The World of Ham Sup¡¯s Korean Paper Art


Kim Bok-Young (Professor, Hongik University)

Ham Sup¡¯s first beginnings as an artist in Korean paper can be traced back to his third private exhibition in 1985. That marked the start of his gradual move, based on the results of earlier experimentation, from canvas to paper; he has persisted in that direction ever since.

The reasons and processes underlying the first beginnings of Ham Sup¡¯s paper art need to be examined more thoroughly. Beyond that, pursuing the development of his work from then until the present day we have to explore such topics as his main themes, forms, and tendencies.
His research began after he graduated from Hongik University¡¯s Department of Pictorial Art in 1966; in 1969 he exhibited at the ¡°Original Group Exhivition¡±. After that, his works were included in various group exhibitions held in 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975 and 1976 before he held his first private exhibition in 1978,
There, under the title ¡°Things I long to see¡± he attempted to evoke memories of the thatched roofs of traditional Korean houses, that the government¡¯s Saemaul(New Village)Movement was just then busily eliminating, representing the delicate texture of rice-straw thatch by scratching and scraping the monochrome surface of his canvas. He had been born and brought up in the countryside, before coming to Seoul to pursue his studies in art, and there is an intense expression of a combination of hostility to the city with a sense of human alienation, together with the individual response of someone involved in the modern art movement to the tendencies of modernism that tend to reduce everything to the same level.

One of the works shown in his second private exhibition in 1982, ¡°punhap¡±(sliding doors), plays an equally significant role in his explorations of specific Korean identity; it is an evocation of the fretwork doors and windows which, together with the thatched roof, were characteristic of the traditional Korean house, Here, the lattice of the traditional sliding door is faintly visible under a layer of Korean paper and he explores the use of a tool(a roller or it might be termed a ¡®pounder¡±) to abrade the whole surface, A lattice is taped to the surface of the canvas, then covered to the top with pigment; the colored pigment effects a delicate scheme of nuances as it escapes from and is contained by the basic rectangular pattern, Here the result is to create a plane revealed by the flexibility of the pigment thanks to the scaffolding of verticals and horizontals that own nothing to the outer edges of the physical canvas. Of this work, the artist has said: ¡°I would like paper and myself simply to be able to meet on a canvas, Beyond that, I simply want myself not to be visible outwardly but to sink under the surface and permeate the work from within, so that the outcome takes possession of the material¡¯s inner nature,¡±

Thus it was that the thatched roofs and lattice roofs and lattice doors of traditional Korean house became major motifs in his early, experimental works and these ultimately gave birth to his later paper works. In particular, the motifs derived from those doors and windows provided the occasion for the first introduction of paper as a medium, in his exhibition in 1985. On that, I wrote at the time in my preface to the catalogue:

As for these lattice doors and windows, they are on ordinary motif, They are kdentified with the recollections of love contained in his earliest childhood memories, Impregnated with affection, full of full of pleasant associations, these windows and doors are objects drawn from his mind - - they are the birthplace of his heart. By them, he intends to make an indirect declaration of his Koreanness. Buxom, kind, and moderate in nature - - those are the qualities his mind perceives in the lattice doors, and special expressive feature that we all resonate to. From this point he resolved to have his canvas take the same soft surface qualities as Korean paper.

The entire 1980s was a time when a strong move arose to employ Korean paper, not just as one material among many but as a medium especially appropriate to enable the pursuit of our own artistic specificity. I once wrote: ¡°The many artists who are abandoning canvas in favor of paper for their work feel a special pleasure in paper. The pleasure may simply derive from the face of having changed materials, but it may also be because paper is found to be the most suitable medium allowing the further development of results first obtained using canvas,¡±

Ham Sup¡¯s ¡°windows and Doors¡± could be considered a major step in the genealogy of this development. At a very early stage he became fascinated with the meaning implicit in the paper-covered lattices of old windows and doors, and explored that more thoroughly than anyone else. As already suggested, in his early experimental canvas-based works, his attempts at scraping and rubbing, then covering and rubbing became the first beginnings of the ¡°early Korean paper period¡±, with their reinvention of motifs drawn but vested with a new sensitivity. Among these, very clearly Korean paper was the best adapted means of expression, particularly when subjected to the method of covering and rubbing.

