Pearl Lam Galleries presents Contemporary Sansuhwa, a group exhibition introducing contemporary Korean landscape painting and showcasing works by three prominent Korean artists: Lee Sea Hyun (b. 1967), Moon Beom (b. 1955), and Whang Inkie (b. 1951), curated by Miki Wick-Kim, curator, writer, and art advisor based in Zurich, Switzerland.
Sansuhwa is the Korean word for ‘landscape painting’, with the word san meaning ‘mountain’ and su ‘water’. As elsewhere in East Asia, landscape painting was one of the preeminent genres of traditional fine arts in Korea. Much of the country’s landmass is mountainous, and the cultural traditions and philosophies, including Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, have been informed in part by a relationship to the mountains and nature. Landscape paintings were seldomonly representational, but were explorations by classical artists in search of an ideal land or paradise.
The works of many contemporary Korean artists are informed by this inherited legacy of landscape painting. Although they recognise the intrinsic cultural tradition they share and their connection with nature, they opt to distinguish their output with an expansive range of individual expressions. This exhibition presents the works of three artists who represent contemporary landscape painting from very diverse points of view. As their works embrace new inspirations, themes, and processes, they give rejuvenated relevance to this traditional form. Moreover, they are not necessarily interested in nor value the promise of an ideal world, as their concerns are very much anchored in contemporary reality.
Lee Sea Hyun’s red-on-white landscape paintings are a complex layering of multiple references and motifs far from the classical landscape notions of the ideal; rather, they are a collision of his memories of a now disappearing natural world with a critical reflection on Korea’s contemporary sociopolitical panorama. Laboriously rendered in exquisite detail and rich tonality, Lee’s paintings longingly recall the vistas from his childhood on Geoje Island, off Korea’s southern coast, where the views of beaches, mountains, natural harbours, and far-off temples have been altered by urban development. Lee’s fragmented landscapes weave together historical references, trauma, and the conflicts present within a rapidly modernised South Korea. Through his exclusive use of red and the juxtaposition of various symbolic and contradictory references, as if a work of collage, Lee lends the works an uncanny tension and mystery.
Moon Beom is one of the successor generation of artists to emerge from the Korean modernist movement, exemplified by Monochrome art of the 1970s. This movement engaged with Eastern spirituality, its meditations on the natural world, and the notion of a harmonious universal oneness. Moon’s paintings are the expression of a contemporary language articulating concepts born of such traditional points of view. His reduced and abstract forms reference mountains, waterfalls, clouds, and foliage, and yet they reflect philosophical concepts more than representational elements. Thus, the interstitial spaces between the forms also contain meaning, expressing a spiritual notion of the void. Moon begins his paintings by preparing a flat area of acrylic on canvas or panel. He then works this flat background colour with oil stick. Preferring the immediacy of a direct encounter with the material, Moon does not paint with a brush, instead applying the oil stick by smudging the colour with his fingers, for which he wears a cotton glove. The slow and flowing gestural application of the oil stick creates the resplendent tonality, the sensuality, and the emotional depth characteristic of his work.
Materiality is fundamental to Whang Inkie’s practice in which he constructs works merging Eastern tradition with contemporary technology. Inspired by canonical Korean and Chinese landscape paintings by classical painters, Whang begins by scanning reproductions of the images. He takes advantage of the resulting pixilation to realise laboriously crafted works in diverse materials, such as small-scale Lego pieces, silicon droplets, and crystals, in a process that the artist describes as ‘digital sansuhwa’. In his work An Old Breeze–Mt. Diamond, 2015, Whang adapts Korean master painter Jeong Seon’s (1676–1759) treasured Scene of Diamond Mountain with thousands of tiny crystal pieces attached to the acrylic-on-canvas surface. The re-contextualising of the appropriated image produces a dazzling and semi-abstract work that reflects the hybrid position of many contemporary Korean artists at the intersection of deep- rooted traditions, hypermodernity, and individual experimentation. The viewer might even feel compelled to step into a shimmering landscape of centuries past and dream of an ideal world quite far removed from mortal concerns.
- Moon Beom, Secret Garden #309, 2012. Courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries
- Lee Sea Hyun, Between Red – 014AUG03 －014AUG03, 2014. Courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries