[평론] 2010 갤러리 아트사이드 'Inner Transcendence' 개인전 ④


The black paradox

Chong Pyeongmo Professor of cultural properties studies, Gyeongju University


 A serendipitous encounter with Kim Gil-Hu


 Less than a year ago on November 9, 2009, I was invited by the Daegu Artist’s Colloquium to give a lecture on folk art painting. At the end of my talk, a man from the audience came up to me and introduced himself as an artist, who paints in the style of Western art. He said that he had studied art in Daegu, Korea, but was then living in the Hetri Art Village in Paju of the same country where he was invited by the Gyeonggi Digital Contents Agency to stay as a resident artist. After exchanging a few pleasantries we parted as is typical for such a casual first-time encounter.


 Then, just two weeks ago at the “Reality and Speech” exhibition at Gana Art Center in Seoul, I came across a painting that grabbed my attention as I leafed through the introductory pamphlet. The dominant tone was black, the brushwork was detailed, and on the whole it had an indescribable yet stong inner appeal. The name KIM GIL-HU printed at the bottom quickly had me wonder whether it was not the same painter I had spoken to at the lecture. I asked an acquaintance of mine to verify my speculation, and sure enough it was the same Kim Gil-hu I had earlier met. I was quite content to discover a great work of art, and the fact that it was done by an artist I had previously met on another occasion was a pleasant surprise. The news was delivered to Kim Gil-Hu himself by our mutual acquaintance, and he called me on the phone a couple of days later. He said he was preparing for an exhibition in Beijing and that he was in the middle of making a catalogue. He wanted to know whether I would be willing to submit my commentary on his works to publish in it. Having accepted the offer, I visited him at his studio in Heyri. I had a chance to study his works and to discuss them with their creator himself. So it was that I met the artist Kim Gil-Hu.


 Black abut not too dark


 Kim Gil-Hu liked to paint in black, a color choice not very typical of the younger generation artists. His paintings are dark, dark as can be found only in the works of the late 19c and early 20c. My first impression was an affinity to the famed Norwegian painter Edvard Munch(1863-1944). Like Munch, Kim has a keen eye for the profound human psyche, which he sought to express in dream-like silhouettes. At times his lines are bold and edgy like those of Bernard Buffet(1928-1999). Then, at other times he employs a certain computer graphics type of lines which remind one of Julian Opie (1958-). Sensibilities of varying shades are all mixed up and become one with black, a color that means more than it suggests in both the East and the West. Indeed, it is the amalgamation of the three primary colors, and in the Orient it is considered the color that can embrace all. It is this perception of black that founds the Asian ink painting tradition in which the whole world is rendered in black.


 Now then, why has Kim Gil-Hu chosen black of all colors? On this topic I would like to quote him from another catalogue for his exhibition at the Indang Museum of the Daegu Health College: “I chose black when my heart was devastated like a land in ruins, and when an immense sense of loss weighed heavily down on me. One day, a man came up to me after seeing my show and said: ‘I had wanted to die, but I saw in Ur painting a person who was in even greater pain than myself. This gave me a new hope.’ My painting from its darkness had given a despairing man a ray of hope! I learned that grief may be cured by a greater grief, and that there are many disparaging sous out there in this sophisticated and complex civilization of ours.” This anecdote and his comments brought to my mind the novel The Stranger by Albert Camus, who the painter happens to like very much. In The Stranger Mersault shoots to death an Arab male, who has had a dispute with his friend Raymond. When the judge asks of Mersault why he killed the Arab, he casually answers that it was because of the blinding sunlight. He is sentencd todeath. As he awaits his execution a chaplain tries to persuade Mersault to turn to God and Christianity only to be flatly rejected. The unrepentant Mersault, however, discovers happiness in the starry night sky, upon realizing that the universe is as indifferent to the human kind as he himself is. Camus depicted the absurdity of a man wo finds happiness before death, and Kim Gil-Hu found a man who discovered a ray of light in the darkness of the black.


