[ZOOM KOREA] Portrait artist makes a big impression

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[ZOOM KOREA] Portrait artist makes a big impression


A close-up photo of Kang Hyung-koo, a leading portrait painter in Korea’s contemporary art scene. The artist is known for painting self-portraits and iconic figures, like Vincent van Gogh, on large canvases. [PARK SANG-MOON]

An artist with a long white beard is drawing on the wall of a gallery. In his hand is an airbrush instead of a paintbrush. Because the canvas is several times taller than he is, he has perched himself atop a metal platform so he might reach every corner and fill in every detail of his work. Traces of red paint fill up the small gallery space.

Kang Hyung-koo, 66, is a leading portrait painter in the contemporary art world.

For his latest project, Kang is working on a self-portrait at the Street Museum in Jung District, central Seoul. The piece, which Kang started on March 11, is being painted on a massive canvas that is 5.3 meters (17.4 feet) tall and 4 meters wide. The dimensions of his face on the canvas are said to be the largest ever for a self-portrait.

Art students and fans who want to view Kang’s work process first hand can drop by the museum to see the artist paint until the work is completed in mid-May.

From a very young age, Kang was regarded as an artistic genius by those around him. One habit that’s stuck with Kang after decades of drawing is making loud noises that describe the images the artist reproduces on paper. In his adolescence, this often translated into verbal iterations of gunshots and the clicking of hoofbeats on the ground.

Kang entered art school after toying with the idea of becoming a soldier and attending the Korea Military Academy. While there was no doubt Kang was a gifted artist, his relationship with his professors was strained. Kang was uncomfortable with the established hierarchy, one of the factors that pushed him to work solo for a long time.

Defying expectations, Kang got an office job at a pesticide company after graduation.


Left: Kang Hyung-koo works on his self-portrait at the Street Museum in Jung District, central Seoul. Visitors can drop by to see his live painting performance through mid-May when the piece is due for completion. At right, from top to bottom: “Vincent van Gogh in Blue” (2007), “Bodhidharma” (2011) and “Marilyn Monroe in Red” (2012). [PARK SANG-MOON, KANG HYUNG-KOO]

For the next 10 years, Kang dedicated himself to his desk job, not drawing even once during the time. It was his father and role model Kang Woo-young who instilled the sense of duty in Kang to “take responsibility for your family if you’re married,” even if that meant not being able to draw. The late Kang had spent his whole life as a prosecutor, serving as a Supreme Court Justice at the height of his career.

Kang nonetheless recalls his life as a regular salaryman as an invaluable period of self-development that shaped him into who he is now. Kang’s desires were suppressed, like a coiled spring pushed down unable to burst forth. Years of self-control hardened Kang, at the same time keeping him from becoming arrogant or making poor decisions as a young artist.

At age 37, Kang submitted his letter of resignation to the company where he had spent a decade of his youth - the plan was to start drawing again. For the next 10 years, Kang lived mostly in isolation, confined at home and working on his art. Although he toiled endlessly and compiled a sizeable repertoire, he didn’t reveal a single piece to the outside world until another decade had passed.

Finally, in 2001, the year he celebrated his 48th birthday, Kang held his first solo exhibition. Across three gallery spaces at the Chosun Ilbo Art Museum and Seoul Arts Center in Seoul and Bundang’s former Samsung Plaza Gallery, Kang showcased 80 pieces he had created during those 10 years of obscurity.

The massive scale of his works, which measure upward of 3 meters, and the exhibition’s unique format attracted almost instant attention and launched dozens of international solo and group shows that Kang enjoys to this day.

A life-changing event completely upturned Kang’s fortunes and propelled him to stardom in 2007. At 54, Kang sold his “Vincent van Gogh in Blue” at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong for over 700 million won ($615,100) - around 10 times its original value. Gaining new courage from the art scene’s positive feedback, Kang used the lucrative sale as a stepping stone to expand his career on a global scale.

There is one other achievement that Kang particularly prides himself on, something that he says even Van Gogh and Rembrandt were unable to do: Unlike the earlier masters, Kang has the fortune of being able to exhibit and sell paintings of himself at a high price. In fact, he is considered to be the most successful contemporary self-portrait artist.

Kang has captured many iconic figures on canvas, including Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Abraham Lincoln, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and van Gogh.

Kang has also been painting himself consistently since the beginning of his artistic career. The total count of his self-portraits now exceeds 600. Most of these portraits are drawn on large canvases that measure 2.5 meters by 2 meters, with works up to five times larger than that.

There are multiple meanings behind Kang’s self-portraits. Of course there’s the obvious resemblance between the portrait and artist, but the paintings also channel Kang’s innermost emotions - remorse from self-reflection and aspirations for the future. Kang’s latest work-in-progress at the Street Museum, for example, is shaded red, which can be interpreted as a sort of “red card.” Kang’s intense gaze is a self-reprimanding warning to do better, but he’s only so strict because he loves himself.

So far, Kang’s portraits have mostly been limited to representations of real people - himself and other artists, celebrities and scientists. In the coming years, Kang is hoping to expand his subject range to imaginary figures as well, with possible portrait ideas including Medusa, Santa Claus, Snow White and William Tell’s son.

Kang’s portraits go beyond simply representing certain individuals. The collection of his works over the years can almost be said to capture our society.

BY PARK SANG-MOON [moonpark@joongang.co.kr]

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