Colorful works from artist who defied conventionFor ages, one of the canons in mainstream Korean painting has been the avoidance of bright colors. This tenet originated partly from the common sentiment among artists who wanted to distinguish themselves from the styles of religious paintings ― shamanism and Buddhism in particular ― that typically used bright primary colors to evoke a sense of spiritual energy.
For artists infected with a tinge of haughtiness, having their works compared to paintings that were used as props in shamanist rituals was something of an insult to their artistic purity. The idea that color could be applied as a decorative technique was a setback for Korean painters who stressed temperance and subtlety of expression.
Up to the late 1990s, the use of bright colors among students of Korean painting was treated as a disgrace by teachers at prestigious art schools. Instead, creating a poetic sense of space without relying on colors was a primary concern of mainstream art.
Park Gwang-saeng was one of the first modern Korean painters to challenge that tradition. A retrospective of his works, “Color: Park Saeng-gwang,” organized to commemorate the centennial of his birth, is now on display at Space C Gallery.
The exhibition includes a series of paintings that Park produced in Japan, where he first developed his taste for powerful imagery through the use of sensational composition, bold brush strokes and religious symbols.
Park, who studied art at a prestigious school in Kyoto, came back to Korea shortly before the Korean War, but returned to Japan again to produce a series of abstracts that mixed black ink with colors.
His early paintings carry strong storytelling themes, and are filled with subjects like tigers, mountains and shamans that frequently appear in East Asian folktales. The images are expressive rather than realistic, spontaneous rather than constructed, playing with exaggerated expressions and scales. Drawings are made with thick, dark contours, making references to shamanist paintings.
Park’s art never attracted mainstream attention while he was alive. Only in the late 1980s, after his death, when the notion of shamanism was reinterpreted by postmodern critics as a kind of performing art ― indeed, the artistic root of the Korean identity― did it begin to attract attention. This wave of interest occurred just as monochromatic paintings from Europe and the United States were sweeping the country.
Park died in 1985, shortly after he was invited to exhibit his works at the Grand Palais in Paris. Yet within Korea, his art was rarely exhibited in the context of serious Korean paintings.
His works were treated as experimental and provocative, but never authentic. That makes this third retrospective since the artist’s death even more meaningful.
by Park Soo-mee
“Color: Park Gwang-saeng” continues through June 12 at the Space C Gallery in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul. For more information call (02) 547-9750.