Monday, March 19, 2012

'Dansaekhwa' shows timeless movement

Not one of 150 paintings at “Dansaekhwa; Korean Monochrome Painting” at the National Museum of Contemporary Art fails to overwhelm the viewer both in scale and rigor.

Choi Byung-so filled in newspaper pages with ballpoint pen and pencil until the paper turned completely black and shiny with charcoal and ink. Kim Tae-ho’s over-two-meter-high paintings consist of numerous grids; Kim repeated layering up and chipping off the dried ink until the acrylic results protruded over three centimeters off the wall.

“The unique feature of Korean ‘dansaekhwa’ (monochrome paintings) is that they stimulate the tactile sense,” explained Yoon Jin-sup, professor at Honam University who was invited to curate this show, at a press conference at the museum Thursday. This large-scale exhibition convenes works of 31 artists who have pursued a specific genre of abstraction since the 1970s including Kim Whan-ki, Lee U-fan, and Park Seo-bo.

Though labeled monochrome paintings, these works defer from the blue paintings of French artist Yves Klein. This school is devoted to the process or repetition and specificity of material not necessarily to a color. “The repetition we see is a type of searching for neutrality and transcendence.” Kim, in his last years in New York, produced wall-size paintings of squares (“Where, in What Form, Shall We Meet Again,” “Echo 19-II-73 #307”), while Lee Bae mounted blocks of charcoal on canvas (“Issue on Fire,” “Landscape 2000-1”).

These characteristics led the curator to use the Korean term in the English title instead of simply translating it into monochrome paintings.

Lee Kang-so, whose mural-size acrylic works “From an Island” and “Emptiness” are on show, emphasized the historical significance of the exhibition. “We do not need to lament that the masterpieces from the ‘70s only came together now. What is striking is the similarity in these works. The undercurrent of self-control and abstraction was flowing through the Korean artists.”

To help the visitors understand the movement, the museum in Gwachon, south of Seoul, complied over 300 texts on dansaekwha as well as interviews with surviving artists.

Lee U-fan lecture

World renowned artist and philosopher Lee U-fan gave a talk on the art scene in 1970s – when the dansaekwha style bloomed at the peak of the nation’s military dictatorship – at the museum as part of its educational program on Saturday.

“The reality for Korean artists at the time was an abstraction itself,” Lee stressed “They were experiencing dire poverty; they were struggling to secure canvas, paper, or paint to work with.”

According to Lee, the works on display embody resistance against the military regime at the time, refuting the popular criticism in the 1980s that these abstractionists were turning a blind eye to social issues. “You don’t have to paint a fist to challenge authority; it is only natural that the mode of fighting was to devote oneself to the abstract, to deny the unreal reality.”

The repetition, crucial feature of these works, defies any meaning and the subdued hues refuse to take on recognizable color. “These artists were also voicing their opinions with this style. The offerings here are more energetic and righteous than those of any other era,” he said.

In the post-World War II era, artists around the globe were seeking change. In Italy the radical experimentalism of Arte Povera took place while American artists started to incorporate natural surroundings to their works and started the Earth Art movement. In Japan, Mono-ha, a school of artists who investigated found objects and natural materials, came to prominence. Lee, who developed his artistic career in the island nation, is considered one of the leaders of the movement.

The exhibition runs through May 13. Visiting curator Yoon’s lecture on the exhibition is on March 24. Visitors can register online for a tour to Lee Kang-so’s studio in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province on March 31. Park Seo-bo will give a talk on Korean contemporary art on April 14 at the museum.

For more information, call (02) 2188-6000 or visit

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