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Finding the identity of Korean art ¤Ñ 40 years of Ham Sup¡¯s painting ¤Ñ

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Kim, Bok-Young, Art Critic, Professor of College of fine art Hong-ik Univ, Named Chair of Seoul Institute of the Arts

Last February, when it was still severely cold, I visited Ham Sup¡¯s place at the foot of the mountain in Choon Sung. I expected to see his new studio and recent works for solo exhibition celebrating his 70th birthday. I ought to have witnessed years of experience on his painting at the very site he works at.
He brought up the conversation with the topic of ¡®ground¡¯ for his work. In Chinese expression, it would be ¡®Hui-shi-Hou-su (üëÞÀý­áÈ: white background needs to be done prior to paint something).) That is a question of what the fundamentality or background for the painting is.

As black & white photo paper spews the white, Korean paper should spew the very taste of itself! The impression of background is important! Since the history of Korean paper painting has been half of the century covering four hundred artists, it¡¯s about time to give an identity on it. We should keep Korean paper as it is, not in the style of western art!

It has been over ten years since I wrote a preface for the catalogue of his overseas exhibitions in Europe and Hong Kong. I would like to focus on his ¡®ground theory¡¯ in this writing to expose the significance of the pictorial ground that Ham has been developed for his work.
The ¡®ground¡¯ has various meaning in general. Sometimes it can suggest the temporal distance of action, or the nature of a person or a thing as fundamental quality. Sometimes it means place or space. Similarly, ¡®su(áÈ)¡¯ means many things such as ¡®white¡¯, ¡®nature¡¯, ¡®unsophisticatedness of things¡¯, ¡®emptiness¡¯, or ¡®colorlessness¡¯. We should refer these notions when we consider the ground of the work.
In short, ground is the basis and foundation of all things. The universe is founded on it while exists and grow in it. Furthermore, it is the source of human life that operates through time and history. From the start, the ¡®Hui-shi-Hou-su (üëÞÀý­áÈ) in Chinese theory of painting asserted to find painterly ground with profound meaning. Ham¡¯s painterly ground never means the narrow sense of ¡®support¡¯ in terms of Greenberg¡¯s aesthetics. Because it doesn¡¯t mean material background that occupies the space as two dimensional planes or three dimensional structures do. In this sense, Ham was not a modernist from the beginning. We can verify through his reference of the ground related to ¡®Korean spirit¡¯ or ¡®identity.¡¯ As he mentioned paintings of Park, Soo-geun, Ham tried to talk that ¡®ground¡¯ is an unspecified origin that exists beyond the forms of people, trees, cows, and children. The ground for him is something that should exist prior to the things and their forms. He emphasized the ground as the dynamic force that generates forms. Moreover, he understood the ground as something temporally comprehended in terms of individual, ethnic, historical, and general meaning. He emphasized the ground as the cause of comprehensive manifestation while rebutting ground of spatial materiality that is merely immediate.

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Since he had begun the series of experiment like or in 1980s, he has been making an exhaustive study persistently on the ¡®ground¡¯ of the work throughout 1990s.
Especially from 1990, he chose traditional Korean ritual formalities i.e. ¡®folklore¡¯, ¡®tumulus¡¯, ¡®patron god¡¯, ¡®exorcism¡¯ as the gesture or play towards folk tradition and subconscious to approach the ground. Stemmed from this, he pursued the actions of tearing, slashing, and beating Korean paper for the background of his work.
The work since late 90s, shows concrete form and the zenith of this quest. Most of these recent works suggest a drawing system of spinning and spraying the paint to express the lines of Chinese characters. Instead of dissecting the plane, he emphasizes permeation and connectivity of borders. The waltzing gesture and filaments accentuate the poise that crosses the boundaries, borrowing cracks of the wall of Han Ok (traditional housing of Korea) and layers of Korean paper. Underlining the contrast, Ham uses the technique of juxtaposition and amassment of 5 bearing colors. In addition, he paints soaring black swan, the sun, the moon, the stars, dancheong (traditional multicolored paintwork on wooden building) and cheongsachorong (traditional Korean lantern with a red-and-blue silk shade) that traverse the gaps between merged papers.
His recent attempt reminds us his groping period in 1960s~70s. In his early works, , raised the straw-roofed houses and spirit of the past that was forgotten at the beginning of industrial society. And it became a canon of his work. Embossing forms of straw roof or doors and windows of traditional Korean housing had given an echo of images, and became the prototype to create the ground in this period. He looks back then as ¡®I merely hoped that paper and I to meet on a canvas. Also, I wanted to possess the inner side of the paper by permeating and soaking myself into it.¡¯ His intend is realized in more sophisticated and definitized way.
The experiments throughout 80s and 90s provided an opportunity to develop neutral colors with low chroma to vivid colors of high chroma. The characteristic in general was the repetitive layers of colors revealing wordless time and space. The subdued translucence of the surface seemed to reflect the outside world as the shadow over the window bars. For this, he used erasing technique of scratching and layering, which had become the foundation of his ¡®ground aesthetics¡¯.
In his recent work, , it is apparent that he tries ¡®the encounter with Korean paper¡¯ in the level of perfection presenting the difference from earlier in 1990s. If his early works created the ¡®ground¡¯ from the other side of time and space that one can feel with spiritual eyes, nowadays, he produces exciting playground like a grand episode of pansori(Korean folk play), Namsadangpae(theatrical troupe), or episode of Sandaenori (Korean mask dance). Not only has his work brought up the images of handwriting intermittently spread on the surface with sharp lines and margin, but also reminds us folk painting, traditional exorcistic ritual using vivid colors, memorial ceremony, bush clover door, stone walls, shrine, full moon, circle dance, and play ground of folk music and dance.
All must be the key factor of the ground that is based on Korean paper and 5primary colors. The artist says:

