Artist’s willingness to experiment with Korean ink bent boundaries

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Artist’s willingness to experiment with Korean ink bent boundaries

The 1960s were an unsettling period for Korean artists who stood at the crossroads between tradition and modernity.
On one hand, artists were encouraged to reclaim a national identity, which was battered by the war, by focusing on traditional subjects. Yet most established art schools by this time were teaching formalist aesthetics based on samples of works by Western artists. Mainstream art was bombarded with local painters who returned from Japan and Europe after studying the so-called “Western paintings” ― still life or landscape paintings done in oil.
By 1960s, almost all art schools at major Korean universities were divided into Western painting and Korean painting departments, with formal boundaries strictly drawn between the two genres by medium: oil vs. ink.
In the name of preserving tradition, a student at a Korean art department was risking an academic career in experimenting outside the given framework. However, even with such emphasis on tradition, one couldn’t deny Korean art was slowly dying as a popular art form.
A proponent of the Korean art movement, which aimed at tracing the origins of local art through ink paintings, Song Su-nam decided to major in Korean painting instead of Western painting after serving three years in the Korean army. The artist, now 66, recalls that it was much more than a sense of duty or youthful ambition that caused him to shift his focus.
The year Mr. Song returned to school as a senior art student, he was “skeptical” about depicting his deeply Korean sensibilities through an imported medium like oil paint, which he described as “too gaudy and light” for a mood he was trying to create, so he turned to Korean ink.
His student artwork mostly consisted of landscapes of his hometown, Jeonju, south Jeolla province, where his inspiration was rooted. These paintings are included in a 50-year retrospective of Mr. Song’s work, now on display at the Gana Art Center.
One of Mr. Song’s notable experiments focused on chemical reactions, by mixing black ink with water on mulberry paper. The minimalist shapes he created this way were often as simple as a stroke of a quick line across the paper.
But instead of reproducing traditional calligraphy or refining conventional landscapes ― which he also did in later works ― Mr. Song found his subject in the essence that constitutes the material. In his earlier works, forms that resulted from chemical accidents became the subject of artistic explorations.
This attitude ― paying attention to the material’s intrinsic possibilities rather than exploring its functions and effect on the final production ― was considered revolutionary at the time. Some critics even said Mr. Song’s understanding of the medium had much to do with his background in conceptual art from Western painting.
Yet traditionalists have argued that one of the distinct features of Korean paintings is the emphasis of the regional, sometimes called “spiritual,” specifics rooted in the material: the density, the depth and meditative qualities of muk, or ink. But debates about tradition or modernity in Mr. Song’s recent works seem moot, as these paintings seem to embrace both.

by Park Soo-mee

“Namcheon Song Su-nam” runs through March 14 at the Gana Art Center in Pyeongchang-dong, northern Seoul. For more information call (02) 720-1020.
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