Orientalism takes on Hollywood consumerismAll those who walk into the small Artspace Hue gallery near Hongik University come face-to-face with a meter-tall (over 3 feet) gremlin.
No cause for alarm: the creature is merely a detailed painting on brown rice paper. Sitting on a plush chair, the well-known character from the ’80s Hollywood movie “Gremlins” indulges in a cigarette and a glass of red wine. What’s intriguing is that the painting is done in an oriental-ink style, complete with a title in Chinese and the red seal of the painter, following the format of classic oriental paintings. The characters read, “Geu ram lin seon saeng jeon,” a clever way of writing “The Portrait of Mr. Gremlin.” The seal belongs to Son Dong-hyun, 26, the artist.
The exhibition, “Pa-Ap-A-Ik-Hon” (say it fast and it sounds something like, “pop icon”) displays five other wall-size oriental paintings tackling modern commercialism in a humorous way. Behind the wall with the Gremlin painting is a rendering of Gollum, the character from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, as well as Woody and Buzz Lightyear from “Toy Story,” Ronald McDonald, the mascot for McDonald’s, and Shrek, the animated ogre. The poses of the characters resembles their commercial images, but the style is purely Asian.
Hollywood monsters seems an unlikely match for ink painting, so the result becomes a curious, even intriguing, commentary on pop art.
“My paintings are meant to represent the mentality of young Koreans like myself, who have grown up watching superhero flicks and grabbing McDonald’s hamburgers,” said Son, who looks something like an American soldier with a large build and neat crew cut. He said that when he was growing up, he was fascinated with characters in American movies, and he frequently visited the United States where all his relatives live.
“I grew up surrounded by American culture. While I served in the Katusa, I questioned my way of thinking because I think more about American movie characters than traditional Korean paintings,” he said.
Mr. Son said the relationship of the Western characters in his work to Korean paintings is what Itaewon is to Seoul or to Korea in general, adding that he wanted to express through his works what Korean visitors to Itaewon feel.
“Unlike other parts of Seoul or Korea, Itaewon is a Westernized place. My work takes the form used in Korean paintings, but it uses thoroughly Western characters that appeal to the taste and mind of young Koreans.”
To widen the sense of contrast, the artist made the paper look vintage by dying it with powdered acorns. Drawn with India ink and other traditional color pigments, the paintings look as though they have been passed down for generations.
A graduate of Seoul National University who majored in oriental painting, Mr. Son has drawn a number of movie characters in addition to the ones on exhibit at Artspace Hue. Only his larger portraits are on display in the show, the first for the artist. He is also one of the 12 Sangsang Project contest winners, an event in which Artspace Hue selects a dozen of Korea’s emerging artists to promote to the general public.
“The artist met the standards of the judging in terms of quality of work and open-mindedness in young artists,” said Kim No-am, the gallery’s director. “The two elements are critical for a young artist to mature and to make opportunities to have discourse with his audience.”
Mr. Kim said he discovered Mr. Son at a graduation exhibition at Seoul National University and thought his work depicted well the shift of the perspectives and minds of Koreans. “In the tradition of Western art, a work is made solely to appreciate art, but in Oriental art, an art work is a meditative tool,” Mr. Kim said. “In that regard, Mr. Son’s work contradicts the tradition of Oriental art.”
by Kong Jun-wan
“Pop-Ap-A-Ik-Hon” runs until Jan. 18. Artspace Hue is located on the first floor of Mijin Building at 464-41 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, northwestern Seoul. The gallery is open daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. but is closed on Sundays. The nearest subway station is Hongik University, line No. 2, exit 1. From the station, walk away from Hongik University and turn left at the four-way intersection by the restaurant TGI Friday’s. Walk straight for about 700 meters. The gallery is across from a 7-Eleven. For more information, visit www.artspacehue.com or call (02) 333-0955.