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Korean Prints @ Sac State

Jung Won Chul, "The Testimony No. 1, from the installation, "Face to Face, 2001, linocut

The Land and the People is a politically charged exhibition of contemporary Korean prints by ten artists curated by critic Kim Jin Ha and Sacramento artists Koo Kyung Sook and Ian Harvey.  Mostly woodblock prints, the works draw on the deep history of the form and the recent history of the South Korean “People’s Art” movement, which, beginning in 1980, opposed the dictatorship of General Chun Doo-hwan, who ruled from 1979 1988.  Movement artists used painting and especially woodblock prints to advocate for democracy and reunification and against westernization.  Most of the artists in this show studied during this period.  Their bold visuals and universal themes create a show that defies apparent divisions, reminding us of the shared character of all peoples and cultures.

At first blush, the twelve woodcut prints by Ryu Yeun Bok look like stylized renderings of different mountains, until you realize they are all of one mountain, with a thousand peaks.  It’s Gumgang Mountain, one of the few areas in North Korea available to tourists from the south.  These prints were originally conceived as part of a paper screen, which could be used to divide a room.  Ryu used a reduction method, inking and re-cutting the same block for each layer of color.  The process irreparably damages the block, but the prints, nevertheless, reflect their single source. 
In many ways, Jung Won Chul’s linocut installation piece Face to Face is the backbone of the show.  It consists of eight hyper-detailed portraits of surviving “comfort women” suspended in the middle of long PVC sheets that hang from the ceiling.  The portraits face each other and visitors are encouraged to stand between the sheets and be confronted by the creased and worn faces of these older women.  Comfort women is of course just a euphemism for the thousands, most likely hundreds of thousands of women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.  The existence of these women remains a contentious issue for the region, with the Japanese government, over the decades, oscillating between sincere apology and outright denial of the crime.  Because these women are contemporaries with what we in the U.S. sometimes call “The Greatest Generation” there will soon be no survivors left to testify.  Jung Won Chul documents the faces of these women as a silent testimony to their shared experience, lest we forget.
Lee Sang Guk, California Landscape IV, 2005, woodcut
Beyond the politics espoused, the prints on view exhibit an expressive quality reminiscent of early 20th century German woodcut.  Ironically, though Korea boasts one of the world’s oldest woodblock printing traditions, printing of all kinds was suppressed by the dictatorship, forcing many of the artists to travel to Germany to study.  Lee Sang Guk uses a distinct but jagged cut to render his California Landscapes.  An Jeong Min uses a fierce, almost violent tearing cut that splinters the wood unpredictably, giving her work an action painter’s fluidity.  Suh Sang Hwan intentionally over-inks his blocks to make his iconic, religion-themed prints

Lee Yun Yop, print from “Sparkling Eyes,” 2013, woodcut

appear more primitive and universal.  Yoon Yeo Geul, who is also an animator, uses a brush at the end of a long pole, “like fishing,” to draw the lines for his cast-like woodcuts, giving them an airy, frenetic atmosphere amplified by the grooves incised into the paper.

At the end of the gallery is a wall of 48 colorful protest prints by activist Lee Yun Yop.  Though People’s Art lost much of its prominence after the fall of the South Korean dictatorship in 1988, his work demonstrates the ongoing need for protest even under democracy.  Lee’s prints have been used to help workers win labor disputes, raise awareness of environmental issues, and oppose the building of U.S. military bases.  There are cartoon animals, dejected and triumphant bodies and faces, abstract to veristic plants and landscapes, and a wild often dissonant palette.  The variety and intensity of this final wall reflects the kind of imagery the other artists were steeped in, coming of age in a land very different from today’s South Korea.  
Woodblock printing has over 1,200 years of history on the Korean Peninsula; this show, by providing fresh ink, demonstrates its ongoing vitality.
"The Land and the People: Contemporary Korean Prints” @ Sac State University Library Gallery through May 17, 2014.
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist living and working in Sacramento.  His work uses programming to create never-repeating loops of digital animations based on social systems, biological entities and interactions.  His work has been exhibited at the Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento and at Axis Gallery and online.

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