To coincide with Seoul’s annual international art fair, many galleries in the city have chosen to show work by established South Korean artists who haven’t yet garnered significant recognition abroad. Opting for the reverse strategy on two counts, Gallery Hyundai has instead staged simultaneous solo shows by adopted Brit Michael Craig-Martin and the Korean Minjung Kim, who, despite having a developed a solid international career in the West, is only now starting to be rediscovered in her native country. (Kim’s debut exhibition at Hyundai follows her 2015 solo show at Seoul’s OCI Museum of Art, her first in the country in almost 25 years.)
Gathering over 30 works, most of them new and recent, ‘Paper, Ink and Fire: After the Process’, thus continues the much-needed re-introduction to Korean audiences of the delicate yet assertive work of the artist. Born in Gwangju, Kim left the country in 1991 to study at Milan’s Brera Academy, later settling in the south of France and New York. Yet, despite having lived and worked abroad for most of her adult life, Kim’s work is profoundly infused with a number of key Korean vernacular notions and techniques, including the use of traditional Hanji paper and ink, the appropriation of calligraphic techniques and a meditative, repetitive approach to art making, which uses tension between filling and emptying the canvas as metaphor for the cycles of human life.
In the gallery, the elegantly framed abstract compositions on paper belie a textural richness and technical complexity that can only be grasped up close, nose almost touching the artworks. Take the striking series ‘Phasing’ (2017), in which seemingly free brushstrokes in black and blue are in fact the result of a painstaking process of layering and removal: first, a layer of paper bearing a calligraphic gesture, followed by the superposition of another sheet in which the outlines of the first are redrawn and then lightly carved with an incense stick. The title of the series alludes not only to the process of layering similar elements slightly off-kilter but also to the artist’s interest in musical composition and serialism (‘phasing’ being a technique favoured by minimalist composers and popularized by Steve Reich, through pieces like Piano Phase or Violin Phase, both 1967).
Nearby, in The Street (2010), constellations of circles made of pleated paper that have been collaged together seem to be proliferating like viruses, the ragged outlines of the mulberry Hanji paper barely contained by the frame. Kim has mounted the sprawling composition on a canvas, so the circles appear to be floating, their plum, black and silver hues twirling into each other.
Upstairs, four recent works from Kim’s ‘Mountain’ series (2016–17) feature gradient-like, monochrome compositions of watercolour, also on Hanji paper. The craggy undulating shapes can be read as mountains, their peak-like formations bringing to mind the eerie landscapes painted on traditional Korean handscrolls. But the watery properties of the material also make it possible for the works to be seen as oceanic snapshots, the ink-stained water lapping at the viewer’s feet, its colour gradually diluting as it sways away.
Kim’s father ran a small printing house when she was a child, which might offer one explanation for the artist’s life-long engagement with both ink and Hanji. What’s more intriguing is that, far from limiting the scope of her oeuvre, her decision to focus exclusively on the exhibition’s titular materials (paper, ink and fire) throughout her three-decade practice seems to have opened up almost inexhaustible artistic possibilities. Like the Oulipians or the minimalists before her, it seems that constraint and repetition are precisely what fuel Kim’s creative drive.
Main image: Minjung Kim, Red Mountain, 2016, watercolour on mulberry Hanji paper, 38 x 44 cm. Courtesy: Gallery Hyundai, Seoul