He would apply to his canvas multiple layers of pigment - - light grays, silvers, light persimmon those, milky hues - - containing a variety of reverberations, so producing a time and space of silence. His processes corresponded extremely well with the image of our traditional windows and doors. A variety of colors, permeating one anther, faint and faded with the vague outlines of the lattice pattern like a shadow within in them, seemed to contain a tranquil mood that our ancestors would have enjoyed, like a quiet sunset.

On the basis of this, especially the wish to explore the silence of paper, began a major development, based on the traditional doors and windows, involving the direct superposition and bonding of several sheets of paper which were then colored or steeped, thus 1985 may be considered the year in which today¡¯s Korean paper art first came to birth. Recalling that year, the artist himself has said how his feeling was one of ¡°sitting in my room and inwardly sensing the sound of something beyond time and space making itself heard¡±. To make his mood at that time a little more explicit, we should say more, For example, moistening the paper and superimposing layers of that, then letting it dry and sand-papering certain parts, usually toward the center of the composition, finally polishing and coloring it, as he mentions, can be considered a combination of himself and random actions. In addition, taking a plastic brush and beating the surface of the paper with it in such a way as to obtain the desired texture was to immerse himself fully in the material substance of the paper and meant trying to obtain the most natural state by an artificial, mechanical process.

The works entitled Sinmyong(Enthusiasm) that he displayed at his fourth individual exhibition in 1986 marks a radical new departure, for now the paper has become completely independent of any supporting canvas. First, in order to obtain sufficient thickness, several layers of paper are superimposed and fused; then these are pushed around, or the surface is beaten, so that the original paper is transformed into a quite new substance, These were the characteristic techniques of this time. Moreover, at this period colored paper might be mingled with natural-colored paper, then on the shredded surface charcoal drawings be made, in an exploration of the best means of expression using paper, the critic Lee¥± wrote in his preface to the catalogue for the fourth exhibition:

Ham Sup¡¯s work with paper can be seen as a technique that restores the texture and properties of paper to their most nearly primitive condition. The artist experiences the primitive state of the paper together with the paper, so that the place of life becomes his work. That is the sense in which I locate the intimate qualities of Ham Sup¡¯s work and his ¡®informel¡¯ art. I am reminded here of Dubuffet¡¯s ¡®art brut.¡¯ Or perhaps I see the two artists together. What I find in his works is his affection for the ¡®matiere¡¯ of Korean paper and intervention to transform its texture, the wildness with which he attacks them like the mellowing effect of rain and wind.

From another pint of view, natural and colored papers join forces while the lines drawn there dance around and slowly emerge into view so that clearly the essence of the work was accomplished by the artist¡¯s ¡°physical weight¡±. In other words, what brings together all the previously mentioned features was not so much the artist¡¯s will or thought but rather his ¡°gesture¡±. The hope he expressed in the already-quoted words at his second exhibition, ¡°I would like paper and myself simply to be able to meet on a canvas¡± becomes possible through a physical play initiated by the body.

So it was that the early ¡°Enthusiasm¡± works exhibited the forms of paper art, entering Ham Sup¡¯s personal history for the first time. In what follows, we will explore the developments of his art during the 1990s, dividing the period into ¡°earlier¡± and ¡°later¡±.

After the fifth exhibition in 1987, it was the sixth, held in 1991, which best displayed Ham Sup¡¯s true characteristics. What had begun to appear in ¡°Enthusiasm¡± in 1986was finally manifested in its accomplished form in the 1990s. Now too we find him achieving deep tones and reverberations through fusions of a paper base with accretions of dyed paper, The artist divides the effect achieved by his intentions into a variety of categories, indicated by subtitles, such as ¡°Minsok¡±(popular tradition), ¡°Kobun pyokhwa¡±(murals in ancient tombs), ¡°Suhoshin¡±(tutelary deities), ¡°Wonshi¡±(origin), ¡°Talchul¡±(release), ¡°Kiwon¡±(prayer), ¡°Chukbok¡±(blessing), etc.

