LEE SEA HYUN, Between Red – 189, 2014, oil on linen, 40 × 200 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. 

Contemporary Sansuhwa

Pearl Lam Galleries
Hong Kong Korea, South

The group exhibition “Contemporary Sansuhwa,” at Hong Kong’s Pearl Lam Gallery, brings together three prominent Korean artists reflecting upon the contemporary practice of landscape painting. Organized by Zurich-based guest curator Miki Wick-kim, the show celebrates the work of Lee Sea Hyun, Whang Inkie and Moon Beom. Sansuhwa is the Korean word for “landscape painting,” wirh san meaning “mountain” and su meaning “water.” A vital theme within all categories of Asian art—and a particularly poignant one as our planet continues to become affected by time, events and technology— landscapes allow for recognition and contemplation of the world beyond our individual realms. 

Pearl Lam’s vast space in the historic Pedder Building located downtown allows for large-scale works to simultaneously shine individually and collectively. Lee Sea Hyun’s vibrant monochrome works in particular open up the space. A row of red paintings lines the gallery’s first and back wall; each canvas is different in detail despite first impressions of simplicity. Mountains, trees and rivers emerge from single colors that are interspersed with white to create the shapes. Cleanly applied oil paints effectively contrast with one another. Lee’s Between Red-189 (2014) depicts mountains and water, and scattered among the landscape imagery are icons of Korea’s military eras: a ship hides on the underside of the water, almost appearing as a reflection, while in the background mountains a fort is veiled in the shadows, complete with barbed wire. A human presence is felt despite no figurative representation.

The military presence within the oil works exposes Korea’s changing cultural and political climate concerning the divided north and south regions. Some of the paintings appear to be divided or imperfectly mirrored, most evidently seen in Between Red-199 (2014). This painting also shows more signs of human society, signifying South Korea’s rapid development overtaking once tranquil environments.

Works from Moon Beom’s “Secret Garden” series sit adjacent to Hyun’s oils. Dreamlike, wispy smudges of oil stick are arranged across variously colored canvases to create an illusion of an unknown space. The monochromatic images appear as fog above mountains, clouds or smoke. In a sense they seem organic and floral, reflecting their title’s allusion to a secret garden. Ghostly objects floating across the canvas transform traditional landscapes to a more personal, conceptual one. Much like Hyun’s combined views of Korea, Moon’s work speaks to an inner landscape. This is reflected in the latter’s application of the oil stick and repetitive act of layering, conveying a contemplative process indicating a sort of “secret garden” within the artist’s own mind, unaware of time and space.

MOON BEOM, Secret Garden #309, 2012, acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 182 × 228 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. 

WHANG INKIE, An Old Breeze-Landscape, 2012, Swarovski synthetic crystal and acrylic paint on canvas, 182 × 448 × 6 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. 

Artist Whang Inkie’s large-scale works fill the spaces next to Beom’s pieces and continue in an adjacent space to the other end of the gallery. Merging traditional and modern themes, Whang’s collaged paintings offer a digital take on sansuhwa. Standing back, the work appears to have qualities of traditional landscape ink scrolls; yet, up close, it is evident that this is not the case. To achieve his effect, Whang enlarges traditional landscape paintings to the point of pixilation, then applies unconventional materials to the negative space, such as black silicon balls or Swarovski synthetic crystals, as he does in An Old Breeze-Landscape (2012). Rapid advancements in Korea’s cultural landscape are represented in this hybrid “digital” sansuhwa, its methods demonstrating the contemporary, technology-driven society in which we live today.

“Contemporary Sansuhwa” is on view at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong, until March 1, 2016.