The Joo two hang their paintings and webtoons side by side
Like father, like son — kind of.
The “Homin and Jaehwan” exhibition kicked off on May 18 at the main branch of the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) in Seosomun, central Seoul, as a unique collaboration between an artist father and a webtoonist son. Joo Jae-hwan, a famed painter who led the Minjung Art Movement, or the people’s art in the 1980s, and Joo Ho-min, one of the most popular and respected webtoonists in Korea, have teamed up for the first time to have their works displayed side by side.
“I’ve grown up seeing my father paint and I think that affected me in more ways than I’m even aware of,” said Joo Ho-min. “I’ve heard people say that it’s fascinating that a father paints and his son draws too, all the more because my little brother is also an artist. But since I’m not into fine art but draw cartoons, I never thought I would get the chance to have my work displayed at a museum. It’s both amazing and also very burdensome to have my work hung alongside my father’s.”
The duo’s career paths may have unfolded in different ways, but when the Korea JoongAng Daily interviewed them before the opening of the exhibition, they displayed a similar sense of humor and frame of thought that penetrated both their respective artwork. Painter Joo focused on illuminating the darker corners of society through wit and satire while webtoonist Joo aimed to show the injustices in the world through both light and serious stories. In both the artists’ works, there is always the will to point out the wrongs in life without despair.
“Humor just comes naturally, it’s what you’re born with. You can’t force it if it’s not right for you,” said Joo Jae-hwan. For him, his art and his sense of humor comes naturally from his everyday life, from the conversations he has with people to the news articles he reads on a daily basis. He's also inspired by other people’s experiences, such as a towel that his wife saw at a local sauna and told him about.
One day, his wife went to a sauna and saw that the towels there didn’t have the name of the sauna written on them but were embroidered with the phrase “Stolen towel.” There is a joke in Korea that in women’s sauna, patrons sometimes steal the towels to use at home, whereas in men’s saunas, the number of towels actually increases because they forget to bring their own towels home. Joo Jae-hwan saw that the towel itself was a work of sarcasm and art that pointed out people’s lack of morals. He asked the sauna for a piece to incorporate into his work and thus “A Stolen Towel” (2012) was born.
“Using real objects creates a sense of straightforwardness,” he said. “Painting, especially oil painting, takes a lot of time. But with objects, it’s fast and it’s easy to understand as well. Works that have a big goal and message don’t work for me — it makes me yawn. You shouldn’t be yawning at an artwork, regardless of how good or bad it is.”
Painter Joo's other works are similarly candid — some even carry “no particular meaning.” For instance, “Happy Tears” takes its motif from Roy Lichtenstein’s pop artwork of the same title and criticizes Samsung Group’s slush fund scandal that broke in 2007 surrounding major artworks owned by the company’s foundation. The message of the piece is loud and clear and doesn't take much brainpower to understand.
Similarly, “My Pickled Radish, Simple Ignorant Crazy Monochrome” (2020), is a note to “overrated authority” endowed in Korea’s monochrome paintings referred to as dansaekhwa. Joo Jae-hwan places a piece of yellow pickled radish against a simple yellow background. Minjung Art is known to have rebelled against the military dictatorship and social oppression in the 1980s, but Joo Jae-hwan says that “that wasn’t the only form of resistance.”
“It is vague,” he said, when asked what he is rebelling against in the absence of military oppression. “We’ve become a democratic society so our one-sided resistance against military dictatorship is pretty much non-existent. But there are problems in this society, too. There are always two paths in society — a path of hope and a path of despair. The two are always intertwined and will remain so into the future. I’ve lived for a long time so I have a lot of experiences to choose from and so I pick my subjects from that wide pool of issues.”
He cites the same vague reasoning when asked why the portrait of his son features ice cream and sunglasses in place of his nose and eyes — there was no particular meaning.
The Joo duo created portraits of each other for the exhibition, which was the first time they have ever done so, they said. The senior Joo said he first created the work without particularly meaning it to be his son’s portrait, but it just turned out “so similar.”