 Dark thought his works may be, Kim Gil-Hu is not a gloomy man. Far from it, a man of smiles. He is constantly beaming, which the round spectacles cannot hide. He recalls that in grade school, his teacher once mistook his unchanging smile as an act of mockery and called his parents in for consultation. This smile is actually an important clue to understanding the black images in his art.


Kim Gil-Hu is going against the current of time in his creative endeavors. He rejects the flamboyant, elaborate and cheerful style that is presently the trend, and opts for a pensive and introspective mood. The Black Tears series (2001-2004) reflects this choice. Yet, it should also be noted that black in the art of Kim Gil-Hu is not necessarily always dark.


 Lyricism regained ? through lilies


 Out of the desolate black shade, Kim Gil-Hu brings forth a surprising conclusion. The key is in the flowers of the garden in his boyhood home. He recalls: “Our garden was small, but it was full of flowers Irises, tulips, cannas, dahlias, Chinese asters, pansies, windflowers, salvias and other exotic foreign species of white, yellow and violet abounded. I would study their subtle difference of shades and texture with great patience and meticulous attention to detail. In my room I hagd a calendart with pictures of the Netherlands and their fields of tulips. It had me dreaming of a life as a gardener.” Flowers for Kim was a fatal attraction. However, when his family had a discussion on his future career path, their advice was not to make a hobby a vacation, but to choose a vocation based on talent and skills. This encouraged him to change his course to becoming a painter, Kim once said that the most beautiful flower on earth is the lily. Yet, in his art, he did not shy away from destroying the lily as an expression of the self-torment one experiences in adolescence. For him, the lily is an alter ego. Painting from his boyhood memories-the flower beds, the lilies, and the young chicks street peddlers sold to kids after school-brought out warm and positive lights from the past that could replace the dark shadows that had previously pervaded his canvas. Thus the same black became another huge altogether as it came to carry a different theme of warmth and tenderness. This is how The Secret Garden (2005-2007) series was created. In these paintings, a human lyricism blossoms forth from black, which is typically associated with despair, and the irony and contrast moves with subtle force. This is why I describe his art ‘The Black Paradox’.


 A shout out to the world


 More recently, Kim Gil-Hu has exhibited a special attention to expressiveness as much as the theme. In addition to the western-styled paint brushes, he uses those typically used in Asian arts. He also employs more unusual tools of painting, such as the hammer, chisel and, get this, the grinder. He scratches with the chisel, beats with the hammer and grinds with the grinder. Sometimes he grazes and scars the paper to create a silhouette and give texture to the painting. Asked why he resorts to such extreme means of expression, he casually replies that it is too boring to paint with just the brush as everyone else does. He wants the intensity of expressing with all his body and the actions it can perform. It is his firm belief that a true artist must move the hearts of others. In this sense he is unmistakably Expressionist.


 The powerful expression stems from his strong desire to achieve. Kim Gil-Hu was born in the city of Busan, studied art in Daegu and is now working in Seoul. Never complacent, he has recently set foot in China for a wider audience of art lovers. Of course, Kim is not alone amongst Korean artists who wish to earn international recognition for their work, but he certainly stands out amongst the many in the strength of his commitment. He is not living quite afar from his home and family for the sake of his art, and has avowed not to hold an exhibition in Daegu, where he first launched a professional career as an artist, until he succeeds. Kim Gil-Hu wants to be recognized by the Western art community for his Western paintings. In order to appeal to the Western audience, most Korean artists showcase the Koreanness, that unique element that is foreign to the targets. Kim Gil-Hu does not wish to resort to exoticism. He wants to face the Western audience squarely in the styles and manners of the Western painting traditions. This is a difficult if not a very risky path to take, and for this reason I am following Kim Gil-Hu closely. His unquenched passion, the original and appealing characters he creates, and his power of expression that penetrates the human subconscious all promise a great future ahead.