Thus, in this period, the artist applies his own physical rhythms to the paper he is working, in the hope that implicitly through this process his intention would be fulfilled. ¡°Enthusiasm¡± and the other works mentioned previously contain fully every aspect of the rituals related to our traditional ways. The mysterious, popular subconsciousness and his own actions are grafted together in the hope they will interact. It is as if he expected the rhythm of his gestures, in an almost automatic technique, to accomplish those impulses.

If we follow such a diagnosis, we may interpret the ¡°Enthusiasm¡± works dating from the early 1990s as representing a stage on which Enthusiasm is being enacted. In that direction, we quote Ham Sup¡¯s faithful companion, Brother Marc:

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 from 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, and new beginnings, that is sometimes a matter of weeks or even months--the coloring gains in depth. As the colored matter builds up 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.

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 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.

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 (Tanchong), 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 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 aggressivity stripped away.

This quotation refers to Ham Sup¡¯s works from the earlier 1990s but it also seems to be very relevant to his more recent work, up to the present time. Very unlike his work of the 1980s, far transcending the intentions manifested in his earlier period, much refined, they are particularly successful. The two exhibitions held in 1993 and 1994, marking the 1994, marking the end of his earlier period, served to show how significant his work had become. In the same years he also participated in four other exhibitions in Korea and one in Germany. Now we find him displaying not only more refined technique but also a more precisely studied approach. For example, he no longer employed paper colored in advance but developed his own natural dye-stuffs. In so dong, the previous repetitive monotony of his colored tones entered a time of transition where the traditional Korean five colors were developed into a full expression of ¡°colored abstraction¡± based on paper. Moreover, adding mulberry pulp to faded mulberry paper, he would fold it, beat it, stick it, producing a surface raised in relief that displayed his intention of denaturing the original material. To this he would add the dyes he obtained from lacquer trees, acorns, tobacco, gardenia, azaleas with their deep blue, brown, crimson, yellow, azure, pink to create an ensemble with the paper, inserting pieces of multicolored paper, leaving traces of the impact of ruler, knife or stiff brush, drawing lines freely with ink or pastel, introducing faint words using paper taken from old books, in all these ways affirming strongly his own essential characteristics.

If he very rapidly intensified the discoveries of his earlier, 1980s ¡°Enthusiasm¡± period, ¡°upgrading¡± them, then the period covering the later 1990s until now, with works bearing the overall title ¡°Day Dream¡±, represents yet a further upgrade, resulting in works that are paeans to life in its highest prime.

In this period, the main focus can be found in the way he rather compressed and simplified the final appearance of the work, searching for unity rather than diversity. More precisely, in order to control the density of the work, he may be thought to have attempted a covert synthesis between the physical and the inner composition of each work. Brother Marc already sensed this in 1986: ¡°With Ham Sup, the most fundamental quality seems to lie in the constant search for the greatest ¡°density¡± that his technique can achieve. He is not interested in superficial effects. The density I mean is the quality of ¡°presence¡±, almost inexpressible, that we feel as we stand before his works. A work, physically fragile and easily damaged, can contain a quality of presence that appeals to us. That is to say that a work of art awakens us to the world around us¡±. That is very true. For what Brother Marc foresaw in those lines has been fulfilled in the works of the later period and the present. We may say that what distinguishes the later period from earlier ones is not a difference in physical scale but in the level of the quality manifested there. The main criterion by which we may distinguish the two periods lies in the level of density manifested.

This quality of presence is a major characteristic that can found in the pictures of his later period, with their relatively more compressed details. The elements that had been superficial and separate now become compressed, drawn down into the interior of the work, until they flow over and into one another and almost become one, so that it may be said that what we find as the most outstanding feature in the most recent work is a state of oneness.

