It's a new blue world May 22 2013
Veteran artist Kwon Nyoung-ho talks about blending Korean art with Western techniques

These two untitled paintings by Kwon Nyoung-ho are among the artist’s new works to be displayed at Hanbyukwon Gallery in Jongno, central Seoul, starting Tuesday.
Courtesy of Hanbyukwon Gallery

By Baek Byung-yeul

A significant part of Korean contemporary art over the past four decades can be summarized as a struggle to bridge the division between traditional styles and Western techniques. Only a few artists have been as successful in these attempts as Kwon Nyoung-ho, whose abstract paintings convincingly convey the minimalism of Korean art.

Some of Kwon’s definitive works will be on display at Hanbyukwon Gallery in Jongno, central Seoul, for nine days starting Tuesday.

When asked to summarize his critically-acclaimed career that begin in the 1970s, the 58-year-old painter, who is also an established name in Paris, said that “tradition” and “imagination” were the two words he was most concerned about.

He explained that the distinctive shade of blue he uses in his paintings is the visual representation of his efforts to blend tradition with creative energy.

“I think I became more passionate to express the Korean elements in my paintings when I was working in Europe, honestly because that was the way I was going to get noticed,” Kwon told The Korea Times.

“This experience really shaped me as an artist. It allowed me to think deeply about what had been the identity of my Korea-based art up to that time, what I wanted to paint in the future, and how I will try to express it on the canvas. One of the first things I began doing in Europe was studying to make my own colors.”

Kwon emerged in the Korean art scene in the mid-1970s, regarded as one of the country’s 20-something young guns called as bold, experimental and often unpolished. He went to Europe in 1981 to eventually learn more about the styles and technique of Western paintings.

France which remained a creative force in Western contemporary art, was an inevitable destination for Kwon, who began studying at Paris’ Ecole Natioanle Superieure des Beaux-Arts, or the National School of Fine Arts in English, and ended up being there for the next 18 years.

It was at this school when Kwon met Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky, who he credits as the mentor who reshaped his identity as an artist.

“When I first arrived in Paris, I went around galleries that were exhibiting the works of Korean artists. I felt a striking absence of creativity from their works and had to admit I was limited as an artist as well. Particularly, I found that Korean artists, including myself, lacked the ability to be more expressive with our colors, which could only be described as dusky,” Kwon said.

“He (Alechinsky) helped me break my mold and I was able to create myself anew. It’s not that I departed from my Korean roots, but I acquired the ability to express my cultural background more powerfully instead of bottling it up.”

Kim Jong-keun, an art critic who had been close with Kwon since his Paris days, compares Kwon’s blue to the blue of late French artist Yves Klein.

“While Yves Klein’s blue color was raw and limpid, Kwon’s blue has an Oriental touch. His blue seems equally about drawing an image or erasing one, something similar to the concept of Asian art about finding a balance between the lines and empty spaces left on the canvas,” Kim said.

The exhibition will feature 30 of Kwon’s most famous paintings from the 1970s to 2000s that represent know he evolved as an artist.

“When I was younger, I thought the more complicated work I painted, the faster I could become a prominent artist,” Kwon said.

“This exhibition is kind of a turning point for me. I needed an opportunity to gain more perspective on what I had been doing and what I want to do from now.”

The Hanbyukwon Gallery is located near Jeongdok Public Library in Jongno, central Seoul. Take the small “maeul” bus no. 11 at exit 1 of Anguk Station, subway line 3, and get off at Samcheong-dong Police Station. The gallery is about 200 meters away from the police station on foot. For more information, call (02) 732-3277.

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