Korean artist evokes the disconnect we all feel

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Korean artist evokes the disconnect we all feel

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The eyes look blank, ignorant, lost, alienated, even helpless. Yet the deeply expressive faces, set atop angular bodies, exude beautiful harmony and warmth in color, composition and content. A sense of disconnect overwhelms viewers, who end up nodding their head as they realize upon introspection that they empathize with these ordinary people who live ordinary lives.
The exhibition, entitled “Family-Introspective Landscape,” brings life to the Park Ryu Sook Gallery, housed in the cozy double-story former residential building in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul. The show displays 34 recent works by Korean painter Yim Man-Hyeok. As the title suggests, the paintings reflect contemporary families as Yim perceives them, dealing with conflict, unity and communication ― or lack of it ― among families.
“Most families these days look fine from the outside, but in reality, deep down inside, they are devoid of communication and mutual understanding. They are insecure and alienated,” he said after recently installing his paintings at the gallery.
Yim first writes his observations on paper in a comical and satirical way, and positions his characters at exaggerated angles, using oversized faces and pronounced eyes.
He pointed to the large painting entitled, “Sea Story 06-3,” as his favorite work. In it, a family of five are entangled and confined in a small wooden boat. Yet the characters show no sign of personal relationship. Their eyes are either closed, oblivious to what is going on around them, absent mindedly half-open, or wide open in shock or distress. Physically, they are confined in a small boat floating in the ocean. The family may be bound by name, but they live separate lives with no emotional connection.
This is Yim’s second solo exhibition in this gallery since he entered the world of art in 2000 by winning first place in the prestigious Dong-A awards. He then sold all 11 pieces exhibited at the Chicago Art Fair in 2002. With that, the artist, then 34, stepped into the spotlight.
Yim’s popularity stems from his ability to combine different elements in a way that is natural and intriguing. This may be a reflection of his Korean and Western influence, and his unusual academic background. Whereas many artists take an academic path from the Orient to the West, Yim went from the West to Korea.
Although his paintings are generally categorized as Oriental paintings, he has created a genre of his own, which “consists of both Oriental and western methods, yet do not tilt to one specific side,” said Oh Kwang-su, a local art critic.
Yim uses traditional Korean rice paper, which he treats multiple times with a special glue combined with a moth-free formula as the ground for his work. Then he colors the base with bunchae, or Oriental powdered dye, in ochre, “the way women put on make-up base and then foundation,” he explained.
This earthy, yellow background is a Yim characteristic that he adheres to, regardless of whether it is sky, ocean, dirt or flooring. “I’ve tried different colors, but nothing goes with black charcoal as this yellowish brown color does. It’s also the color which aptly expresses the scent of life,” he said.
He then uses charcoal to sketch his objects, giving them a Western touch, through the disposition of the objects and the style in which they are depicted. The rough, dry lines articulate the intricate psychological state of the characters and the sharp angles suggest their anxiousness, while at the same time adding a comical touch to soften the mood. The characters’ eyes, exaggerated in size to amplify the tension, emphasize their self-pity, alienation, depression or estrangement.
In the painting, “My Family 06-2,” a family of four is shown on a boat with the father sitting on his wife’s back, with his hand on her buttocks. The son stands with one hand on top of his mother and the daughter stands in the back, staring at her father. This “family,” however, appears so disconnected that it seems they would look more natural, if they were placed in separate pictures instead.
At first this cold, dry, sullenness is a bit shocking. But, the surprise soon wears off and the paintings take on a slightly comical form, with the long skinny arms, overly large faces and eyes, and rigid angles of the bodies. The bright solid colors of red, yellow, green and blue that fill up the large canvas bring overwhelming warmth to the paintings.
The polka dot prints like the ones on the mother in the painting, “Sea Story 06-3,” appear often in the artist’s paintings and make the pieces more energetic and animated. When compared to the pieces that were exhibited two years ago in the same gallery, this collection appears especially warmer.
“People remembered Yim Man-Hyeok as a solitary artist after the last exhibition. But in this exhibition, with the larger characters and the brighter use of colors, the paintings are much warmer,” said Lee Eun-Hyang, the curator in the gallery.
“Perhaps his being close to marriage warmed him up a bit!” Ms. Lee said, smiling, referring to Yim’s current girlfriend, who also appears frequently as a model ― the young woman with long, straight hair and with long, lean limbs.
The exhibition is satisfying in part because of the energy that is emitted from the paintings. The sullen, cold yet somewhat comical facial expressions of the characters engage viewers and may lead them to examine their own relationships with family, friends and the environment.
Yim’s originality and his gift for catching expression with honesty brought his work into the spotlight, as both the curator and the painter agreed that now people take up more of the space in the artworks. When asked about his next move, he replied, “Nothing is certain.”


by Im Sun-young

The exhibition runs until Sept. 30. Hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. The ParkRyuSook Gallery is located in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul. The nearest subway station is Cheongdam, line No. 7, exit 9 or Apgujeong, line No. 3, exit 5. For more information, call (02) 549-7574 or visit the gallery’s Web site at www.parkryusookgallery.co.kr.
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