▲ Kim Joong-baek in front of one of his latest existential paintings Photo courtesy Yun Mee-yuong
I first met Joong-baek at a New Year’s Eve party about five years ago. He introduced himself as having just finished a decade of travel on the Indian subcontinent. I said something like, “Wow, that must have really changed you.”
He smiled with a far-away look in his eyes and said, “Not really.”
I’m usually pretty good and holding up my end of the conversation, but I had no idea what to say to this. It would become a fairly standard response - Joong-baek defies easy interpretation. However, that doesn’t mean people don’t try.
One day a year or two ago in Busan he walked up to where his wife was eating some street food and took a bite of her “oh dang” fish-on-a-stick. The woman who owned the cart immediately began cursing at him, threatening to call the police. Joong-baek froze, a cylinder of fish carpet stuck in mid-bite.
At the time his head was a conflict of long black hair growing in something that was almost - but not quite - a mullet. His neck was festooned with a bewildering array of necklaces, charms, feathers, bones, beads, and stones. An XX-large orange tank top with a bright blue image of Krishna on the chest hung off his wiry frame. He wasn’t wearing any shoes, and his tattered, oversized shorts did the bare minimum in covering him.
▲ Photo courtesy The Joong-baek collection
Most people - especially in Korea - have never seen anything like Joong-baek, which is why he’s rather consistently assumed to be a beggar.
He laughs when he tells stories of being shouted at and told to leave establishments where he’s meeting friends or family. The owners are always deeply mortified (and confused) when it turns out he’s not homeless. Joong-baek takes it all in stride.
These days he’s looking a little less like a Korean Mr. T from India. Fatherhood does that to a man.
He does, however, continue to maintain only the highest standards of sartorial elegance - in ways that I both envy and applaud; and his Fu Manchu moustache and guru chin beard still inspire knee-jerk reactions from business owners everywhere.
But I think he’d get similar reactions even if he was wearing a suit. Joong-baek, you see, possesses impeccable individuality - much like his art.
▲ Photo courtesy Mee-yung Yoon
I think that’s why his paintings have the gained attention of the 313 Art Project.
From New York and Paris, to Taipai, Hong Kong, and Seoul, 313 has participated in major art fairs since 2010 with the expressed intention of bringing relatively unknown artists to a more global audience.
During the Itaewon Union Art Fair in 2016, Joong-baek was approached to see if he was interested in participating in 313’s exhibition at the 2017 Art Fair in Paris, this March.
With Bill the Cat poise, Joong-baek smiled - a crazy glint in his eyes - and said “why not?” He’s been working in makeshift studios ever since.
Joong-baek’s canvases can be enormous, and some take him years of constantly overlapping ideas to finish - layers of paint, a kind of personal archaeology, digging through myriad strata of self-reflection.
▲ Photo courtesy The Joong-baek collection
“The most important aspect of my work is freedom,” he told me, “I try to draw something unknowable from inside myself. After meditation and breathing exercises, I paint with all of my energy - quickly, but not in a hurry. I embrace all of my feelings and my various temperatures, and I put it all at the tip of my brush.”
A lot of art today has become so easy that it’s almost just a reflex. We consume, we react, we move on. Our lives are so saturated with imagery and marketing, we no longer take any time to cultivate a personal relationship with artistic expression anymore. Many people have lost the motivation to reflect on the dimensions of art that exist beyond mere analysis.
Joong-baek’s artwork, however, stalls this kind of consumption. I’ve found that his pieces are so inscrutably subconscious that they act as a bulwark against easy rationalization. I consistently don’t know how to react to his paintings, and, in my hesitation, I find engagement.
Joong-baek’s paintings contain something raw and primal. Much like his process, his art depends on the enigma of the total organism, drawing on intelligences we often ignore: “I prefer to draw as if trying to empty myself out, without thinking too much - to paint with purity, just like a child. That’s why I rarely give explanations about my work, because I don’t have any or want any.”
Sage words from an explorer on the edge of consciousness. Keep your eyes open for Joong-baek’s exhibitions both on the island and abroad, and keep a friendly door open to the genius of the streets. Not all who own a home have found where they live.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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