Review: Korean Modern art gets long-overdue spotlight in L.A.

Artists, as people, are drawn to power. Like moths to a flame.

What they do in their work with the relationship they seek with it can vary widely. But rarely is power simply ignored. A major new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art shows what 88 painters, sculptors and photographers in Korea have been doing with their curiosity about artistic power over seven rather turbulent decades.

The show begins in 1897, when the staunchly isolationist Joseon Dynasty was coming to an end after a sweeping reign that lasted 500 years. It ends around 1965 or around the beginning of the current era.

The power these Korean artists were drawn to was modern art in the West, particularly in Europe and secondarily in the United States. Often this art has been filtered through the example of Japanese artists and teachers involved in a variety of western interactions who colonized Korea from 1910-1945. This makes the transfer of power even more complex.

Lee Qoede, "self-portrait in a long blue coat," ca. 1948-49, oil on canvas

Lee Qoede, Self-Portrait in Long Blue Coat, c.1948-49, oil on canvas

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

According to LACMA, The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art is the first major exhibition ever to examine art created during a tremendous cultural shift that provided a basis for the relatively recent emergence of a crucial technological and, more modestly, artistic powerhouse formed – at least on the southern part of the peninsula. The democratic south, prosperous and liberal, could not be more different than the isolated, poor, authoritarian north.

A poignant moment comes in a technically perfect self-portrait by Lee Qoede in 1948-49 – and learns he’s practically disappeared after crossing the age of 38th Parallel to this in 1953, when the Korean War came to an end. Frontal, waist-high, staring straight ahead, the artist holds a palette and brush in front of his chest as a sign of his identity.

Lee’s portrait is layered in subtle but intricate ways.

The various brushes he wields are for oil paint, watercolor and Indian ink – the first famous European material since the Renaissance, introduced to Lee’s native land less than 50 years ago, the other renowned artistic materials used in Korea for centuries will. (The first oil painter was Ko Hui-dong, whose self-portrait of 1915 is a casual, subtly erotic composition in which he reclines, shirtless, fanning himself as if heeding Willem de Kooning’s later explanation that flesh is the reason for oil paint is, intuitively understand would be invented.) Lee’s long blue smock is a common style, having evolved from an ancient Chinese style of coat, but his fedora with an elegantly pinched crown is supermodern, originally adopted by feminist French women in the late 19th century and for Men made fashionable in the 1920s by none other than the Prince of Wales.

Lee navigates through different times and places.

His general pose is like that traditionally reserved for a dignitary, so he increases his rank as a working artist. In the quiet, rolling countryside that unfolds behind him, women in traditional dress toil in the fields. The self-portrait celebrates labor – a key value of Confucianism, which was firmly rooted in Korea from China in the 15th century. Labor here includes the work of art.

"The Space Between: Modernism in Korean Art" is the first major museum show on the subject

The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art is the first major museum exhibition on the subject


LACMA curator Virginia Moon, lead organizer of the exhibition with colleagues at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Korea, notes in the helpful catalog that Korea has changed irrevocably as “things of the West have been equated with things of modernity.” The origin and dissemination of this equation is the subject of the exhibition, which is a relatively new field of art historical scholarship.

It’s skillfully presented, albeit without much fuss. The galleries are divided into five sections. Few of the 131 paintings, photographs, and sculptures are compelling except in a documentary manner.

The show begins with the impact of photography, its most enduring medium. “Modern Encounter” traces the arrival of the camera – more than 40 years after its European invention – in long-closed Joseon society. Formal ink portraits of dignitaries are juxtaposed with similarly formal photographic portraits. A 1923 study for a royal portrait of Emperor Sunjong by Kim Eunho looks almost like a linear tracing from a photographic poster.

Cameras, as always, turn everything upside down, and the medium rose to prominence during the Japanese colonial era. Photographs take on a variety of forms and subjects, whether the idealized figure study of Jung Hae-chang, the odd tabletop construction of a mountain range by Min Chung-sik, or the painterly social realism of farmhands and an unemployed city kid by Limb Eung-krank.

In fact, according to the show, one photo is the most reproduced Korean image of all time: Shin Nakkyun’s playful black-and-white 1930s image of famed dancer Choi Seunghui. She’s dressed more like a soon-to-be-popular Shirley Temple (Choi was 31 at the time) and curtseys, holding her girlish skirt wide with delicate fingers, and her wide mischievous grin challenges any assumption of female subservience.

shin nakkyun, "Photo by Choi Seunghui," 1930, gelatin silver print

Shin Nakkyun, Photograph of Choi Seunghui, 1930, gelatin silver print


“Modern Response” traces the struggle for a distinctly Korean identity during the Japanese occupation between 1910 and 1945, while “The Pageantry of the New Woman Movement” illuminates the emergence of an unprecedented feminist attitude in a heavily male-dominated Confucian culture. (That’s where Choi’s photo comes in.) Modern Momentum blends cubism and abstraction, and Evolving Into the Contemporary pushes further toward the globalized present.

The most surprising object is Quac Insik’s aptly titled Artwork (1962), a pane of glass that he shattered and then painstakingly reassembled piece by piece. The spider lines of the reassembled disc are a painstaking workers’ diary of its destruction and reconstruction—and not a bad metaphor for the arc of 20th-century Korean history.

The difficulty with the show is the relative lack of adventurous works like this. Much is only derived, remarkable as a historical chronicle, but less as an artistic invention and achievement.

Lee Ungno, for example, is very good with ink, but executing the tightly woven tendrils of a wisteria, often a symbol of longevity, to resemble a thoroughly non-figurative drip painting by Jackson Pollock is, in a perhaps unintentionally joking manner, dismissive . The 1959 wood carving by Kim Chung Sook, one of the show’s few women, looks like a skilled student work that crosses Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore. Neither turns the influences to good effect.

The organizers seem to know it, grouping many paintings on gallery walls in an old-fashioned Victorian hanging where nothing takes precedence over anything else. The attraction to modern Western art has opened up many opportunities for Korean culture previously unknown in the West, and the exhibition is worth seeing to understand the dynamic. Just don’t expect many satisfactions beyond the organized historical narrative.

Ko Hui-dong (1886-1965), middle, was Korea's first oil painter; Rha Hye-seok (1896-1948), left, the first wife

Ko Hui-dong (1886-1965), middle, was Korea’s first oil painter


Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday 11am-6pm; Fridays 11am-8pm; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wed closed. Until February 19th.
The information: (323) 857-6000, Review: Korean Modern art gets long-overdue spotlight in L.A.

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