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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