The more I learn about artists associated with the Dansaekhwa movement that began flourishing in Korea in the late 1960s, the more I realize how deeply inextricable the work is from the country’s struggle for liberation and independence. While the artists considered central to the movement are not above criticism, particularly given the patriarchal structures governing the country, the emergence of women artists and poets during the 1980s in Korea suggests that major changes had long been underway. At the same time, Korea’s engagement with modernism and postmodernism has most often been seen through a Western lens, typically by juxtaposing Korean monochromatic painters with American minimalists in a Western gallery setting. These pairings tend to focus on similarities and flatten out difference.
This is one reason to see the exhibition Kwon Young-Woo: Gestures in Hanji at Tina Kim Gallery (March 24–April 30, 2022). The other reason is to see the freshness that Young-Woo achieved while working with traditional Korean materials: hanji paper and ink. Instead of being inspired by Art Informel, as were a number of Dansaekhwa artists, or reimagining Korean ink painting, he focused on the materiality of hanji paper.
I want to stress this feature of Young-Woo’s work because it signals his commitment to developing an art that embodied Korean culture, while breaking with the highly revered history of ink painting and calligraphy, which he was one of the few Dansaekhwa artists to have studied. At the same, the Dansaekhwa artists had little interest in the formalist thinking of Clement Greenberg and the concept of making art about art. The idea of attaining a pure art was never a serious consideration.
Beginning with Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, the country’s struggle for liberation lasted until the end of World War II, only to see it divided into two parts, which became permanent in 1948. In 1950, the leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, started the Korean War (1950-53) by invading South Korea. While South Korea modernized after the cease-fire in 1953, and eventually held free elections (starting in 1987), the devastation of war and division affected the populace of both countries.
More than 20 untitled artworks done between the 1970s and 2000s (and not arranged chronologically) are spread across the gallery’s three distinct exhibition spaces. While some viewers may prefer a chronological arrangement, from which they might extract a narrative, I was happy to circle back through the exhibition, and thought about the dates only incidentally. Once Young-Woo settled on mulberry paper as his primary material, sometimes cut, pierced, torn, and ripped (all direct performative acts), the idea of stylistic development became superfluous. Cutting parallel rows or puncturing holes that explode outward at the viewer, Young-Woo scars the paper beyond repair. While some writers have tried to offset what they perceive as the artist’s aggressive act by using words such as “serenity” to describe the appearance, I think that reading is too reductive.
It seems to me that Young-Woo wounds the paper, as well as registers both its durability and its irreparable damage. The cuts cannot be “healed” without scarring. When pale blue ink bleeds through the mulberry paper, around a puncture, the association with wounds is deepened. In some of the works it is hard not to connect the paper to the human body, the blank surface on which the everyday world has left its mark. And yet, even as I state this, I realize the work exceeds these terms. This is what he shares with the great Italian artist Alberto Burri, who is an innovative figure in the history of painting without paint and with the use of tools such as a scissors, a hammer, and an oxyacetylene torch, to register trauma to the painting’s body.
The visceral nature of Young-Woo’s work is layered and contradictory, pristine and hardy, soft and vulnerable. In “Untitled” (1985, gouache, Chinese ink on Korean paper, 45.47 by 39.98 inches), the base of a blue, irregularly shaped obtuse triangle starts at the upper left-hand corner and extends to the bottom right. Filling in the upper diagonal area of the paper, the cloud is marked by rows of parallel lines descending at a diagonal, from upper right to lower left. Blue ink extends beyond the diagonal cuts. The blue triangular form becomes a rain cloud, while the diagonal cuts, through which the blue bleeds, are swelling lines of rain.
By bonding a blue cloud, rain, and scars, Young-Woo presents the viewer with a deeper sense of the reality that nature goes on, no matter what humans are doing to each other. This does not diminish human suffering, but looks at it from a broader perspective, which we may or may not find comforting. That I think is one of the artist’s major achievements. There are no heroes in his work.
In the layered abstraction “Untitled” (c. 1980s, Korean paper, 64.58 by 47.64 inches), Young-Woo punctures the paper with hundreds of holes. If we look into the holes we see the sheet of unblemished paper to which the perforated sheet has been evenly affixed. It is hard not to read these as bullet holes, whose projectiles are directed toward us. We are as unguarded and susceptible as the paper. And yet, as in the other work I have described, I do not think this is the only reading. There is also the paper’s testimony to survival, as well as the feeling that something has broken through this wall, perhaps achieving freedom.
Young-Woo marked a number of works with a red seal as his signature. This traditional method of signing an important document underscores his allegiance to the history of Korean ink painting and calligraphy, as well as calls attention to the changes he has made to this highly revered legacy.
At the beginning of this century, Young-Woo expanded his methods and applications, as he did a number of times in his career. In counterpoint to his earlier work, where “décollage” (taking off) is his primary method, he began collaging sheets of paper to unbleached canvases, as in “Untitled” (c. 2000s, Korean paper on canvas, 46.06 by 35.83 inches) and “Untitled” (2002, Korean paper on canvas, 51.18 by 51.18 inches).
In the first, Young-Woo stacked six dark and light cut forms against an unbleached, brown canvas, starting with white. While the white forms are solid, the brown forms echo the canvas’s color. It is as if the paper is porous enough to let the canvas peer through. Affixed to the canvas, the pile can be read as rocks in a landscape, an early human way of making a marker. What it can signify is up to the viewer.
In the second, a large, donut-like form sits within the square’s confines. Young-Woo has placed another single open form within the large donut’s aperture. This asymmetrical form also has a hole in it. The shapes can be read as organic, the composition as both forms within forms (suggesting infinity) and a figure-ground relationship in which the positive and negative space play an equal role.
At the beginning of the exhibition, in the hall before the first gallery space, is a vitrine containing some of Young-Woo’s tools. They include traditional Korean brushes and objects he made to tear into the paper. He enlarged a traditional form, making it into a response to his everyday reality and sense of history’s violence without resorting to anecdote or narrative. At the same time, his use of mulberry paper underscores his determination to make art that was inseparable from Korean culture and history — both past and present. This innovative combination should remind us of the perils and capitalist impulse behind seeing Young-Woo’s work through the lens of Western art.
Kwon Young-Woo: Gestures in Hanji continues at Tina Kim Gallery (525 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.