Korean art: North and South

The Katzen Art Center at the American University Museum in Washington DC is hosting simultaneous exhibitions that pit the two Koreas in the artistic arena.

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The two exhibition posters pretty much lay the groundwork for what visitors should expect – and by that I mean don’t expect the unexpected. The second floor, dedicated to South Korean contemporary art, features ten artists whose work would be right at home in any white cube New York gallery. Take a look at the two oversized, stunning portraits by Kang Hyung-Koo. Obviously American iconography is alive and well in South Korea.

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Hepburn, oil on canvas 102″ x 72″

The artist succeeded in producing a super glossy, almost metallic sheen in the eyes while painting the rest of the portrait in heavily textured, sandy monochrome. The same process was used in Lincoln, below.

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Another artist, Jin-Ju Lee, produced sensitive works that managed to be contemporary whilst imparting a more traditional flavor through its narrative and use of material.

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Jin-Ju Lee, ManDle, Korean color on fabric
Jin-ju Lee conversation of all those whose lips are sealed
Jin-Ju Lee, Conversation of all those whose lips are sealed

I was also drawn to a hand wrought wooden sculpture (below) by Yun Suk-Nam that spoke volumes more than the glossy fiberglass wall mounted piece by Byun Dae-Yong reproduced on the exhibition’s brochure front page.

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Yun Suk-Nam, Persimmon

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A walk up the stairs to the museum’s third floor showcasing North Korean artists transported the visitor to a totally different reality. The exhibition’s curator, Professor B.G. Muhn of Georgetown University, states in the catalog that one of his goals in mounting this exhibition was to examine “..if there was evidence of free, individual expression in North Korean art.” Well, no surprise there – the answer is “no”. The “fantastical and exaggerated works (sic) expressing theatrical and melodramatic emotions” were a direct take-off from the social realism paintings fostered by Stalin and Mao Zdong during their repressive, authoritarian regimes.

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The paintings were rife with propaganda, glorifying the working class (most of whom are dying of starvation as you read this) and the military might of this ‘great’ nation.

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Detail, image from poster North Korean exhibition

Even though the artists displayed an amazing virtuosity of the ink on paper technique and uncanny attention to detail, the works left me saddened.

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Kim Chol, Tiger Dashing in Winter, 73″ x 78″

 

 

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Contemporary Israeli art at AU Museum, DC

                                 Still from Sigalit Landau’s DeadSee

It’s been about eleven years now since I left Israel, yet my connection with the exhibition of Israeli artists at the American University Museum was immediate. Contemporary Israeli art is out-of-the-box, cutting edge, and in-your-face. Pretty representative of the country as a whole, I would say.

All the works belonged to the Donald Rothfeld Collection of Contemporary Israeli Art, just gifted to the Museum. Many of Israel’s better known artists were represented – Moshe Kupferman, Yael Bartana, Tsibi Geva, Michal Rovner, Sigalit Landau and Moshe Gershuni  to name but a few of the heavy hitters. ( Click here to read my interview of the latter’s exceedingly talented son, Aram Gershuni).

                            A typical work by Moshe Kupferman

The themes expressed by the artists convey the preoccupations of the young nation – the Holocaust that hangs over it like an ominous shadow, the continuous wars, the soul-searching over the Palestinian issue. One gets a sense of a country that is by necessity closing in upon itself yet struggling to claw itself out of its predicament.

One of Tsibi Geva's works from the Kaffiyeh series One of Tsibi Geva’s works from the Kaffiyeh series

TWO MUST-SEE VIDEOS (One of these days I will figure out how to embed videos into the blog…) :

Israeli artists were amongst the first to embrace video as an art form. Two works that left a lasting impression on me were video works: The first was Tamy Ben Tor’s video trilogy of the artist in various disguises spewing verbal diarrhea that is really quite disturbing. Watch this one called Yid. The second is Dana Levy’s lyrically named video Departures/50 ways to leave your lover. Just LOVE this one and hope you do too. Shalom for now!

(PS. Back to the subject of portraits from previous blogs, obviously I am not the only artist fascinated/obsessed with portraits – here is Switzerland-based Chinese artist Qui Jie at his first major solo exhibition in Singapore. Does the grid look familiar…?)

VIDEO: Qiu Jie — Recluse from a Distant Land