SUH SE OK, People, 2010, ink on mulberry paper, 84 × 112 cm. Courtesy Gallery Hyundai, Seoul.

Suh Se Ok

Gallery Hyundai
Korea, South

Gallery Hyundai’s recent exhibition of Suh Se Ok—a specialist of Chinese ink who made an unprecedented contribution to the field in Korea as an artist, professor and founder of art group called Mungnimhoe—was a refined presentation dedicated to the latest works of the still-active octogenarian artist.

Suh’s abstract, almost austere works of traditional Chinese ink on mulberry paper are incisive sketches of human society, which were represented in the exhibition through an ongoing series entitled “People” that he has been creating since the 1990s. Though conceived out of days-worth of reflection, the works are executed in a single substantial stroke, for which the artist handles, with great effort, a massive brush half as long as his height down across a large sheet of mulberry paper. The resultants are a repetition of simple figures, which are Suh’s symbol for human beings and rendered with fascinating variation in terms of thickness, tone and size.

Suh reduces his paintings to archetypes as he deprives his figures of any superficial details, such as colors or techniques that characterize other abstract movements—namely that of Abstract Expressionism. That is, the artist leaves it up to the viewer to decode his messages through active engagement, by mentally reenacting and joining in Suh’s imagery. For example, in one piece from 2014, a thread of figures are strung like beads, with varying distances between one another, to suggest life’s balance of community and solitude, while a different work from 2015 appears as a web of people, both strong and precarious, that are quite dramatically holding each other up in a vertical formation. What is essential is that the viewer actively adopts and interprets these visions, by projecting onto them individually relevant details. The reward upon finding one’s life resonating with Suh’s work is very much like that of reading poetry.

The exhibition complemented Suh’s “painterly poetry” with his artistic statements, installed throughout the gallery space in both written and verbal form (a corner was dedicated to a video clip titled Do Ryong, 2015). In short, Suh asserts that his Chinese ink paintings (referred to as geu-rim in Korean) capture the shadows (geu-rim-ja) on the stage of life, claiming that the former is derived from the latter. What he means by this intriguing play on words is that he, as a painter, sets out to capture the joys and sorrows of living that are played out behind the actions of life. At the same time, the veteran artist also recited in the video a classical Chinese piece which likens the act of painting to a heroic deed of slaying a dragon. In his practice and philosophy, Suh appears to have inherited the tradition of literati painting.

SUH SE OK, People, 2015, ink on mulberry paper, 165 × 126 cm. Courtesy Gallery Hyundai, Seoul.

SUH SE OK, People, 2014, ink on mulberry paper, 170 × 135 cm. Courtesy Gallery Hyundai, Seoul.

Also worth mentioning are Suh’s more amusing ruminations. Another work from 2014 shows a group of figures depicted like matchsticks, reduced to its limbs and body. Interestingly, the repeating shapes read like the Chinese character for person (人), or the first consonant for the word person in Korean (ㅅ in 사람). Thus, the picture becomes a scene of dance in which literal characters skitter before the viewer. There is also a series entitled “Dancing People” (2014) in which thin curves of Suh’s brushstrokes aptly illustrate the levity of dancers. 

Coming of age in the mid-20th century, a defining moment in modern history, Suh’s decision to stick to a classical medium throughout his career has carried with it a risk of being anachronistic. However, Suh’s poetic and archetypal language that he has mastered in his “People” series proves to be a timeless one that will always speak to its audience, in the true sense of being a classic.

SUH SE OK, People, 2004, ink on mulberry paper, 134 × 173 cm. Courtesy Gallery Hyundai, Seoul.

Suh Se Ok’s exhibition was on view at Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, from April 12 to May 15, 2016.