Lasting bubbles Aug 29 2013
Kim Tschang-yeol, famous for water drop paintings, reflects on his 50 years as artist

Kim Tschang-yeol poses in front of his works at the Gallery Hyundai in Seoul. / Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai

Veteran artist Kim Tschang-yeul is most famous for his paintings on water drops, portraying each of them as a small universe and metaphors for life.

The 84-year-old is featuring 40 examples of his work at the Gallery Hyundai in central Seoul, some of which are definitive pieces of his career, while others are being unveiled to the public for the first time. Kim said that the exhibition provided him an opportunity to look back on his 50 years as an artist to see how his work has evolved.

Kim, whose long white beard, teddy-bear eyes and soft voice exude the vibe of a Zen Santa Claus, has been painting water drops since the 1970s. He can’t see why people are always trying to attach profound meaning to it.

“These are just water drops. They’re transparent and odorless. I just want to paint them. That’s all there is,’’ Kim told reporters during a media preview of the exhibition on Wednesday.

“Water Drops ENS 85013” (1985)

“Being an artist is a profession where you often find yourself finding delusion. I paint water drops because it clears me and helps me reach what lurks deep in my soul.’’

Kim finished his first water-drop painting in 1972 when he was living near Paris, which was inspired from the patterns and colors he got when he splashed water onto the canvas.

“I was living in what was essentially a stable on a farm. I had to wash my face outdoors since there was no bathroom where I was living and sleeping. Water would drip over my canvas when I poured it into a basin. The drops glittering in the sun were inspiring,’’ he said.

To the untrained eye, most of Kim’s water-drop paintings will look similar. But he says he has never painted the same droplet twice.

Kim’s earlier works produced in the 70s and 80s show larger and clearer water drops and marks. From the late 80s, Kim began to include Chinese characters in the background to give the water drops a more vivid, three-dimensional look. This triggered the start of Kim’s iconic “Recurrence’’ series, which continues through to today.

“Recurrence SA2012009” (2012)

All of the characters in Kim’s paintings are from the “Thousand Character Classic,’’ a 6th century book used as a primer for teaching Chinese writing to children.

“I learned Chinese characters from my grandfather from this book, so part of it was inspired by these memories. Each of the characters I used in the paintings was picked for their sense of formativeness,’’ Kim said.

Kim’s recent works are bolder and colorful, like the ones with block Chinese letters in blue or yellow, with water drops dribbling down them to magnify their image. Kim says the letters and water symbolize the relation between history that has passed and the reality of the present, portraying a harmony that transcends time and space.

Kim, who is one of the few artists Koreans would recognize on the streets, has also been garnering international attention, holding solo exhibits at the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts.

Kim is also donating 200 of his paintings to a museum dedicated to his work at Jeoji Artist Village in Jeju Island, which will open next year.

Born in South Pyeongan Province in North Korea and defecting to the South during the Korean War (1950-53), Kim lived in Jeju for some time during his younger days and has an emotional attachment to the island.

“I handed over my life’s work to the museum,’’ he said.

Despite his advanced age, Kim continues to produce water drop paintings with two assistants at his studio. He says his right hand is shaky when holds the brush now, so his left hand has to support it. Still, he has never thought about quitting painting.

“I just want to be remembered as an artist who was not sloppy,’’ Kim said.

The exhibit will open on Aug. 29 and run through Sept. 25. For more information, visit www.galleryhyundai.com or call (02) 2287-3500.

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