“PEOPLE ASK what kind of paintings I draw. Honestly, I do not know my paintings very well. I cannot explain in only few simple words, so I just tell them that I do not know. My paintings are rough and unambiguous, emotional and symbolic, neither realist nor expressionist. They do not have definite forms, but are not that abstract at the same time. Let us think this through. Must we always precisely classify paintings? My paintings are simply paintings”—extraction from the author’s note.
Ganghwa, the muse
Titled “Lives and Works in Ganghwa,” the exhibition is presented by the Sunggok Art Museum as part of the series “Local Review 2014.” This project focuses on artworks created in small cities or towns and aims to raise awareness of Korean local art, shedding light on interrelated historical, cultural, and sociopolitical issues. In this particular exhibition, Korean folk artist Park Jin-hwa’s works in Ganghwa are put under spotlight.
Ganghwa island is located in the Kyunggi bay of Incheon and on the mouth of the Han River. It has been a military strategic point since the era of the Three Kingdoms and is now a land that manifests the reality of the Korean peninsula’s division. Standing on the observatory platform of Ganghwa island, one may see North Korean land over the horizon and the daily lives of its people only 1.8 kilometers away. This vivid yet unreachable sight is separated by the impassable body of water where three streams of river from South and North ironically unite. The region reflects the grief that Korean history has to bear, begetting a multitude of emotions that Park has managed to contain within the canvas frames.
Park Jin-hwa first visited Ganghwa in 1991 without much expectation for a life changing inspiration. However, he was astounded by spiritual communion he experienced as his observed the Korean divide. The historical agony of the nation became palpable to him and he was able to understand the lives of men. As time progressed, his interest for humanity gradually pointed inward, toward his inner self, and this was projected on his art. It seemed that understanding the land’s historical vicissitudes led to a private breakthrough in his career during its stagnation.
Bearing the nation’s burden
The exhibition is divided into four sections according to the chronology of Park’s artworks, but his style can be distinguished into two main stages. On the right side of the entrance lies the first section, which displays paintings from the stage when Park’s style of folk art was most evident in 1980s and 1990s. Anyone who walks into the museum without much information about the works of Park may be shocked with the heavy mood put forth by the powerful paintings. Dark red, purple, and indigo are some prevalent colors in his paintings, with which rough brushwork weaves images of dramatic birth, torture, and mysterious rituals carried out by men. Large paintings hung upon the walls surround visitors as they stroll through the exhibition, creating a charismatic atmosphere that mesmerizes the audience at once. Although the exhibition room is quite spacious, the tension between the paintings is so great that they give a slight feeling of suffocation.
Titled “Over Yonder”, this is the painting that immediately captures one’s eyes with gloomy red hue. A naked man is hung upside down and a cloud of smoke springs from his feet, forming another form of disfigured human body. The man is overlapped with another man holding a sickle and also a man bounded by ropes. Just like this one, Park’s paintings in this section seem to be shouting out emotional dilemma and anger, which penetrate the silence in the museum. This is the voice of Park as a young artist viewing his society at the time. Park Jin-hwa came to think that having the eye for reading between the lines of the world and perceiving beyond the visible is the most valuable virtue, which he calls as “the right of the eye.” Therefore, Park’s paintings show his effort to paint the truth, the manifestation of misery in Korea’s division and sufferings in the history of Korea that he observed in Ganghwa.
Delving into the self
On the left side of the entrance, the rest of three sections that range from late 1990s until now are held. This is when Park’s artistic career enters the second stage of self-reflection. There are men in most drawings, but their expressions are left unexpressed and the outskirts of their body are blurred with the background. Viewers are able to vaguely trace the outline of drawings of men, although they are left to imagination when it comes to guessing what the men are doing in the paintings. Also, Park noticeably enjoys using the three primary colors that correlate with the three primary emotions of men: yellow represents reconciliation and healing; red is the color our nation is now able to accept without ideological trauma; blue is the symbol of peace. These colors harmonize together to embrace people from the background, putting forth a strong sentiment of hope.
Unlike his previous paintings that conveyed his immediate reaction to the world, Park incarnates his own emotions and thoughts into portraits of men. Each and every one of his work became a portrait of himself. The unclear drawings of men imply the artist’s intention to make individuals anonymous and emphasize the entirety of societal flow rather than idiosyncratic individuality. The formlessness of these figures represents Park’s effort to view the inner core of men. According to Park, he values “the inner world of man existing on the rim of consciousness.” Through art, he embraces his inner self and rejects society’s pretense and apathy.
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From men, through men, to men. This is what the gallery of Park’s paintings is about. Through looking into the canvas, visitors shall explore the inner world of Koreans in the turbulence of their history and in the end, they will find themselves looking into their own inner self.
Place: Sunggok Art Museum