The first time I saw a painting by Sup Ham I was struck by its composition, texture and color, the three categories which in my opinion most strongly determine value in the visual arts. And in the case of abstract painting, I believe this applies not only to technical aspects but to conceptual ones as well. I think my first glimpse of his work took place during ARCO 2005, at the stand of his Korean gallery (Bhak). Three months later, at KIAF (Seoul¡¯s art fair) I got a better look, and a few days later I had the opportunity to visit the artist in his studio in the Korean capital. I was then inspired to add a fourth category to the list, one which seems just as fundamental: the overall process, something difficult to appreciate in the finished piece, and which requires an intimate knowledge of the artist¡¯s milieu and of his theoretical framework as well.
As an accomplished exponent of current Korean trends, Sup Ham combines, with considerable self-assurance, the national tradition of working with paper, and contemporary experimentation. His painting uses paper as its support, but paper which has been subject to a painstaking and exhaustive process of transformation. Ham collects antique Korean manuscripts and stashes them in his studio until he attains a cellulose-phoenix which is reborn from its ashes, becoming adaptable to new forms, bestowing on his paintings an almost sculptural surface, with its own, nearly organic personality, and an overflowing vitality. As I wrote at the time, I thought I¡¯d stumbled on the man who had created, to paraphrase an epithet applied to Pollock, ¡°action papering.¡± The strange thing is, that the paper on the surface of his pieces isn¡¯t obvious at first; they simply appear to be extremely palpable paintings. In contrast, as though he wanted to compensate for this by emphasizing the prominence of those elements masked by the paint, or by the calligraphy which was the paper¡¯s original functional purpose, he wraps the backs of his works with white, light-weight paper which he then completely covers with his own Korean calligraphy. Seeing them stacked in his studio, with the painted sides to the wall, they look like the works of a literary amanuensis, and only when they¡¯re turned around do they reveal this other aspect: the artist¡¯s pictorial-sculptural language, whose colorfulness is an explosion of contrasts compared to the ethereal and neutral impression produced by our view of their back sides. Quite a metaphor for the surprises offered by this artist¡¯s work.
Like any good abstract painter, Sup Ham uses masses of color, dispensing with the drawing of outlines. Curiously, however, these masses form another kind of outline: delimited by the relief created by the paper¡¯s tenuous volumes. That¡¯s why we can speak of ¡°sculpted¡± instead of drawn paintings, even though his technique involves neither carving nor hollowing, but rather accumulation. In this case it¡¯s a double accumulation: that of the layers of cellulose and that of the paint. The resulting surface, far from being of uniform facture, and much less ¡°polished¡±, features irregularities, furrows, bulges (quasi-organic as noted above) and rough patches¡¦ Nonetheless, the result we perceive is one of complete harmony, lyrical, imbued with a calm but forceful character. It could be said that it¡¯s the wrinkled skin of an old man borne with dignity; a master¡¯s placid nature.
I can¡¯t help but recall Miro when confronted by these colors; the prominence of blues and reds are striking in a country like Korea, whose current aesthetic tendencies are characterized by solemn colors and the prevalence of subtle, nearly austere chromatic gradations. With its privileged geographical situation, bordering the Yellow Sea and strewn with island paradises, Korea seems to me the Mediterranean littoral of the Far East. And Sup Ham exemplifies this sentiment better than the majority of his compatriots.
Beijing, April 16, 2006