Korean contemporary landscape paintings in Hong Kong show have Chinese echoes

Three artists, each in their own way, give new meaning to a longstanding tradition common to East Asian cultures

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 January, 2016, 5:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 January, 2016, 5:30am

The latest exhibition at Pearl Lam’s gallery in Central is a refreshing reminder that there is a lot more to contemporary Korean paintings than dansaekhwa – the monochrome, minimalist abstracts so much in demand Korean auction houses are holding sales in Hong Kong three to four times a year.

“Contemporary Sansuhwa”, curated by Miki Wick-Kim, features the works of three Korean artists who follow the landscape painting tradition, and it is interesting to compare their works with those of contemporary Chinese artists following the Shanshui tradition.

Of the three, Moon Beom’s works are the most abstract. His mountains – if they are mountains - are not references to real places but are part of his visual vocabulary. Each of the three works on show in Hong Kong are dreamlike landscapes populated by faintly familiar fragments that could be foliage, clouds or rocks.

He first applied black oil sticks to a pastel background, and then put on cotton gloves and used his fingers to manipulate the dark pigments into shapes.

“I think it’s great that the show is in Hong Kong because Chinese and Koreans have a shared language,” says Wick-Kim.

The landscape tradition is understood here and there’s a commonality based on Eastern philosophies, she adds.

Moon borrows generic motifs to reflect on the age-old yearning for harmony with nature, much like Chinese artists such as Yang Yongliang, who hides building cranes among his rolling ink mountains, and Hong Kong’s Koon Wai-bong with his visualisations of a quiet state of mind.

The other two artists in the show highlight some of the differences that stem from the fact that the Korean landscape tradition has developed independently of China for centuries, such as the flourishing of so-called “true-view landscape painting” in the 18th century.

Painters of that time, such as Chong Son, might have revealed a growing sense of nationalist pride by turning local landmarks into a canon of classical images. One favourite backdrop is the Diamond Mountain (Mount Kumgang, in present-day North Korea).

For the Hong Kong exhibition, Whang Inkie has produced a new work called An Old Breeze-Mt. Diamond, in which he has covered a digital print of an 18th century painting of Diamond Mountain with Swarovski crystals.

“This is a scene captured repeatedly by painters throughout the ages but he’s giving it a new meaning. Whang was born just at the end of the Korean war. He really has lived through all the major changes in modern Korean history,” says Wick-Kim.

Lee Sea Hyun, too, draws on a real place. His red-on-white landscape paintings are based on Geoje Island off the southern coast of Korea, where he grew up.

Embedded in the idyllic scenes of mountains and beaches are small mementoes from hell: the wreck of a warship from the Korean war; a sinking ferry that must be a reference to the Sewol tragedy; temples being destroyed by the urban sprawl.

“The landscape of his childhood is disappearing. This is a collage with multiple references. He has merged the physical landscape with the social and political landscape of Korea,” explains Wick-Kim.

Contemporary Sansuhwa, Pearl Lam Galleries, 601-605 Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Mon-Sat, 10am-7pm. Until March 1.