A trio of pebbles: Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware, part 2

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These massive, lustrous pebbles dominate the final section of the current Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware exhibit at the Asian Art Museum. They are displayed in an adjoining gallery, alongside other contemporary works inspired by the mother-of-pearl concept.

The three giant pebbles by Hwang Samyong (b.1960) are made from lacquer and mother-of-pearl applied to fibreglass. This involves slicing the mother-of-pearl into very thin strips, a technique used on some of the more traditional pieces in the main exhibit.

Each pebble is a different colour, depending on the material used. The dark pebble (2014) uses black-pearl oyster shell from the Philippines and Indonesia. The green pebble (2015) uses native Korean abalone shell. The white pebble (2016) uses white-pearl oyster shell from Tahiti. The artist works from photographs of real pebbles, magnified up to 100 times.

I love how materials lifted from one type of natural object (seashells) are manipulated to recreate another type of natural object (pebbles), and one that you might also find on the seashore, suggested here by the mirrored surface on which the pebbles have come to rest.

Mother-of-Pearl Lacquerware from Korea
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
29 April to 23 October 2016

Above: Hwang Samyong, Pebble (P1409), 2014; Pebble (P1501), 2015; Pebble (P1602), 2016. Mother-of-pearl and lacquer on fibreglass. Length of longest pebble: 90cm. Crosspoint Cultural Foundation, Korea. Seen at Asian Art Museum, San Francisco in 2016. Photo: SF.

Black and white and nacreous all over: Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware

image lacquer box
An exhibition of Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware, on view at the Asian Art Museum, is one of those small but precious shows that invites you to delve deep into one particular subject.  A selection of 25 pieces, crafted between the 1600s and the 1900s, showcases the exceptional skills of Korean artisans in this field, and the wide variety of objects that were decorated in this way.

A rectangular box features a design of peonies, configured in rhythmic, curving lines. The peony was a common motif on mother-of-pearl lacquerware, signifying fortune and prosperity.  However, in this case the technique used is especially demanding, with the tendrils made from mother-of-pearl instead of wires. This involves preparing a very thin sheet of mother-of-pearl, from which long thin strips are cut with a special saw, and then applied to the surface.

A more pictorial design is found on a table, decorated with a bird on a plum branch, the plum being one of the “Three Friends of Winter” (plum, pine and bamboo) that stood for the virtues of the literati, especially in the face of hardship.  Very thin strips of mother-of-pearl have been used to create the individual bamboo leaves and pine needles.

Plum blossoms make another appearance on a lobed round dish, the lacquer applied this time not over wood but over paper, thickly layered. Korean paper was much sought after, in China as well as Korea, and its use here shows how versatile it could be. Both this dish and the table with the bird and trees were newly acquired in 2016.

These few examples illustrate some of the beauty and variety on offer. They are complemented by useful displays that explain the technical steps involved, and a short video that covers the same steps in more detail. Recommended.

Mother-of-Pearl Lacquerware from Korea
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
29 April to 23 October 2016

Above: Box with peony motif. 1550-1650. Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Height 14cm; width 38.1cm; depth 30.8cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: SF.

Below: Table with bird and trees motif. 1700-1800. Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Height 11cm; width 49.1cm; depth 26cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: SF.

image lacquer table v2

Below: Dish with moon and plum blossoms motif. 1800-1900. Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lacquered paper with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Diameter 27cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: SF.

image lacquer dish v2

Hidden Gold at the Asian Art Museum

han sang-soo korean bridal robe (1)
Hidden Gold is being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the Asian Art Museum. It brings together a diverse selection of pieces from the museum’s collections, each golden in some respect, but covering a wide range, both geographically and chronologically. You will find Japanese screens, Chinese fan paintings, Buddhist artefacts from Cambodia and Mongolia, and much more besides.

I enjoyed the presentation very much and found this a refreshing show to visit – not too large, but still plenty to take in. Unlike the big 2012 exhibit Bronze at the Royal Academy in London, this dwells less on the technical aspects of working with the metal, and more on its symbolic value.

This could explain the pleasing bias towards textiles, where gold is used to glorify the wearer. There are two contrasting but highly decorative robes from China: a Daoist ceremonial robe, with a design that reflects the structure of the cosmos in Daoist thought, and a Qing dynasty Emperor’s dragon robe, emblazoned with nine dragons. There is a contemporary bridal robe from Korea, produced in 2002 by renowned artisan Han Sang-soo (b. 1934), with motifs to emphasize creativity and fruitfulness, including a stylized rainbow mountain and peaches.

Definitely recommended.

