There is always a balance between the young and old, between innovation and experience. For the next two months, the Gwangju Museum of Art (GMA) will be exploring this dynamic as they try and push the viewer to recognize that despite remaining years apart, nothing ever really changes. We are victims (or champions) of the human condition and even as time passes on, everything turns out to be nothing really new. Inherently, we have all been there before.
Recently two new exhibits opened at the Gwangju Museum of Art, finding the balance between the old and the new with a life retrospective and an emerging artist exhibition. The retrospective Paek Youngsu: 70 Years in Paintings (백영수 회화 70년) features 70 years of artwork by the legendary Korean artist, Paek Youngsu (백영수). His simple, abstract portraits center around themes of home and family in a style that has become included in the definition of “new realism.”
On the other side of the fence, or rather in the case of the GMA, on the floor below, is the 12th Ha Jung-woong Young Artists Invitation Exhibition (하정웅청년작가초대전 “빛2012”) which features the work of seven contemporary, emerging artists from all over Korea. The pieces all have a sense of urgency and self-reflection as they echo the world we live in. While Paek shows us the world he lived through, the contemporary exhibition shows us a reflection of our world and the many ways to see it.
Together, the pieces show the then and now; but more importantly, they show that the then and now are not so different after all. The human experience never changes; the world the human experience creates does.
Walking through the Paek exhibition traces one man’s 70-year cultivation of humanity. This exhibition is Paek’s first solo exhibition since returning to Korea in 2011. For the past 35 years he has been living and making art in Paris. Paek studied art at the Pacific College of Art in Tokyo and the Osaka College of Art in Japan. It was there that he refined his craft before moving to Mokpo in 1945.
For a short time he worked to help found an art department at Chosun University here in Gwangju, but he soon left to live as a recluse at the Nine-storied Monastery of Hwaeomsa in Gurye, near Jirisan. It is this time of self-reflection that one can see reflected in the works of Paek Youngsu. His paintings feature the reoccurring face of contentment present on each of his subjects. They tilt their heads to the side, possibly mimicking the reclining Buddha, calm, collected and content in their present moment, in the simplest places, doing the simplest of tasks.
Paek was in Seoul when the Japanese occupation ended in Korea, and the artists began taking to the tea-houses to interact, create and respond freely. Paek describes Seoul’s recapture in the 1950s as a changed world: “Once all the hiding, running, being taken and being shot went away, new freedom, new movements and new activities unfolded as high and blue as the autumn sky.”
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Paek continued to refine and redefine his direction as an artist and he eventually settled in France to live and work in 1977. The majority of the pieces on display at the GMA are taken from this period in Paek’s life. While some sketches and early works from the 1950s and 1960s can be seen, we are mostly met by that one, content, tilted face that dominates all of Paek’s art throughout his time in France. His paintings are simple impressions of family life. Often his subjects, a mother and child, are simply resting in each other’s presence. The child is often wearing nothing at all or the clothes are simply omitted from the drawings all together.
We see Paek’s content face staring back at us in each painting with slightly different props and settings to give it context, but it is the face alone that stands out. This is the essence of Paek’s work. It is simple, and it delicately pushes us to remember and recall what family is to us. Who is the mother or the child that we find this comfort? The paintings show a simple life that Paek Youngsu never seems to have had. It is as if his paintings are love and contentment personified more than personal images from his life. They are moments of love he remembers not as photographs, but rather, as the essence of what true happiness is.
As the paintings progress into the contemporary, we see Paek simplify his art more and more. The pieces on display from 2011 and 2012 are little more than shapes and empty space. In fact, an interesting comparison can be made between Paek’s contemporary works and the works of Lee Ufan still on display on the third floor of the GMA. The series Nude by Paek Youngsu that came out in 2011, pictures parts of his subjects that are simplified to shapes resembling little more than fruit.
It is so fascinating to see the life’s work of one man (who’s still creating) in one room. You can really see a return to simplicity that Paek, now in his 90s, is in the process of. We all grow old and we all die. The works of Paek shows that all we really have in the end is our moments of happiness. We are simple creatures at our core that need each other more than anything else.
The works of Lee Ufan on the third floor of the GMA are part of the tremendous amount of works donated to the museum by Ha Jung-woong. The museum currently holds 2,302 pieces of art in the Ha Jung-woong Collection (the third floor gallery). In recognition of the generosity of Ha, the GMA, along with Ha, choose six or seven artists each year to take part in an exhibition to display emerging contemporary talents from all over Korea. This year marks the 12th annual show.
The pieces in the exhibition range from paintings, to mixed media, to installation, to sculpture. While the works of Paek represent a study of a life, the contemporary art works convey a sense of urgency and restlessness that can only be found in youth. Each of the seven artists featured takes a very different approach to addressing what the human condition means in the 21st century. There is a boat sinking in a pool of red, an homage to the glory of simple hand tools and works devoted to the ominous, pessimistic message: “Life is so long, but there is nothing to do. The world is so big, but there is nowhere to go.” One of the curators at the museum, Lim Jong-young (임종영) was quick to add “… except Gwangju Museum of Art” to the end of that last one.
For me personally, the works of two artists really stood out: a series of paintings by Lim Nam-jin (임남진) and a series of sculptures by Song Sung-jin (송성진). The paintings by Lim are subject paintings that seek to take a picture of something without forcing any sort of intention upon the subject. The majority of the paintings on display feature subjects painted in a style inspired by Goryo Buddhist paintings that can be seen on the sides of the temples throughout Korea. The works show love, compassion and empathy for all the sentient human beings Lim shares her life with.
The subjects of Lim’s paintings are detailed renderings of the people who make up modern society at their best and their worst. She comments on what it means to be a modern Korean, carefully interplaying her subjects with ancient images and celestial entities. Her painting “Genre Painting III”establishes this connection with a spirit dominating the middle of the painting while life happens all around him. Children eat kimbap, a woman pictures herself as slender and beautiful, and a boy steps off of a roof blindfolded. She does not disown, judge or correct life as she sees it; rather she celebrates it as a beautiful, colorful tapestry that is simply trying.
In the spirit of Lim’s celebration of life, Song brings two beautifully detailed landscapes to the exhibition. Both of his works center on the way we physically live. His sculpture “Tower and Palace” shows the rush of people to live the same as everyone else. The subject of his sculpture shows people living wall to wall in houses underneath a cloud city of high-rises up above. Surrounding the houses is a spattering of farm houses filled with plants and seeds. In a final corner before exiting the galleries is a piece called “Urban Development.” It is one piece that should not be missed: a picture of a certain beauty that comes out of so much destruction.
The two exhibits are on display now at the GMA. Paek Youngsu: 70 Years in Paintings is on display until February 24th and the 12th Ha Jung-woong Young Artists Invitation Exhibition is on display until February 17th. The museum is located in Jungoe Park across from the Biennalle Exhibition Hall. It is a beautiful museum and the two exhibitions together take about two hours to see thoroughly. Spend a cold Saturday embracing the wonderful artwork available in Gwangju and don’t forget, the more things change, the more things stay the same.
The author would like to thank Lim Jong-young (임종영) and Park Kye-yeon (박계연) for their insight, company and tour through the exhibitions.