In my work, series of color, line, and plane suggest abundance of home that comes from my heart. The 5 colors are the symbol of cardinals as well as a sign of protection that became essential elements in my work. My life and art are invariably founded on Korean spirit. So is the exciting action of throwing and beating the paper, and so is Korean paper itself. [ ... ] I found Korean identity and its deep structure from the scenery of Seonangdang (shrine to the village¡¯s deity), vivid traditional patterns from temples and hermitages, colorful upper garment of folk costume, the images of girls wearing Hanbok swinging and seesawing, and profound pattern of rice cake mould.
[ ... ] I began using the whole skin of mulberry tree, and kneading and throwing them onto the surface. I repeated the process of soaking, tearing, kneading Korean paper to recompose them on the plane. It became my unique method that seemed like performance art or play of percussion. My work might have something in common with traditional dance, folk percussion quartet with drum and gong, and the flags with bright colors at the ritual ceremony.
[ ... ] I think the ground for my work is the expression of ethnic spirit. The purpose of lifelong works stem from this search for Korean identity.

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The ¡®ground¡¯ of Ham¡¯s work is a grand episode that Korean paper and spirit of 5 primary colors creates. It is like pan (a place where many people gather) of Korean pansori. His discourse of the ground appears as another name of Korean folk tune. I would sum up this theory as ¡®an encompassing gesture based on pung-ryu (the taste for the arts). This implies last 40years of his work as well as immemorial Korean trait of culture.
First, pung-ryu is the root spirit of Korean culture since Shilla period passed down through Idu script. It means brightness in Idu script; however, its spirit had developed from proto-three kingdom period. This spirit was for sharing happiness with others through harvest ritual or seasonal customs, but it was more of a word for wishing the unity of whole nation since ancient times.
To see this with today¡¯s view; pung-ryu embraces everything in one to save the world with the act of reaching for redemption through the art. Pung-ryu is the power that exists in our unconscious mind immanent in an outlook on the world. For this is inherent deep in our mind, it became national spirit and the root. This came down as ¡®exhilaration¡¯, but before that pung-ryu was our authentic spirit.
We should congratulate the fact that pung-ryu is keeping its tradition in Ham¡¯s work, for over 20 years. It is surprising that he has been trying to construct the style of ¡®Korean paper painting¡¯ with Korean paper and 5 primary colors to contextualize immemorial culture.
Above all, it seems that his art had a good fortune to focus on embracement of traditional taste when everyone looked out to the western culture.
The pung-ryu in 40 years of Ham¡¯s work begins from Hwaom philosophy (Huayan School) of the great master Wonhyo (the Buddhist) and consecration of Seokgulsa (cave temple) through Buddhism and Confucianism in medieval times. It flowed until today forming the base of artist¡¯s consciousness. Although Confucianism, Buddhism, and Zen dominated most of Korean history, Korean root culture succeeds in people unconsciously.
The encompassing technique of Ham Sup reconfirms the origin of thoughts that embraces the surface and beyond on one ground. His note supports it: ¡®I merely hoped that paper and I to meet on a canvas. Also, I wanted to possess the inner side of the paper by permeating and soaking myself into it.¡¯ To him, the ¡®ground¡¯ erases even himself; in short, it serves as a place that connects the inside and outside of the picture. The ground of his work is a ¡®madang¡¯ (yard) in traditional term. That is why the artist exists in one ground along with things. They only exist in oneness. Ham¡¯s 5 primary colors and Korean paper clearly express it.
This exhibition celebrating his 70th birthday becomes the zenith of that expression. It is the canon of his work in which we distinctly find what pictorial ground is.

2011. 4. 28