Tomio Koyama Gallery is pleased to present a solo exhibition of woks by a leading artist of contemporary Korean art, Kim Chong Hak.
Kim Chong Hak was born in 1937. Known for depicting scenes of Mount Seorak, flowers and birds, as well as butterflies through means of passionate brushstrokes, vigorous compositions, and vibrant colors, Chong Hak has presented a wide variety of works throughout his extensive career that spans over 50 years. He is also referred to “the Korean Picasso” due to him continuing to actively pursue his practice at the age of 81. This exhibition marks his third presentation in Japan, and the first in 44 years since his solo exhibition at Muramatsu Gallery in 1974, following one in 1970.
【Agony in the 1970’s and his Encounter with Mount Seorak】
Kim Chong Hak majored in painting at Seoul National University. He produced abstract paintings that drew influences from Western art and Modernism. After graduating from Seoul National University, he studied printing at the Tokyo University of the Arts in 1968 – 1970 and the Pratt Institute in New York in 1997 – 1979.
The 1970’s were a time of agony for Chong Hak. His works in New York were created through his feelings of depression, with him even losing motivation in life and his desire for painting upon returning to Korea in 1979. In the same year, he decided to leave Seoul for Sokcho, one of the major tourist destinations in Korea, where he spent a year of abstinence in refraining from seeing or reading anything.
In that summer, Kim made his first visit to Mount Seorak in the suburbs of Korea, which would later become a longstanding motif for his work. The nature of Mount Seorak had healed the artist, and the colors of blooming flowers had left a sensational and lasting impression on him. He stated, “I started looking at things again, everything looked anew.” looking at things again, and everything looked anew.” Kim also mentioned how Korean artists had pursued rigorous abstraction during the 1970’s and the 1980’s under the belief that art should be subjected to political and social causes. Amidst such context Kim had done quite the opposite; returning to figuration and depicting nature, thus regaining his passion for art.
“Returning to Seorak, I spent many nights gazing at the stars and the moon in that empty house. How low and bright the Seorak sky was… During the day, I kept wandering around the mountain looking at the flowers and butterflies. There, I found the direction for my painting, which I had been searching for, ever since I graduated from college. I had also reached my very turning point as a painter.”
(From the letter he sent to his daughter, February 1989)
Mount Seorak for Kin Chong Hak, like Tahiti was for Gauguin and Mount Sainte-Victoire was for Cézanne, had become an important place not simply for returning to nature, but for exploring new perspectives on art.
【Move to Mount Seorak, Establishment of Kim Chong Hak’s Unique Paintings】
Kim ultimately moved to Mount Seorak in order to establish his own style and production in 1987, at age of 50. He mentions of his artistic practice at the time as follows:
“I look at the flowers over and over again, imprinting them in my mind, and then I draw them looking only at the canvas. I like the ones I draw fast. It doesn’t work very well when going too slow, thinking too much…When drawn fast, details are weeded out and only the essence of the object remains”.
(From a memo written by Kim Chong Hak, May 2000)
“The painting becomes petty and timid if it comes directly from a sketch. A sketch should just end as a sketch….”
The objects observed by Kim and engraved within his mind are drawn quickly at fleeting speed. Seemingly without time for mixing oil paint, the colors used for paintings are taken straight from the tubes. Flowers, butterflies, and birds are given strong presence as depicted with bold lines in Kim’s works, while mountains and trees convey the cycle of seasons from the birth of life, nurturing growth, to death. His compositions created through vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines of waterfalls and rivers represent primitive aspects and profound beauty. This period can be described as a time in which Kim had reached a sense of maturity in his practice and had established his own world of his work.
【Returning to Korea’s Traditional Aesthetics, Affinity with Nature】
Every time he went to Seoul, Kim began visiting Insa-dong that was home to streets lined with numerous antique shops. He was mesmerized by Korean antiques, especially the Joseon porcelain, wooden furniture, embroidery, daily objects such as wrapping cloths, and works of calligraphy. He became a prominent collector, and donated his collection to the National Museum of Korea in 1987, which had later led to a special exhibition.
Korean traditional aesthetics had presented a significant influence on Kim’s work. Wooden crafts instilled him with perspectives on three-dimension, and the motif of flowers used in such works of craft have been referred to in his paintings. Embroidery had further inspired him in composing his colors and motifs.
Kim enjoys drawing ink-and-wash sketches and searches constantly for the essence of traditional writings and paintings. As the artist had often stated himself, his paintings depicting Mount Seorak in winter in particular enable the composition and the texture of traditional ink-and-wash paintings to come alive.
He had experienced nature by living in Mount Seorak, Korean traditional aesthetics by visiting Insa-dong, and incorporated Korea’s unique bright colors such as red, yellow, blue, and brown in to his work.
【“New Figurative Painting based on Abstract Painting”: Influences from Impressionism, Conceptual Art, and Chinese Painting】
Kim depicts motifs such as flowers, butterflies, and mountains in abstract senses of color and form. He regards his work as “new figurative painting based on abstract painting,” which are born as a result of “stealing Korean traditional aesthetics, adding it to his knowledge of Western contemporary art, and then mixing them all up.” Kim has been influenced by modernist painters such as Gogh, Cézanne, Kandinsky, and Matisse, as well as conceptual art, and further the Chinese painters/calligraphers Bada Shanren and Qi Bai Shi. The uniqueness of Kim’s art can be described as being a result of the constant internalization of his broad and in-depth life experiences.
Lee Tae Ho, professor in art history, Myongji University, remarks as follows:
“As we can see, Kim transformed his earlier abstract impressionist passion into paintings of flowers and portraits that are compared to ‘stormy dance of sensual colors’.”
(Lee Tae Ho, “Drawing Spring in Spring”)
His work has experienced various transformations, yet always with the purity and simplicity like that of a child, which is thus the very reason for him being able to develop through different influences. No matter how many times he has depicted the spring, as can be discerned in the way he himself states, “the next one will always feel new,” his creative energy appears even stronger at his age of 81. His work serves to convey the essential significance of life, which enables his work to be appreciated by different generations of viewers.
【About the Exhibition and “white series” 】
This exhibition will feature approximately 12 works including a selection of new paintings. Differing from his previous works with dense pictorial planes, his new “white series” has plenty of blank spaces remaining in their background. The works in which the stretches of lines representing plants and the expanse of space conveyed through the blank areas evokes a certain contemporary sensitivity as the artist’s new attempt in expression. A rare opportunity as the first solo presentation by the artist in Japan since his previous showing 44 years ago, viewers are invited to encounter Kim’s strong originality that derives from his extensive career of working internationally.