Artist makes floral tribute to celebrities

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Artist makes floral tribute to celebrities

At first glance, the celebrity-faced flowers look more like a cheap airport souvenir than fine art. But on closer inspection, these paintings mixing Korean folk art with images iconic superstars are a playful collage of genres.
The works are by the Korean artist Cho Eun-young, whose solo exhibition “The Royal Court Peonies: the Korean Waves” is currently at the Ssamziegil Gallery in Insa-dong in northern Seoul.
The faces of famous celebrities such as Jang Dong-gun, Kim Hee-sun and Lee Yeong-ae are included in 11 paintings styled after minwha, or ancient folk paintings. Some viewers may be suspicious that the artists is simply taking advantage of the stars, who are popular across Asia as part of the “Korean Wave.”
Ms. Cho, who studied painting at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, had already completed most of the works before she approached the stars’ management companies, which were very protective of their clients.
“I was too naive to know anything about legal matters, such as the right of likeness. I had thought that entertainment companies would be thrilled; I never expected such difficulties,” Ms. Cho said.
Nevertheless, the artist managed to receive permissions to use the stars’ likeness provided she does not use the works commercially. That killed her vague but ambitious plans to export her art to Japan and China.
The idea for the show first struck the 35-year-old artist when she encountered the “Gungjung Morando” (Royal Court Peonies) while studying minhwa early this year. The “Royal Court Peonies” paintings by anonymous painters are images of luscious peonies on folding screens that are customarily used for weddings in the Royal Court of Joseon Dynasty. Peonies were considered the “king of flowers,” symbolizing wealth, affluence, and fame. The longing for such worldly attainment remains prevalent in contemporary society, with celebrities replacing the kings and aristocrats as the ultimate objects of admiration.
The paintings in Ms. Cho’s exhibition follow the traditional format of peony paintings: A tall shrub of nine peonies each, with an oddly-shaped trademark stone at the bottom. But the brilliant array of colors ―crimson red, orange and green ―is reminiscent of pop art rather than traditional art, reflecting the artist’s background in Western painting. The blend of Korean ink and rice paper with black-and-white photography mixes past and present, and East and West.
“What impressed me most about Korean folk painting was how every object was symbolic, which is why the objects aren’t portrayed in perspective,” Ms. Cho said.
Colors were selected to match her impression of the celebrities. Jang Dong-gun, the star of “Taegeukgi: Brotherhood of War,” got military green and khaki, while the painting with actress Lee Yeong-ae had traditional minhwa colors, reflecting her leading role in the period drama “The Jewel in the Palace.” However, the background of her painting is black as a reference to her femme-fatale role in “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.”
The only non-peonies painting is a version of “Irweol Obongdo” (“Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks”). This classic painting depicts green mountains, red pine trees and dark blue skies behind the king’s throne to accentuate his majesty. Ms. Cho turns this reverence to her favorite movie director, Kim Ki-duk, whose films have won international acclaim at the Venice and Cannes Film Festivals. The stamps on the sun and moon marking “Well done!” provide a kitsch finishing touch to the tribute, as most Koreans affectionately remember the stamps from homework papers. The exhibition itself seems to be the artist’s way of expressing encouragement to her favorite stars for elevating Korea’s cultural status abroad.
“Korean folk paintings used to serve as a means of wish fulfillment, so my paintings reflect my hope for the Korean Wave to continue far and wide,” Ms. Cho said.

by Kim Su-jin

The exhibition “The Royal Court Peonies: the Korean Wave” runs until Dec. 12. Admission is free. Ssamziegil Gallery in Insa-dong is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The nearest subway station is Anguk station, line No. 3, exit 6. Call (02) 736-0088 or visit
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