RHEE SEUNDJAMemory of Hidden Trees, c.1963–65, oil on canvas, 130 × 193 cm. Courtesy Christie’s, Hong Kong. 

Constructive Units: Korean Modern and Contemporary Art

Christie’s, Hong Kong
Korea, South Hong Kong

One of the most rewarding visual experiences is to imagine the process of how an artwork is created. Looking upon the canvas of an artwork, one is able to discover the quiet but compelling ways in which the piece embodies the brilliant and strenuous marks of an artist. The theme of creative production was very much at the center of “Constructive Units: Korean Modern and Contemporary Art,” a group exhibition of five modern and contemporary Korean artists that was held at Christie’s Hong Kong last fall.

Leading the exhibition was Rhee Seundja (1918–2009). Rhee was a seminal abstract painter, who is critically acclaimed for having articulated her Korean aesthetics through her training in Western abstract painting. After marrying and raising a family in Korea, Rhee left her life there to study art in Paris in the 1950s, where she became a practicing artist alongside contemporaries such as Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-chun. Exhibited at Christie’s was five of Rhee’s works from her “Mother and Earth” period (1958–68). The large-scale work Memory of Hidden Trees (1963–65) presents countless colorful strokes that form a elegantly created pattern. Behind the serenity of the well-orchestrated brushstrokes, however, is the remorse of a mother who experienced the Korean war and a divorce—which separated Rhee from her three sons—channeled onto the canvas. What Rhee instilled with each and every stroke was the grief and longing that she felt for her children, whom she left behind in the motherland. (In fact she was known for her deliberate choices to create labor-intensive paintings.)

CHOI SO-YOUNG, Bird, 2014, denim on canvas, 91 × 91 cm. Courtesy Christie’s, Hong Kong. 

Apart from the resounding paintings by Rhee, the Christie’s exhibition showcased the contemporary artist Choi So-Young and Chung Doo-Hwa, who both extend the scope of “constructive units” in their art. Choi is featured on the cover of the exhibition catalog, with her denim-based works that portray her hometown of Busan. Intriguingly, Choi creates an effective microcosm of Busan using every element found in jeans, including varying tones of denim, buttons, stitches, labels, logos and even laundry tags. In Bird (2014), a cityscape is crafted using ink-dyed denim to portray the skies, and threads of torn-up denim represent fluttering trees. The brick surface of edifices is created by layering thin strips of denim on top of each other—the result of an arduous process. As such, Choi’s dexterous works achieve a symbolic feat of marrying a universal article of clothing with the vision of a modern city. Portrayed with a depth-defying palette is an intricate, teeming structure made entirely from jeans.

CHUNG DOO-HWA, Thinking of Forest, 2013, book on wood, 71 × 119 cm. Courtesy Christie’s, Hong Kong. 

CHUNG DOO-HWA, Sound, 2014, book on wood, 36 × 125 × 125 cm. Courtesy Christie’s, Hong Kong. 

Meanwhile, Chung Doo-Hwa takes a conceptual approach to the theme of “constructive units,” by adopting books as his “unit” of choice. Thinking of Forest (2013) is a work comprised of numerous, variously-sized books, which are stood up vertically on a large piece of wood and fitted together like puzzle pieces to form a massive tableau. This unique collection, amassed from eclectic sources, has transformed the books into a kind of impastos to tell a different story than what is written on their pages. The sheer substance and number of books make for an impressive presentation. For another work, Reverberation (2012), Chung manipulated numerous books into the singular shape of a flat, circular sound wave, as a scientific representation of his conceptual narrative—which, in turn, is given volume and realized as a full, three-dimensional installation in Sound (2014).

Thus, “Constructive Units” deconstructed the exhibited works to identify the personal agony, social upbringing and philosophical narratives that bind the individual units within them. An exhibition that transcended genre and generations, “Constructive Units,” was a refreshing alternative to the trend-focused contemporary art scene.

“Constructive Units: Korean Modern and Contemporary Art” was on view at Christie’s, Hong Kong, from October 29 to December 18, 2014.