The horror of modern art is in its ego. In a world dominated by brands and shiny celebrities, the beauty of art is commonly displaced by controversy and renown. Take Tracey Emin’s neon signs and Damien Hirst’s $50,000,000 “For the Love of God”, for examples. There was no ego in Professor Seo’s exhibition, however, at Gallery D in Gwangju — and the paintings have considerable invention and beauty.
The exhibition was an exploration of humans and nature. One might think, on seeing two portraits of tree huggers, there was a green agenda in place. On closer inspection these paintings, collectively titled “Listening”, are portraits of Professor Seo and his wife with their eyes closed, as they listen to Nature’s voice. His humility and playfulness emerges, as unbeknown to Professor Seo a so-jjukk – a Korean bird similar to an owl – watches him on a nearby branch. In this self-portrait Seo paints himself, painting a tree, surrounded by wasteland. Its inspiration is a quotation from the philosopher Spinoza: “Even though the world should see the end tomorrow, I will plant an apple tree.”
The most compelling and strikingly realistic painting is a watercolour dubbed “For Lyrical Poetry.” It took the artist four months working 4-5 hours every day and is a devotion to nature at work. The wind shakes the hay, the sun casts shadows and birds are playfully hidden in a complex bundle of straw. It is as beautiful from a distance as it is up close.
Reflecting on the title “Human Nature”, one might equate cows grazing in the field with a young man on his laptop: technology as an extension of human nature. However, this painting is more accurately a nod to the past, present and future. Strapped around a traditional tree is rope, which holds the wishes of the Korean people. The young man’s computer is not a lament about the loss of nature; this is a thoroughly optimistic work.
Symbols from Korean culture in the paintings are spliced with modern images — the young man on his laptop appears as a motif in several paintings in the exhibition. These rhyming images create paintings that work together: a visual poem. While studying them I asked Professor Seo, “What is more important: meaning or beauty?”
Professor Seo answered, “Art is always searching for beauty in what it represents.”
As of publication, it is too late to visit the exhibition: the paintings are now in Professor Seo’s studio. Perhaps their brief exposure adds to their beauty, their temporariness adding to the sense of something lost or something special-lived. Either way, it does not mean Professor Seo will no longer paint. For him the exploration of humans and nature is continuous. If another opportunity comes to see his work in person, take it.