Hidden Gold: Mining its Meaning in Asian Art
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
4 March to 8 May 2016

Above: Han Sang-soo, bridal robe, 2002. Silk embroidered with silk and gold thread. Asian Art Museum. Photo: SF.

Architecture of Life at BAMPFA

bampfa hall

We made a family visit recently to BAMPFA, the newly reopened arts centre for the University of California, Berkeley. The acronym stands for Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and while the focus is on both art and film, we went to see the inaugural exhibition, entitled Architecture of Life.

I found this a hugely energising show to explore, and I would love to go back. It takes the twin themes of architecture in the human world and architecture in the natural world, and interprets them in an open and unstructured way. It brings together works from different cultures and different periods, so that you abandon all thoughts of context and give yourself up to the visual ride, just focusing on the objects in front of you. Several exhibits are drawn from scientific projects, increasing the sense of an inter-disciplinary, trans-boundary adventure.

Given how the format emboldens you to look at things together and make unexpected connections, it seems counter-intuitive to zero in on objects with an Asian link, which is my usual practice here. However, those I find myself highlighting are as mixed a selection as any I might have chosen, so in that sense it is representative.

“Home-for-All” in Rikuzentakata is a series of five models by Japanese architects, seeking to create a new structure in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The final version was constructed by volunteers, using cedar logs damaged by the sea.

Photographer Yuji Obata (b.1962) pays homage to an early photographer of snowflakes, Wilson Bentley (1865-1931), through his photographs of snowflakes in freefall. He uses a technique perfected over years in the snowy mountains of Hokkaido.

Noriko Ambe (b.1967) creates sculptures made from hundreds of small sheets of flat, synthetic paper, individually hand cut then stacked to create abstract forms in organic shapes.

Hyun-Sook Song (b.1952) is a painter whose work I first encountered on my visit to ART14 London. I was a little blown away to find three big canvases, more sombre though than those I saw previously. 21 Brushstrokes shows the shrouded body of the artist’s mother prior to burial, resting alone on a bier, and  has a particular bleakness.

These are just a few examples, however. The whole experience is diverse, stimulating and highly recommended.

Architecture of Life
BAMPFA, Berkeley, CA
31 January to 29 May 2016

Above: Atrium at BAMPFA. Photo: SF.

Below: Toyo Ito (b.1941) and others, “Home-for-All” in Rikuzentakata, 2012. 1:20 scale model; wood, styrene board, styrol, plastic. Photo: SF.

toyo ito home for all scale model

Below: Noriko Ambe, A piece of Flat Globe, Vol 12 and Vol 22, 2010-12. Cut YUPO. Photos: SF.

noriko ambe a piece of flat globe A

noriko ambe a piece of flat globe B

Below: Hyun-Sook Song, 21 Brushstrokes, 2007. Egg tempera on canvas. Photo: SF.

hyun sook song 21 brushstrokes

Below: Hyun-Sook Song, 4 Brushstrokes over Figure, 2012. Egg tempera on canvas. Photo: SF.

hyun sook song 4 brushstrokes over figure

Beautiful book covers: my Korean fiction bonanza

art hen who dreamed

I read a great many books, but I was struck recently by the fact that I had finished three Korean novels in as many months, which seemed unusual, even for me. I thought this was more by chance than design. In each case, I was browsing in a bookshop or in the local library, and the book in question caught my eye.

Then I thought some more, and wondered if really I shouldn’t be paying tribute to the artists who designed the covers of these paperbacks. Perhaps we are enjoying a minor publishing boom for Korean novels in translation. The books all came out here in the last couple of years, although they were published in their original versions between 2000 and 2010. But the cover designs of these English-language editions are hugely striking, and each appealed to me sufficiently that I took the book down from the shelf and went on to complete the transaction.

I liked all three books but I don’t propose to review them in any detail. I have linked to the entry for each title on goodreads.com, and you can find reviews elsewhere online. The cover designs, though, deserve some special attention.

cover art the hen who dreamed

The first title is a bestseller, so it’s the one that you’re most likely to have come across: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang (Penguin Books, 2013; first published 2000). This is a moving fable about a hen who becomes an outcast from the farmyard and overcomes difficulty after difficulty. The cover art is by Kazuko Nomoto (known also as Nomoco), a Japanese illustrator who lives in the UK. You can see both the full image and the front cover above. There are also pen and ink illustrations inside the book, which complement the story. The stark black and white image hints at the tradition of Zen painting, and has a timeless quality that works well for a fable, as opposed to a narrative rooted in a particular time and place. The subtle touches of colour reflect the more optimistic elements in the story.

