▲ The classic colors and themes of Byun’s work. Photo courtesy Gidang Art Gallery
Art and nature have formed a fine collaboration in the artwork of Byun Shi-Ji. With dominant themes of wind and sea and a minimalistic, monochromatic style, Byun's works of his “Jeju period” express the very soul of this island. “Mankind cannot control nature,” Byun has said. “In fact, mankind is one of the elements of nature. If mankind tampers with nature, serious consequences ensue.”
Byun, 86, is a Jeju native who moved to Japan at age 6 with his family and, after gaining his education in art and achieving early success, returned to Korea 25 years later. He spent nearly two decades in Seoul, having married artist Lee Hak Sook who remains there with their children and grandchildren. Byun, compelled by his art to return to his birthplace, came back to Jeju in 1975.
While his greatest sources of tranquility are his sense of social stability and his family, the absence of the latter is also a cause of deep loneliness. At the same time he welcomes solitude as a sort of spiritual practice that frees his creative nature, depicted by the solitary figure which appears as a frequent theme in his paintings. The artist freely discusses his ongoing battle with depression and believes that, as an artist, it is his obligation to transcend suffering and loneliness. “Jeju is a lonely, solitary island of exiles,” he explains. “People try to avoid solitude. I embrace it, internalize it.”
▲ The artist and his wife Lee Hak Sook. Photo courtesy Gidang Art Gallery
Byun, one of only two Korean painters whose works hang in the Smithsonian Museum, has regularly exhibited and won multiple awards. In 2006 he and his work were featured in a special concert of the KBS Symphony Orchestra. The following year, his life story was depicted in a KBS documentary; the broadcasting company has since sponsored the publication of a book about his work as well as a current exhibition at the Jeju Museum of Art.
When asked about his greatest contribution to Jeju society, Byun replied that it has been said that he has “Jeju-ized” art – that is, he has created an artistic style that can be said to be uniquely of, and to embody, Jeju.
His localized art includes frequent images of a solitary figure, most often of an old man but sometimes of a haenyeo (diving woman); other common images are those of the horse, thatched cottage, a distant boat at sea, and crows in the sky. The elements, in particular wind and storm, light and sea, are also key, as is his use of ochre coloring. One of his most minimalistic paintings, entitled “One Dot” , depicts only the tiniest boat on the horizon of a stormy golden sea.
Citing it as the “mother” or muse behind his art, the artist describes an emotional connection to the nature of Jeju. Rather than portray Jeju’s landscape in the representational manner of so many local artists however, Byun paints in order to reflect on the significance of life. He believes that by depicting the relationship between humans and nature, his works can bring about a new consciousness. He has not tried to create beauty, he said, but to portray the assimilation of nature and human beings.
As to whether his was a goal of inspiring others to protect the environment, he diplomatically stated that art is always relative to the viewers’ impressions. There is an historical background to his works, and symbols of the struggle for democracy and resulting exhaustion, as well as hope, can be found throughout his imagery.
Byun is presently concerned with what he views as the over-development of Jeju, in particular the importation of foreign culture at the expense of tradition and natural beauty. He has hope, though, that the Jeju people will try to revive their traditions.
He is equally concerned that the Jeju government doesn’t hold sufficient appreciation for the arts and thus does not adequately support them. Here too, he maintains hope that this will change for the better.
And how would this great artist like to be remembered? Ever humble, with the tranquility of a sage, he wishes people to know that until his last moment, he simply lived ... like a dot on the landscape.
The exhibit at Jeju Museum of Art has been extended through the end of this month: jmoa.jeju.go.kr and Byun Shi-Ji's works are on permanent display at Kidang Museum in Seogwipo: www.a-r-t.net/art. A segment of the KBS documentary can also be found at the Kidang Web site.
Dr. Hilty is a psychologist and educator living on Jeju Island.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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