The foreign visitor eager to discover Korea, in his explorations of Seoul, cannot fail to notice the little shops with various kinds of traditional Korean papers on sale. If he ventures over the threshold of one such humble store, he finds himself in a very special world ; here sheets and bundles of oriental paper(Hanji) are piled up on shelves and spread across the floor : paper that feels soft and pliable, more like cloth, the work of highly specialized craftsmen in distant rural villages, here offered to the interested customer.
Thousands of years of tradition underlie the paper-maker¡¯s use of bark-fiber, and these sheets of paper represent one of the summits of Far Eastern culture, here in Korea as in China and Japan. There are an infinite variety of kinds to be found, differing in thickness, in texture, as well as in the wealth and refinement of their color, so that once he has gazed for a while, and carressed the surfaces, the visitor finds it hard indeed to resist the temptation to take back with him a few sheets, even without quite knowing how he will use them.
Needless to say, Koreans have for long been familiar with the high qualities of their paper, which they employ for various purposes in everyday life. Some were designed to keep out the cold and let in the light, glued to the sliding wooden lattices that were the doors and windows of traditional Korean homes.Other kinds were used by clerks for scribbling notes, or for elegant works of calligraphy produced by famous masters. Today the whole world is familiar with the wonderful works of Oriental painting, scrolls of creamy white paper on which the inky brush has left its mark, the artist being able to express himself by the flowing movement of the line in an infinite variety of tones descending to the darkest of blacks.
It may well be said that a major part of Korea¡¯s cultural expression has for centuries depended on Han-ji, the paper representing an essential element in its most sublime achievements. Only we may wonder whether this remains true today? There are, though, in contemporary Korea, a number of artists who are turning again to their origins, not in some kind of nostalgic return to the past, but in a desire to find a continuity.
As I write about my friend Ham Sup¡¯s work, I find myself confronted with a question: as I think about him and the development of his artistic research, should I write about him as a painter, or about what he has become, an artist in Han-ji? In the early 1980s, Ham Sup laid aside the brushes, canvases and acrylic paints that he had until then been using, and devoted himself fully to the exploration of a new medium he had just discovered and that he found to be in perfect harmony with his own deepest needs. This new medium was none other than his country¡¯s traditional paper, and it was for him full of new promise. He passed a threshold, and as he recently told me, ¡°It was like a new birth.¡±
I have never seen Ham Sup paint on Han-ji as he would have painted on a conventional canvas. From the very start, his approach has been fundamentally different, and he has developed his technique with a certain perception of his material and its color, the substance of the Han-ji, as his starting-point. With characteristic determination, he has no scruples about chopping the precious papers into strips which he then plunges in water. He takes these perfectly finished materials, subjects them to a kind of annihilation, and they are finally reborn with a new appearance in his works.
I assume that the artist¡¯s process is a more or less conscious one aimed at coming to grips with the very essence of his material, by freeing it from its original form. Then the artist¡¯s work develops from that essence, once it has become completely available to serve the imagination. By being plunged in water, the papers return for a time to a state very close to that shapeless mass of bark fibers from which they were formed in the first place. But what distinguishes these strips of paper floating in water from their original pulp is the fact that their filmy consistency and their color remain intact.
I consider one of the great discoveries of contemporary art to have been that of the language proper to each material; and it seems to me that Ham Sup has very well sensed this.
The basic support for each one of Ham Sup¡¯s works is a very firm sheet of Han-ji, sometimes of a large size, and this is subjected to a complete transformation, as it is gradually invaded by the strips of colored paper that Ham Sup draws from the water and glues to its surface with those playful yet precise gestures that I know so well. The artist becomes the architect of his pictorial space, vehemently, in a dance of his whole being that communicates itself to his hands and so the work. In some of these pictures, the artist¡¯s inner rhythm is made visible in the form of light charcoal lines, an airy calligraphy skipping between the masses of color or passing over them, here and there stressing a composition¡¯s movement.
As work advances on each piece-and with interruptions, sudden inspirations, and new beginnigs, that is sometimes a matter of weeks of even months-the coloring gains in depth. As the colored matter builds up on the basic sheet, it covers it completely, becoming one with it. Here and there it even extends beyond it, modifying its outlines. The movement contained within each work settles down, grows calm in the fringe areas around the edges. It is the work itself, as it takes shape, that determines the nature of its outward limits in its evolution from an interior towards an exterior-that-is-other.
