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Lee Kang-So: From a Dream

2021. 6. 16 – 8. 1
Lee Kang-So

Gallery Hyundai presents Lee Kang-So’s solo exhibition From a Dream from June 16 through August 1. From a Dream is a careful selection of thirty paintings created between the late 1990’s until 2021, focusing on newer pieces and the artist’s creative essence that they reveal. Visitors will witness the coexistence between dynamic brushstrokes dashed in one go and large scale paintings with bold margins; abstract, rough brushstrokes in multiple layers and concrete forms of birds or boats appearing in paintings as icons since the late 1980’s; monotone paintings of greyscale or black and white radically contrasted with blindingly vibrant colors that materialize the sense of infinite space upon flat canvas. Through these elements, we can enjoy the quintessence of Lee Kang-So’s painterly language that has unfolded over the last two decades.

Lee Kang-So is an indelible presence in Korean Contemporary Art and the history of Contemporary Art. From the 1970’s when he spearheaded new movements in experimental art up to the present, he has demonstrated a multidisciplinary practice across installation, performance, photography, video, print, painting, and sculpture, unbound to a particular trend or formal methodology. Pioneering works Margin (1971), Disappearance(1973), and Untitled-75031(1975) from the 1970’s shattered preconceptions about art as well as our perspective and attitude towards the wider world. At 2018’s solo exhibition Disappearance, Gallery Hyundai shed new light on the historical significance of such experimental artworks from the 1970’s. The following year, Gallery Hyundai opened special exhibition Becoming that encompassed Lee Kang-So’s early installation works, video, and more recent paintings and sculptures at Palazzo Caboto in Venice, Italy in time for the Venice Biennale, achieving international acclaim.

From a Dream marks the artist’s fourth solo exhibition at Gallery Hyundai including one in 2009 that featured his paintings, sculptures, and photographs. If the earlier exhibition made an academic investigation of the lasting significance of Lee Kang-So as master figure and his experimental works in the history of Korean art, From a Dream explores how his unique worldview materializes in his works and which kinds of problematics are shared by experimental works in the 1970’s and paintings from the 1980’s to the present despite their formal differences. Interpreted as something close to “frolicking in dreams”, the title is simultaneously a keyword condensing Lee Kang-So’s life philosophy and his position on our own time. He views our seemingly self-explanatory world as dreamlike in reality – “To me, this world is full of immense mysteries. It is at the same time dizzyingly complex and fearsome. After all things extinguish, their atoms never disappear, only scatter, repeating birth and death with cause and effect unknown in tandem with the structure of this universe. This endless continuance of birth and death will extend towards the furthest corner of the universe” (from artist’s note). Such insight, based on East Asian philosophy he learned from an early age and on quantum mechanics, are seamlessly threaded in each of his works.

After majoring in painting in college, Lee Kang-So explored the question of “What is painting?” even in experimental performances, video, or installations, daringly departing from existing definitions of painting. For instance, the Untitled (1975) series extracted threads from or ripped open a canvas, the support of painting, to present both the materiality and flatness of the medium. In Untitled, Painting, and Liquitex, he added smears of paint upon serigraphy of silkscreened tubes of paint, ashtrays, paint cans, or stills from his own video work. Painting (Event 77-2) (1977) where he painted his own naked body with a brush, wiped away the paint with raw canvas, and laid the canvas on the floor, and Painting 78-1 (1977) that filmed an act of “painting” as he gradually brush painted a monitor from the inside out, reinterpret s through a contemporary lens traditional painting as one of the oldest mediums, revealing and objectifying the real substance of an illusory image.

It is from 1985 while he was resident artist at the State University of New York that he started to “paint pictures” with paint and brush. What followed were liberated, rough, rhythmical brushstrokes plowing the picture plane, forms existing in the subtle space between figure and abstraction, horizontal compositions, and works where blues and greens mingle as if a close-up of natural scenery like forests or rivers. Afterwards, he continued to experiment with images by dividing a monotone background into two and presenting architectural structures like houses and boats and an abstract or patternized field of rough brushstrokes at the same time. In the late 1980’s, we see Lee Kang-So’s signature language take place: buoyant forms made of a few spare strokes resembling the Chinese character “乙” or a ghost, yet reminiscent of flocks of birds or deer, appearing out of nowhere amidst a boundless monotone background of blue, grey, or white. From the mid- and late 1990’s, works like From an Island or From a River mark the shift from Untitled to poetic and lyrical titles inspired by natural motifs, where the fewest, minimized brushstrokes on the verge of not being drawn at all echo natural phenomena like water, clouds, rain, and storm.

