Rodin Gallery takes on formalism for the first time

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Rodin Gallery takes on formalism for the first time

How to approach formalist artwork is a question that has long haunted artists and critics.
Understanding formalism ― that is, artwork concerned with arrangement, style and aesthetic concerns, as opposed to social criticism ― isn’t easy for audiences who haven’t been exposed to a lot of artistic training. People are more trained these days to think about the social context and meaning of art than they are to appreciate it for how it looks. Perhaps that’s why there has been so little writing about formalist artwork since the rise of conceptual art.
In Korea, formalism is suffering the same decline. Convinced that audiences aren’t concerned with formalist issues, curators provide few opportunities for the works to be seen in prestigious Seoul galleries.
Jeff Koons, an American pop artist, has said that artists need to take greater responsibility for the meaning conveyed by their art, suggesting that art is no longer an innocent object to be appreciated in and of itself. If an artwork fails to instruct, represent or politicize the audience in some way, he believes, there comes immediate criticism that the work is a product of the conservative establishment.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to John Pai, a Korean-American sculptor who has been working with welding techniques since the 1960s. Mr. Pai, 66, is having a retrospective at the Rodin Gallery beginning today, titled “Metaphors of Space.” This show is, in fact, the first exhibition of formalist artwork at the Rodin ― a contemporary art gallery that has covered a wide spectrum of art, from typography to 19th century figurative art, since it opened in 1999.
Mr. Pai was born in Ilsan in 1937, and moved to New York when he was 12. He graduated from the Pratt Institute, majoring in industrial design. As an art student in New York in the 1960s, Pai developed his skills in welding after being inspired by Theodore Roszak, and since then he has worked with metal and the torch. The exhibition displays his works from the early ’60s to the present.
One way to enjoy Mr. Pai’s works at the Rodin might be to pay attention to their titles and try to imagine a narrative, a story the artist might have set up while working on the image.
For example, “Great Barrington,” a piece the artist produced in 1985, a year after moving to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, better resembles a landscape painting than a formalist sculpture. In another work, titled “Yangban” (Korean for “aristocrat”), a simple assembly of metal objects on a pedestal resonates an odd sense of dignity. In “Dream of a Dog,” a grand sculpture with violent twists and bends, viewers might know a similar sense of frustration after having a rough dream that is devoid of meaning.
Although there is an obvious sense of continuity from his early works to the present, the exhibition at the Rodin is divided into three parts, each room representing phases of Mr. Pai’s artistic career.
The first displays his earlier works, from the 1960s to the early ’80s, when Pai developed his style by exploring the possibilities of form using lines, planes, mass and texture. Complicated designs and repetitions of tiny cubic forms creep into the works produced during this period, including “Winter Stream” and “Convolution.”
The next room, from 1985 to the 1990s, displays a series of works that the artist said he produced after he arrived at a new recognition with nature. In 1984, Mr. Pai purchased and moved to a 30-acre tract of land near Great Barrington. His experience living there turned his forms more organic, with surrealist tendencies.
The third room, a display of his recent works, shows sculptures that are much bigger in scale and less controlled. By the time the viewer reaches “The Rooster That Became a Tree,” which was produced especially for this exhibition, Mr. Pai is utilizing space with much more freedom, while maintaining the unique character of the metal.
It’s evident throughout the show at the Rodin that Mr. Pai stretches beyond the boundaries of formalist aesthetics by bringing in aspects of his childhood memories and intuitions to take part in the work ― the artist calls his working process “the intrusion of the subconscious.”
By doing so, Mr. Pai is moving away from formalist traditions while developing his own style distinct from other American formalists of the Modernist period.

by Park Soo-mee

“John Pai: Metaphors of Space” is on display at the Rodin Gallery through May 18. Kim Yong-dae, the curator of the show, and Sin Hyun-jung, a sculptor and a professor at Seoul National University, will discuss Mr. Pai’s work at 2 p.m. March 27. For details, call the Rodin Gallery at (02) 750-7818 or check out
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