OH CHI GYUN, A Figure, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 208 × 163 cm. Courtesy Kumho Museum of Art, Seoul.

New York 1987–2016

Oh Chi Gyun

Kumho Museum of Art
Korea, South

Oh Chi Gyun is a Korean artist best known for his “fingerworks” in which he applies ink onto canvas using his hands. The resultant is perhaps a familiar vision that reminds one of impressionism; yet his massive works (which measure at least a meter at minimum) attest to a relatable narrative, one whose beauty lies in its fragility. His latest exhibition at Kumho Museum of Art consisted of works he produced in New York, where he had lived during three distinct periods of his life: as a poor student in the late 1980s; a maturing painter in the ‘90s; and in recent years as an established artist. The show took a two-fold presentation to Oh’s narrative by maintaining a linear, chronological curation on the one hand, while placing in between significant cross-period juxtapositions on the other.

His beginnings in New York, fraught with financial difficulties and depression, were pitiable. Not surprisingly, his vision focused too often on obscure, nocturnal scenes featuring dark alleys, homeless people and faded flowers, as seen in works such as Subway (1987) and A Figure (1986). His first attempt at using fingers to paint involved long, nuanced strokes that seem to be screeching or, worse, bleeding. Self-portraits of the aritst, naked and in agony, much in the style of Francis Bacon, illustrates to the viewer that Oh essentially identified himself with the lifeless part of the city.

When he later returned to New York in the ‘90s, he found interest in what the grid-like artifice of the city produced. Some of his obsessions were shadows cast by skyscrapers, which seemed to consume an entire street, or repetitive geometric patterns found in windowpanes and fire escapes. At Kumho Museum, such dull, claustrophobic perspective was accentuated in one corner, placed next to a 2014 work depicting a street view with fertile, blossoming trees. Oh’s works from his most recent period in New York, much like impressionist paintings, capture the city very much saturated with light and color. Here, it is notable that his characteristic impastos, which appear ominous and almost sickly in works prior to this era, vibrate with positive energy. 

OH CHI GYUN, Empire State, 1994, acrylic on canvas, 198 × 132 cm. Courtesy Kumho Museum of Art, Seoul. 

A couple of works based on the iconic Empire State Building that hung on adjacent walls, both entitled Empire State (1994 and 2015, respectively), were particularly telling examples of his change. The earlier work is of a night scene with the skyscraper shining quietly at a distance. The foreground, where the painter stands, is described unmistakably bleak, seemingly disconnected from the so-called “American Dream” that the building and the city at large represent. The 2015 version depicts a daytime view of Empire State Building casting a shadow on another building. Now, not only has Oh attained the heights as an artist (literally, the painting appears as though it was painted from the high-rise itself), but also painterly profundity—one that foregoes the facade of a subject and pays attention to its elusive shadow.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking work, besides being visually pleasing, were ten pieces entitled Central Park (2015), which were displayed invitingly on the lower mezzanine of the museum’s first floor. These fascinating renditions of autumnal scenes, articulated by Oh’s fingers, seem to reflect the artist’s development reaching maturity (like the colored leaves in the paintings). However, there is also depth to the picture plane created by the patterned, finger-molded acrylic. The canvases become a fragmented, rippled sculpture before the eye, about to shatter in their delicate beauty. Indeed, is it not this sense of fragile beauty that represents Oh’s artistic endeavors in, and his relationship with, New York?

OH CHI GYUN, Subway, 1987, acrylic on canvas, 104 × 121 cm. Courtesy Kumho Museum of Art, Seoul.

OH CHI GYUN, Empire State, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 264 × 176 cm. Courtesy Kumho Museum of Art, Seoul.

OH CHI GYUN, Central Park, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 162 × 108 cm. Courtesy Kumho Museum of Art, Seoul.

Interestingly enough, this exhibition on Oh marks his first return to the Kumho Museum after 25 years. Intimate corners housing collections of antique frames—which Oh filled with paintings—also merited the viewers’ attention. As such, the exhibition recounted an artist’s journey with ingenious images and a moving narrative.

Installation view of “Oh Chi Gyun: New York 1987–2016” at Kumho Museum of Art, Seoul. Courtesy Kumho Museum of Art. 

“Oh Chi Gyun, New York 1987–2016” was held at Kumho Museum of Art, Seoul, from March 4 to April 10, 2016.