Lee Kang-So, Serenity-18214, 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 112 x 145 cm

Shangrila and Emptiness series released since the mid-2000’s highlight both the simplicity and vigor of strokes as they meet the forms (images) of birds or boas. From the mid- and late 2010’s to the present, the artist has been working on a series of paintings entitled Serenity. Offering an unforgettable visual experience that merges the beauty of margins dating back to East Asian painting with brushstrokes retaining the artist’s own breath, rhythm, and bodily gestures, Serenity is a lucid window to Lee Kang-So’s creative world. On the series, he emphasizes that “when I do brushwork with a clear and bright state of mind, the audience who sees it also will be able to share a sense of ‘serenity’”. Art historian Heekyung Song who contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue interprets that Lee Kang-So’s Serenity series is “an art of art of oneness between poems, calligraphy, and painting, condensing the common qualities of the three genres: connotation, lingering, and spirit”.

The first floor features three works from Serenity characterized by thick lines created from fast brushwork, and three works from From a River (1999) series. Viewers are thus able to witness the transformations of Lee Kang-So’s painting from the late 1990’s into the mid 2010’s and up to the 2020’s. These works illustrate aspects of qi (氣), or energy flow, that the artist intended to convey. Indeed, one of his major tasks was to visualize the energy of all being. He has always believed in the existence of an invisible energy and continuously strove to document it in image. From a River series first presented at Galerie des Ponchettes in Nice, France, leaves traces of numerous impassioned brushstrokes of various density, all passing through the canvas swift and smooth. Perhaps because of their title, they also appear like abstracted mountain-and-water landscape or the furious roar of a river.

The basement and second floor galleries focus on various riffs on bold brushstrokes and margins. Lee Kang-So excludes calculated or premeditated thought as much as possible, leaving a series of strokes by sensations of his hand holding the brush and natural breath work before any time for ruminating. When he does this, he uses the East Asian brush that interacts and reacts more dramatically according to the user’s movements because it is longer than the Western version. The countless kinds of brushstrokes left by the artist at a state of brush, hand, emotion, and spirit becoming one then invite the viewers into a world of boundless imagination. Curt strokes thrown from the left of the canvas to the right, strokes breathing short, long, and short again, melodious strokes enlivening the rhythm of horizontal and vertical, strokes inciting violent waves as if battling the canvas, strokes changing ind direction to form a plane – all of these strokes with an aesthetic in each single stroke inherit the tradition of olden literati all the while expanding the linguistics of contemporary painting. Emptiness-14012 (2014), Serenity-20062 (2020), and Serenity-20063 (2020) in the basement gallery, each amounting to five meters in width, and Serenity-16124 (2016) and Serenity-17010 (2017) on the second floor comprise one snapshot in a world eddying with unimaginable speed through the body of the artist.

The second floor invites us to Lee Kang-So’s now trademark combination of images like birds and boats with abstract brushstrokes, a style he actively executed since the 1990’s. Simple yet fluid symbols like birds, deers, boats, mountains, houses, or water appear as a mere few lines that have barely been drawn. These images coexist with abstracted brushstrokes of varying colors and density, forming a dual structure in Lee Kang-So’s paintings. By juxtaposing objects symbolizing nature and civilization with freely drawn brushstrokes, he captures one essence of natural life that is always in the process of creation, not one as limited by our preconceptions. Hoping to open multiple avenues for interpretation by minimizing the artist’s intervention, he adds that “it doesn’t matter if you see it as a duck, a boat, or a deer. They are all illusions perceived then dissipated at the eye of the beholder. I only try to have each person decide, feel, and experience as their own”. Works from Serenity using color, introduced for the first time at From a Dream, seizes our attention with a bold orange and navy brushstrokes of different density. Layers of brushstrokes create an abstract space with depth, while light traces of objects frolicking within produce a dynamic yet serene atmosphere like refreshing silvery winds of early summer.

As Lee Kang-So himself characterizes his works as “pictures that were drawn”, he avoids subjective expressions of emotions, intention, or a unidirectional solution, instead traversing between the visible and invisible, particles and energy, here and there, being and non-being, me and you, all in a moment of space and time like a wise spirit. His unpredictable brushstrokes enlivened with the living energy provide viewers with an alternate perspective of seeing the world. In other words, Lee Kang-So’s paintings, or artworks, are a result of ceaseless efforts to escape the modernist view of the world as immutable and self-explanatory, revealing the truth of all being as always buoyant and pulsating. They are at the same time a philosophical question asking whether the world equals reality, and an answer to how we can visualize this world stepping outside our own human perspective.

Gallery Hyundai
14, Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea
02 2287 3500