Abstract art demystified in three easy exhibits

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Abstract art demystified in three easy exhibits


The 2011 painting “Snow Falls, Light Scatters” by Toh Yun-hee is part of her solo show “Unknown Signal” at Gallery Hyundai.

Who’s afraid of abstract art? It revolutionized art in the early 20th century and dominated it in the mid-20th century. And yet abstract art is still regarded as the villain keeping people away from modern and contemporary art.

But there are three exhibitions going on now in Seoul that could help dispel any lingering fears of abstract art. They are: “Abstract It!” at the National Museum of Contemporary Art’s Deoksu Palace branch, “Unknown Signal” at Gallery Hyundai on the art street east of Gyeongbok Palace and Sam Francis’ solo show at The Page Gallery in Seocho-dong.

The exhibition at Deoksu Palace, which has the very long subtitle “A New Interpretation of the National Museum of Contemporary Art’s Modern Art Works,” encompasses more than just abstract art. The 93 artworks by 71 artists in this show are shown in small groups of two or three and at least one piece in each group is a figurative painting, photo or installation.

For example, “Good Evening” by Lee Bann, an abstract painting with a red-orange color painted on all four corners of the canvas, is shown alongside “Camellia” by Lee Dong-hoon, a still life of reddish camellia flowers set against a yellowish-green wall. Displayed like this, viewers no longer see “Camellia” as a reproduction of flowers but as a composition of colors in harmony with the colors of the neighboring painting, thereby turning the still life into an abstraction.


The 1970 acrylic painting “Untitled” by Sam Francis is part of his retrospective at The Page Gallery.

This is the way the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) saw art. He called the painting of his mother “Arrangement in Gray and Black.” Though the painting, now commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother,” has become an icon of motherhood in the West, the artist’s intention was to get viewers to feel the beauty and harmony of the colors and tones, not to read meaning into the paintings.

“‘Camellia’ is part of MOCA’s collection but has rarely been exhibited to the public,” Yoo Jin-sang, curator of the “Abstract it!” show, told reporters on Monday. “I hope that this exhibition will not only broaden the concept of abstraction but will also improve the status of MOCA’s collection by giving visitors new ways of seeing them.”

Yoo is a professor at the Kaywon School of Art and Design and one of the few curators invited to plan an exhibition at the state-run museum.

Visitors will quickly find the similarities and synergies among the small groups of artworks. One such pairing combines a piece from the “Crochet” series by renowned French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, which shows traces of red threads on white canvases, and a piece from the “P/R” series by the local artist Lee Sang-nam, which shows black linear figures on wide white canvases.

Still, some visitors may find it difficult to understand why some works have been grouped together.


“Umber-blue,” the 1973 painting by Yun Hyong-keun, left, and “Countable or Countless 5,” the 2007 painting by Kho Nak-beom, “are part of the “Abstract It!” exhibition at MOCA’s Deoksu Palace branch. Provided by the museums

At Gallery Hyundai, local artist Toh Yun-hee’s solo exhibition “Unknown Signal” is also a show of abstract paintings but may appeal to viewers who do not normally like abstract art because of its apparent lack of meaning. Toh’s abstract paintings have poetic qualities that make her work easy to understand.

For example, a painting with the paradoxical title “A Certain Time is Darkened by the Sunlight” is a convincing visual portrayal of the moment when you see dark dots when staring at sunshine and the situation in which you feel negative thoughts in the midst of a happy moment and vice versa.

The highlight of the show is an installation consisting of prints of computer graphics that are based on photos of sunlight reflecting off of a river. The piece is housed in a black box and the lights are turned on and off repeatedly. When the room is dark, the prints glow because they are coated in luminous paints. The impression is sublime.

Finally, The Page Gallery is presenting 40 works by the renowned American painter and printmaker Sam Francis (1923-1994). The exhibition will help viewers understand the American abstract expressionism that influenced Francis and his work as well as so many other artists.

*“Abstract It!” runs to May 10. Admission is 5,000 won for adults. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays and until 8:30 p.m. Fridays to Sundays. It is closed on Mondays. Go to City Hall Station, line No. 1 or 2, exit 1. Call (02) 2188-6114 or visit www.moca.go.kr/engN.

“Unknown Signal” runs through April 24. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays. Go to Anguk Station, line No. 3, exit 1, and walk for about 10 minutes. Call (02) 2287-3500 or visit www.galleryhyundai.com.

The Sam Francis solo show runs to April 30. Admission is 3,000 won. The gallery is open from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays and is closed Mondays. Go to Gangnam Station, line No. 2, exit 5. Call (02) 3447-0049 or visit www.thepage-gallery.com.

By Moon So-young [symoon@joongang.co.kr]
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