In the final stages, the successive layers of paper juxtaposed or superposed build up into a regular texture. At this stage, Ham Sup intervenes, vigorously striking here and there against the surface with a very hard plastic brush, while it is still full of moisture and therefore malleable. The sound this produces always makes me think of the beating of some great Korean drum. In this way the artist produces a variety of textures more or less in relief.
Partly on account of this final process, the completed work, once the last traces of moisture have gone, can be compared to a piece of bark that has become detached from the tree. Light yet rigid, each object catches the daylight falling across its rough surfaces. Throughout these processes, the essential color of each work is ceaselessly changing, on account of the differences arising as each layer of paper dries in place. The reason for the presence of any particular coloration in a composition depends on the artist¡¯s eye. He is conscious of its future mutations as he introduces each color, so that this gradual revelation of the final color is for him a challenging and fascinating adventure.
Ham Sup is above all a colorist; so I ought to have talked of the way his work lives in its colors. Only I do not have the words required to evoke a reality of a purely visual order, a message transmitted by vibrations. This sometimes oblique message we perceive directly since it touches our sensitivity. Our response too lies in a gaze.
The world of color I find in Ham Sup often reminds me of the paintings found in Korean temples, decorative motifs on the wooden beams(Tanchon), luminous frescoes, everything softened by the passage of time, absorbed in a way into the woodwork. I recall, too, being struck in the course of a walk along winding mountain paths not far from Seoul, by the colors of strips of colored cloth hanging from the branches of a tree in an out-of-the-way spot where some Shamanistic ceremony or kut had once been held. At that time they must have had bright, even gaudy colors ; but left exposed for weeks on end to the effects of sunshine and storm, all that remained was the essential tint, all agressivity stripped away.
At present, a variety of features deriving from traditional Korean painting can be discerned in the work of certain artists, in forms that are resolutely contemporary and at times most unexpected. Yet the informed western observer can quite easily recognize a continuity between past and present in such works, once the specific quality of oriental calligraphy has become to some degree familiar, with its inborn sense for the interplay of full and empty spaces.
We are readily and rightly captivated by the subtle qualities of the painting of far eastern Asia, based on brush and ink. Yet we must not forget another tradition within Korean painting, very different and not always so well known in the West, one that springs directly from the very heart of the Korean people and gives it direct expression in all its originality. Known as ¡°Min-hwa¡± ¡°Folk-art¡±, it has become famous among its admirers in Korea and abroad. These works seem to have been produced by talented but anonymous journeymen employed to embellish the homes of the upper classes in the 18th and 19th centuries; they delight by the freshness of their inspiration and the refinement of their technique. In them we find images of flying dragons and smiling tigers, birds and flowers of uncertain reality, grotesque and tender at the same time, to say nothing of Chinese ideogrammes designed to invoke good fortune, transformed by the genius of the unknown artist into an abstract or surrealist composition.
As someone who watches closely the ongoing evolution of Ham Sup¡¯s work, I frequently wonder about its essential nature. Of course, the inner motivations of a true painter are always mysterious, but I find myself increasingly convinced that his work belongs in the tradition descending by some equally mysterious connection from those same ¡°Min-hwa.¡± That link is there in Ham sup¡¯s work in a quite original manner, he is not himself really aware of any connection. It is there without having been sought, not linked to any kind of conventional representation belonging to the past.
The artist¡¯s inspiration seems to draw on that current hidden within his own culture, descending from a distant past but still vibrantly alive.
Constantly alert, Ham Sup follows the development of a work with a concern that at times borders on anxiety. His temperament is normally spontaneous, exhuberant even, and yet he questions himself unsparingly as to the rightness of what he is doing, and of what results at the level of the picture. An eagerness to create results in an abundant production ; as he has told me, It¡¯s by working hard and in a great continuity that you can hope to bring out the best of yourself. Although he sometimes feels a quite legitimate satisfaction when confronted with a particularly successful piece, he never allows that to bring to a halt the agile spirit that makes him an artist ever in search of what lies ahead.
Translation : Brother Anthony of Taize