“The Land/The People: Contemporary Korean Prints” at the California State University, Sacramento, University Library Gallery is a stunning and revelatory show. The exhibition features 10 artists working in woodcut, linocut and digital processes whose striking images reveal the diversity and monumental scale of printmaking in South Korea today.
Most of the works range in scale from 4 to 12 feet, and one of them is an installation of large portraits printed on eight PVC panels by Jung Won Chul. The panels create a transparent arcade of images of “Comfort Women,” who were forced to service soldiers during the Japanese invasion of Asia’s mainland in the 1930s and ’40s.
Their care-worn yet strong faces attest to the tribulations they experienced and the bravery with which they told their stories many years after the events. “The Testimony No. 1” by Jung is one of two linocuts printed in silvery ink that depicts the first woman who spoke out about what happened to some Korean women during the invasion.
An Jeong Min’s “Height-Width-Depth-Sea Seal 21-24,” a monumental woodcut printed on layers of silicon, also has the feeling of an installation. The deeply incised woodcut suggests flowing, splashing water and is reminiscent of the work of Pat Steir, though it stands on its own.
Also monumental in scale is Chung Sang Gon’s digital print “Three People – Exodus” which is based on a photograph of a North Korean family crossing the Duman River into South Korea. The newspaper image is divided into three panels, and the figures are obscured, giving them a ghostly quality and a universality that addresses the plight of political refugees of any nationality.
In contrast, Suh Sang Hwan, who holds a doctorate in theology, thinks of his raw, rough-hewn woodcuts as a form of prayer. His richly printed woodcuts freely combine Buddhist, Confucian, Zen and Christian imagery and have an emotive quality reminiscent of German Expressionist prints.
Similarly raw and symbolic in feeling are Ryu Yeun Bok’s series of images of Gumgang Mountain, the only location in North Korea that is open to South Koreans. The prints move through the seasons, from wintery blues to green summers and rust-colored autumns, and convey the symbolic power of the place through expressive gestural markings.
Kim Eok’s “Namhan River – Danyang” is a scroll-like landscape seen from above. The mazy river cuts through the land in a perspective that is traditionally Asian and ancient feeling, yet when you look closely, you see tiny highways, bridges and automobiles setting the image in the current day.
Landscape and nature are at the heart of Lee Sang Guk’s bold woodcuts of trees and California landscapes. There is a lyrical quality to “Winter Tree 1,” which resembles the lithe lines of sumi ink paintings. His “California Landscape IV” based on his experiences in the Los Angeles area suggests people and structures crowded together and entangled in an animated world.
A welter of spidery markings form images of city streets in Yoon Yeo Geul’s masterful woodcuts of Seoul. Each image is titled with a time of day and the name of the area depicted. “5:22 p.m. Shinchan” is reminiscent of a French Impressionist’s Parisian street scene, the tensile flickering lines catching a moment in time. Done with an electric tool as well as the traditional knife, even the negative spaces are richly textured, conveying a sense of pulsing energy.
In contrast, Kim Joon Kwon’s water-based ink woodcut of multiple layers of soft, transparent forms that suggest a landscape is an object of quiet contemplation. One of the smallest works in the show, it is easily overlooked but adds a subtle delicacy to the show.
Lee Yun Yop’s installation of numerous posters, paintings and banners made for demonstrations defending labor rights and resisting government development form an explosion of vibrant and quirky imagery. A King Kong-like figure holds up a tiny ship in one bold work, vying with images of fish, landscapes, puppies and demonstrators in his rich and committed artwork.
The exhibit’s curators, Ian Harvey, Koo Kyung Sook and Kim Jin Ha, have done a marvelous job of introducing a lineup of strong artists, most of whom have not shown before in the United States. As an added bonus, two of the artists will be on campus in April during the Festival of the Arts to demonstrate their working methods in the print room of Kadema Hall.