Chang Ucchin Exhibit: Keen Eye on Rural Life

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Chang Ucchin Exhibit: Keen Eye on Rural Life

'For an artist who lived in such turbulent times, a house was a symbol of stability and freedom.'

Follow the man in the black suit in Chang Ucchin's "Self-Portrait," and you will bump into magpies, roosters and families resting in a hut on a hot summer day. The rice paddies are golden with an abundant crop. A puppy following the man is sniffing the ground for something to eat. The man in the painting is the artist, and he is about begin a long journey.

A retrospective of Chang Ucchin's works at the Gallery Hyundai in Sagan-dong, central Seoul, features 70 paintings that are thick with narrative and the artist's personal history.

Commemorating the 10th anniversary of the artist's death, the exhibition "Sun, Moon, Trees and Chang Ucchin" is the largest of its kind to be held in the nation.

Mr. Chang is best known for paintings that capture the detail of everyday life in the country. Symbolically, the first painting at the entrance to the exhibition is "Self-Portrait." Mr. Chang is wearing a suit and about to go on a trip. The painting nicely links the artist's journey and the one the viewer is about to begin in exploring Mr. Chang's art.

The second child in his family, Mr. Chang was born in 1918 in North Chungchong province. When he was 10, he won a prestigious art award sponsored by the Japanese government.

As a young man, Mr. Chang attended Japan's Empire School of Fine Arts and worked as a conservator at the National Museum of Korea. Mr. Chang later became a professor at Seoul National University, but soon resigned. Soon after this, he built a studio in Hyehwa-dong, produced an extensive number of paintings and pursued his time-long hobby of drinking.

His drinking was legendary. He once said that art gave him a reason to live and that drinking was his only alternative to resting. He depended on alcohol to "liberate body and soul" after the demands of painting, he said.

His eldest daughter, Chang Kyung-soo, 56, says his drinking and lifestyle caused great hardship to the entire family. "There were times when our family had bitter feelings about my father," she said. "If the works didn't come out like he wanted, he would drink for 10, even 20 days straight. During those times, he didn't eat anything, not even a pinch of salt."

"He spent everything. But when I saw him in the morning when he was sober, I couldn't say a word, because he looked innocent as a baby," she said.

Mr. Chang's "Family" series perhaps best reflects his affection and guilt about his family. In one picture, his wife and children wait by the door for him to come home.

Houses also feature prominently in Mr. Chang's works.

"For an artist who lived in such turbulent times, a house was a symbol of stability and freedom," said Lee In-bum, an art critic. "His paintings are themselves architectural. The pictures seem filled with disorder and chaos, but for some reason, they have an amazing symmetry."This spatial element is a notable feature in Mr. Chang's paintings. Rejecting traditional techniques of perspective and modeling that strictly separate the space between background and foreground, many of Mr. Chang's paintings are in multiple layers.

Emphasizing the limitations of two dimensions and flatness of the surface, the artist makes the picture look like a tapestry. And by deliberately making the figures appear to "float" on the surface, the artist draws attention to cultural dislocation in a colonized Korea.

Conceptually, the works also remind the viewer of Cubist paintings. This does not mean that Mr. Chang belonged to any certain "school." In fact, he refused strongly to be categorized or to follow popular trends.

Mr. Chang stayed true to his figurative style throughout his career. This can easily be seen by comparing his early works to his later ones. Although there is a subtle difference in density and brush strokes, the paintings show little change.

This consistency is one reason for Mr. Chang's popularity. He rejected the Modernist tradition, which dominated Korean art in the 1930s and '40s, and stuck to his own style. This philosophy was different from that of many of his artistic colleagues such as Park Su-keun and Kim Hwan-ki, who focused on Modernist abstraction and "art for the art's sake" notion.

Critics also note that Mr. Chang's works have a sense of innocence about them. Earthy colors reflect the artist's search for "purity" and "the sublime." The animated figures give plenty of room for playfulness.

Mr. Chang also emphasized the aesthetics of simplicity. He encouraged his pupils never to be ornate. Many of his paintings are filled with visual puns and playful comments about tradition, uniquely capturing spontaneous moments from everyday life.

The facial expressions and postures in his "Family" series are especially loaded with meaning. The unnatural smile of the mother holding a baby as a man besides her stares blankly are two such examples. The mountain and house behind them seem somehow unreal. The painting perfectly captures the mundane life of the artist's family. And there are more to look at.

The exhibit runs through Feb.15 at Gallery Hyundai, 02-734-6111.

by Park Soo-mee

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