It follows that, if the works titled ¡°Enthusiasm¡± set out to contain the original vibrations of the human body, we can say that those entitled ¡°Day Dream¡± absorb the vibrations into a continuous flow, raising them to a steady rhythm. The borders of the sections comprising a picture permeate one another and become indistinct, while the gestures and drawn lines grow constantly more disconnected, rather than continuous, manifesting a discontinuity, and their use being reduced to a minimum according to the power of the whole. The picture now tends to move toward a wholeness in what may be termed a ¡°minimal effect¡±.

The following remarks may help to express this more precisely. First, Chinese characters or drawings, the very lines of the bodily gestures are drawn into the picture until the work as a whole reveals a state of ¡°silent speech¡±. Second, instead of clearly dividing the picture, sections are only suggested, borders flow into one another and grow vague while from behind dark strokes of hatching are arranged here and there in such a way that the framework of the work is caught within them. Third, dance-like gestures and lines frequently suggest the appearance of old Korean house and there the natural tint of mulberry paper plays a central role. Therefore, fourth, preferring the basic tones of mulberry paper to the bright colors of Korean ceremonial usage, major importance is given to a restricted range of colors and means of expression while all the significant points in the work are characterized by lengthy streaks and smears, or broader masses, in a relatively static composition. Correspondingly, the edge of the picture is formed by an irregularly traced line.
These specific features all play a major role in contributing in their own way to the overall quality of the works of the most recent period. In short, the most recent period is marked above all by an upward transformation in the quality of the works produced, and by an increased focus on the works¡¯ inner reverberations. Rather than some kind of artificial motion, the picture indicates a preference for a random stasis while the stress on physical grows relatively less in this period of transformation.

We have seen how, ever since the exploratory period lasting from the late 60s to the late 70s, Ham Sup¡¯s main preoccupation has been the search for the contemporary expression of what is most truly Korea, and how this was then developed and deepened in the course of the 1980s and 90s. In claiming this, we are directly challenging and rejecting the doubts expressed by people who wonder if Ham Sup as an artist is not entirely dependent on the material substance known as Korean paper. In the work that opened his exploratory period, ¡°Things I long to see¡±, he brought back to life and made newly visible, before any of his contemporaries, things that we had all too easily forgotten; if that is the case, we may claim that the recent ¡°Day Dream¡± works are the crystallization obtained in later years as a direct result of that first resolution.

That conclusion can be recapitulated by simply saying that he set out in a historical continuity to revive the pulse of a tradition that we had globally forgotten. His work was not designed simply to restore old traditions to visibility. As we see in ¡°Enthusiasm¡±, it involved a rediscovery of mental traditions, a desire to glimpse the very essence of what is Korean. His rediscovery of mulberry paper, a truly traditional from of paper, and of natural coloring materials, and his fundamental struggle to redevelop their expressive potential should be understood in that line of continuity. Thus the stage he has reached might be termed our specific ¡°beauty of stillness¡±.

Then ¡°beauty of stillness¡± is the particular inner characteristic signified by his work. In which case, we may say that his works set out to express in modern ways the ¡°spontaneous roughness¡± or the ¡°aesthetic of the incomplete¡± that have characterized our Korean people form time immemorial. Perhaps we might employ the term ¡°Pan-naturalism¡± which Dr. Kim Woo-Yong has used; we may suggest that he has set out to investigate the urge toward the fundamental, that which is closest to what is natural by not being completely finished, not manufactured. Thus it could be claimed that Ham Sup, through his ¡°paper art¡±, has persistently striven to accomplish what our ancestors set out to do when they kept natural materials as close to their natural state as possible, striving to follow fundamental natural rhythms in which forms, the human body, and material substance become one.

In this, it is clear that his ¡°paper works¡± excel in a broader sense as ¡°paper art¡± through their use of the material substance of paper. This means that his works combine with a ¡°fundamental impulse¡± and continuity, as he sets out to become one with what is essentially Korean, not in any western sense.

Translated by Brother Anthony, Dept of English Literature, Sogang University