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Art with a Korean essence
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승인 2013.03.08  19:03:21
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Bamboo-1302 by Kim Joon-kwon was among the woodblock prints on display at the Jeju Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Lee Yeo Jun

The first thought that came to my mind as I entered the gallery was: “are these xylographs?” Or, to be more precise: “can these possibly be xylographs?” Jeju Museum of Contemporary Art was full of unbelievably intricate woodblock prints, full of color and tenderness. Each print was pure wonder and none of them were alike.


The exhibition was divided into three parts: Daybreak, Country and Nature. First, in Daybreak there were works by Kang Seung-Hee. I expected to see vivid and strong colors, representing the hope and new beginning of daybreak, or dawn. However, contrary to my clichéd expectations the prints were black and white. Also, Kang’s daybreak consisted of mostly trees and oreum.

The conciseness of Kang’s prints made me realize another aspect of dawn - that of serenity before sunrise. One who has looked out on the horizon while all others are sleeping will know this peculiar calmness: the oddly satisfying loneliness as if you are alone in the universe. Maybe this tranquility is the true character of daybreak.

However, this does not mean that Kang’s prints are static. The trees, though still, whisper ceaselessly to each other, as if awaiting something. The trees in “Daybreak 21228” look as if they have gathered to view the sunrise from over the oreum. In this way the prints are silent, but at the same time endlessly communicate with viewers.

The woodblock prints were organized into themes of Daybreak, Country and Nature. Photo by Lee Yeo Jun

The next display theme was “Country,” in which Kim Euk’s work depicted the Korean landscape. Kim’s prints not only portray magnificent scenery, but successfully capture the vitality that underlies it. I could feel the strength of the mountain range and the water relentlessly flowing downward. I was even moved to feel the immense energy of “Youngsil Valley at Mt.Halla,” as it hung from the ceiling.

Nevertheless, Kim’s prints are amazingly elaborate. I could feel the artist’s devotion from the fact that he had not overlooked a single rock, tree or person. It was stunning to contemplate that the work is a woodblock print and it reminds me of renowned Joseon-era artist Kim Hong Do’s “Songhamenghodo,” in which he drew each and every hair of a ferocious tiger. Similarly, Kim Euk grandiosely symbolizes the Korean spirit, while never disregarding the preciseness that is true Korean painting.

The last display was “Nature,” by Kim Joon-Kwon, whose work again surprised. Kim portrays nature through brightness and chroma. In “Bamboo-1302,” basic green is used to represent a bamboo forest, while different shades of green and yellow are used to bring the bamboo to life. Interestingly, even with this rather simple use of color, the bamboo forest is not too surreal, but fresh and enjoyable.

The work can be appreciated by both examining each individual bamboo stick up close, or by observing the whole forest from a distance. In “Oreum 0420,” Mt.Halla is merely an outline of an oreum. Through this technique, Mt. Halla, rather than standing out, sits behind and is embraced by the the oreum around it. “Mountain image 0910” again shows Kim’s remarkable skills by using only black and modifying its shading to capture the spirit of the mountains of Korea. Finally, seeing “Island,” I felt sure that the artist was skilled in the equilibrium of colors; not too much, but not too little, is what moves the viewer.

Despite the unique approaches of the artists, the essence of the prints remain Korean and I hope younger artists remember that essence and identity: that will be what makes their work distinct and beautiful, also.

Jeju Museum of Contemporary Art: Day Break, Country, Nature-2.2~3.19
38 Jeoji 14-gil, Hangyeongmyeon, Jeju City
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