“It’s just really funny,” said Joo Ho-min about his father’s portrait of him.
“I realized that I have gotten very old. But I think I aged well,” Joo Jae-hwan said, adding that his son’s illustration was “good and truthful.”
Another work by Joo Ho-min “What Are They Doing down the Stairs?” (2021), a seven-meter high (22.9 feet) digitally-printed illustration, is based on his father’s painting “Spring Rain Descending a Staircase” (1987). Joo Jae-hwan’s painting shows people standing on a staircase while a streak of yellow “spring rain” flows down above their heads. The "spring rain" is actually urine coming from the people above, showing how social inequality builds in the lower class and they often embrace it without realizing that it’s leftovers from further up the hierarchy.
“My father’s work has the image of descending, but I took that and turned it into one where they ascend the stairs through cooperation,” said Joo ho-min. “Each of the characters from the bottom are characters from my earlier works and they help each other get up the stairs and work toward their goal. The original was about oppression, but my work goes against that.”
The characters in the print have been chosen from Joo Ho-min’s most popular works, such as “Perpetual Motion” and “Along with the Gods.” A section of the exhibition features scenes from Joo Ho-min’s iconic works and the sketches he created for the initial draft. The hall may seem a little bland compared to Joo Jae-hwan’s section since most of the exhibits are print-outs of existing webtoons, but it allows viewers to follow the webtoonist’s thought process and see how he plays with various formats to create memorable scenes.
“I actually tried running away once while preparing for the exhibition because it felt too much,” he said. “The curator caught me and persuaded me to come back [...] It still feels a little awkward to see them displayed like this and I’m nervous about how the viewers are going to find it.”
It’s natural that Joo Ho-min is more eager about how the public will perceive his work due to his career as a webtoonist and more recently, as an online video creator. After finishing his historical action series “Bingtanghuru” on Naver Webtoon, the younger Joo has been focusing on communicating with audiences online through live streaming, mainly on YouTube and Twitch. Both forms of art ensure fast and immediate feedback from viewers, which has both pros and cons, according to the webtoonist.
“I think I’m addicted to the immediate feedback,” he said, explaining how he began his career in cartoons and not art like his father. “I’ve been drawing stuff since I was in middle school and I loved it when I drew something and showed it to my friends, and they would laugh at the things I made. I became addicted to people reacting to my creations and that led me to upload webtoons in the early 2000s’ on amateur sites. The only thing that’s changed is that I get to post my work on a fancy website, but inside, I’m still trying to draw something to make the person next to me laugh.”
“It’s more fun for me, but it does mean that there’s less room for deep thoughts or discussions,” he continued. “A lot of the things just get easily forgotten. There are works that talk about something deeper and leave you thinking afterward, and I thought that those kinds of works were better. But now I think that webtoons that are an easy read in the bathroom that you just flush away when you leave the toilet are just as good.”
Although the younger Joo recognizes the transient nature of webtoons, he also feels strongly that regardless of the seriousness of their content, or other content he creates, they should not be restricted.
“Freedom often gets restricted on the internet,” he said. “For instance when I’m live streaming, it doesn’t get edited but the things I say in the video get recorded by other people. And it’s always the case that the context gets lost and all that’s left is the dry text that’s easy to misunderstand and twist. When you start caring about each and every utterance, then you start to fear going beyond borders. The fun is lost and it’s not just in the streaming platforms. It’s happening in webtoons and other forms of work, and that’s quite worrying.”
While the junior Joo respects freedom of expression more than anything else, he also thinks over-scrutinizing every detail of an artist’s work is not a good thing. He hopes that people respect the rights of all creations while his father jokingly added, “there’s no use in asking audiences to like your art.”
“Once a work leaves an artist’s hands and it’s hung up on a wall, the creator becomes powerless,” he said. “He renders all his power to the audience, who can interpret and assess the work any way they want to. There’s no changing that. We can’t do anything about someone hating our work. But we often learn from what people say about our work. In a way, they’re my teachers.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]