of cognition depending on viewing distance in Chuck Close's famous airbrush painting "Stanley" is as fascinating to see as Kim Kang-young's brick paintings, which capture the potent rigidity of the material.
The show kicks off on Friday. For more information, contact 02-750-7838 (English service available).
by Park Soo-mee
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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