Woonbo's Long Road to Sublime Expressionism

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Woonbo's Long Road to Sublime Expressionism

A broad retrospective of Korean artist Kim Ki-chang's masterpieces on show in Seoul has been realized with a spare review of his pencil line drawings and ink sketches for his well-known works. Famous for pioneering his own abstract expressionism, Kim Ki-chang, 89, also known as Woonbo, continued to experiment until advanced age forced him to stop working.

His paintings are bold and dynamic, yet they consist of only a few brush strokes. His depictions of the Korean people engaged in everyday activities -w a s h i n g clothes, thrashing barley, peddling sweets and the like -engage themes as common as C h o s u n Dynasty's folk paintings. His pictures of dogs, owls, horses, cows, eagles and wild geese strike a deep chord in Korean hearts. These works spring from Woonbo's vivid imagination, and only with his powerfully masculine brushstroke can a lowing cow graze, a young stallion gallop and a ferocious eagles soar. It is when these animals come alive that the paintings speak a universal language.

The Woonbo Kim Ki-Chang Sketch Exhibition at the Woonbo Gallery features about 50 sketches from the artist's early days, out of a collection of about 650. Photographs of the completed works accompany the sketches and rough drafts of paintings. The exhibition focuses on the period roughly from 1945 to 1965. During this crucial 20 years, Woonbo gradually changed his technique from Japanese-influenced classical Oriental painting to a more Western style, until he settled on his own abstract expressionism. The works include his early style -which leaned towards realism . and later works that placed more emphasis on construction and proportion.

Drawings of Korean beauties in Hanbok, the traditional Korean dress, are representative of Woonbo's earlier works. The original paintings won the Korea's most prestigious prizes, which made the artist an instant celebrity. Evolving from realism to abstract forms, he began creating compositions with strong symbolism - a courageous move that changed Korea's art scene forever. "Boritajak" (Thrashing Barley) clearly shows the artist's attempt to change his style. His teacher Lee Eung-no, the Korean master, influenced this change, which also had the support of Woonbo's artist-wife, Park Rae-hyeon, also known as Woohyang. During this period, Woonbo produced the masterpieces "Tuwu" (bullfight) "Gun-mado" (horses) "Talchum" (mask dance) "Pungkyeong" (landscape) were painted. The change from classical Oriental painting techniques led the artist to become more of a cubist. Traveling with his wife in North and South America and Africa, he also became interested in ethnic cultural heritage. He further developed his style in an attempt to fuse the East and the West. This led the artist in new directions in the middle of his career.

Towards the mid-70s, Woonbo's works reached the ultimate height of impressionistic symbolism. His ongoing experiments with objects and color techniques eventually led to his famous "Babo Hoehwa" (Idiot's Painting) and "Babo Sansu" (Idiot's Landscape). Kim Ki-chang became deaf at the age seven, but his passion and talent for art at ear-ly age was unlimited, and he was a precocious producer of work. His sketches show clearly how he calculated measurements and composition in the way a theater producer might carefully set a scene. In his "Idiot's Painting" series, a few bold, colorfully elaborate strokes soulfully epitomize the difficult life of a handicapped person. He knew how to distance himself from daily phenomenon, and with a sense of humor, his expressions became something of a caricature and illustration to complete his existence. He made it pure and even innocent as if from the viewpoint of an idiot or a very simple person.

His sketches from the 1950s and 1960s allow us to follow the artist's transition from classically trained artists to his courageous exploration of emotions with a vision that is undeniably Korean and at the same time universally human. Woonbo's dedication to art and life are distinctive. Through this exhibition, his prolific career over eight decades is explained beautifully and simply. The Woonbo Kim Ki-Chang Sketch Exhibition is on show until Monday at the Woonbo Gallery from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. everyday. The gallery is located on the third floor of Marquis Plaza of Central City in Banpo-dong, Seoul. For more information, call 02-533-2415.


by Ines Cho

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