cover art the vegetarian

The second work is The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015; first published 2007). This is a series of three novellas about the same set of characters, including the wife of a salaryman who shocks her family by turning vegetarian, and her brother-in-law, a video artist with a reckless streak. The cover design is by Tom Darracott – a montage of photographic images, weaving together several themes from the story: the raw meat, the tropical blooms, the human hand in some indecipherable gesture. It is at first seductive, then unsettling or even repellent, as you notice details such as the meat fat glistening, the fly and the snail. The book itself is a disturbing read, so again this cover feels very apt.

cover art i'll be right there

The third title is I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-sook Shin (Other Press, 2014; first published 2010). This is a more conventional novel about a small group of students and their professor, unfolding in 1980s Seoul against a backdrop of political unrest. It’s by the same author who wrote Please Look After Mom, which I also have on my to-read list. The cover design is by Kathleen DiGrado, the image by Marta Bevacqua, Arcangel Images. The effect here seems simpler: a monochrome portrait photo of a young Korean girl, strands of hair covering her features, and cropped at the right-hand edge so that the face is not fully visible. Of the three covers, I would say it’s the most obviously “oriental”.

When I first saw this book cover, it reminded me very much of the terrific poetry anthology Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books, 2002), shown below. It features a photo by Carles Fargas, Mariona (1988). I doubt any similarities were intended, and of course seeing the pictures together makes me realise that they are different in many ways, but they share a quiet magnetism and sense of drama that promises the reader much.

cover staying alive

If you have any more Korean fiction recommendations, do let me know by commenting on this post!

Above (at top): Nomoco, cover art for The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, 2013. Image: Nomoco, at http://www.pocko.com/talent/nomoco/.

Travels in California, part 5: surprise Korean ceramics

Images of gallery exhibition spaces
I was bowled over to discover that – unique among airports – the airport at San Francisco operates an accredited museum within its terminals and, what’s more, our visit coincided with a show of contemporary Korean ceramics, co-curated with the Asian Art Museum.

We were on our way from the aircraft to the baggage carousel at this point, so I could not spend nearly as long as I would have liked. There was a plentiful selection of work by each of the eight artists and I lingered especially over the pieces by Park Young Sook (b. 1947).

These included a set of nesting bowls in buncheong – a technique from the 15th and 16th centuries, in which white slip is applied to stoneware, then decorated using techniques such as inlay, stamping and incising; several exquisite porcelain vessels, including a version of the classic Korean moon jar; and a porcelain recreation of a traditional Korean wrapping cloth (bojagi). This display was an unexpected treat – I wish they could come up with something like this at Heathrow!

Dual Natures in Ceramics: Eight Contemporary Artists from Korea
SFO Museum at San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco, CA
17 May 2014 to 22 February 2015 (now closed)

Above: Park Young Sook, buncheong inlaid bowls with lid, 2002-03. Stoneware with stamped and slip-inlaid decoration. Asian Art Museum. Image at http://www.flysfo.com/museum/exhibitions/19210/detail?num=4.

Below: Park Young Sook, selection of porcelain vessels, displayed at SFO Museum in February 2015. Photo: STF.
park young sook porcelains
Below: Park Young Sook, porcelain recreation of traditional Korean wrapping cloth, displayed at SFO Museum in February 2015. Photo: STF.
park young sook wrap cloth v2

ART14 London: paintings galore

pic lee hwaik booth

ART14 is a big contemporary art fair that launched in London last year and includes a strong showing of artists from Asia and the Middle East.  There were 180 galleries participating, making it impossible to describe here the sheer breadth of what was on display – every kind of media, format, colour and style cheek by jowl, and bright sunlight pouring down on it through the glass roof of the Olympia building.

Within this kaleidoscope, I was drawn particularly to paintings with a Korean or Chinese connection: sunlit rooms by Jeong Bo-Young (b.1973) at the LEE HWAIK Gallery; brushstrokes mimicking falling fabric by Song Hyun-sook (b.1952) at the Hakgojae Gallery; swirling abstracts in cream and blue by Wou-Ki Zao (1921-2013) at the Aktis Gallery; dynamic ink painting by Wang Jinsong (b. 1963) at Michael Goedhuis; tightly understated flower heads by Jun Tan (b.1973) at Galleria H.

In contrast, the “ART14 Projects” showcased three-dimensional pieces, including the faintly horrific Waterfall by Zhao Zhao (b.1982) at the Alexander Ochs Galleries.  There were also sculptures by Ai Weiwei (b.1957), Scale No. 1 and No. 2 (2008) – low structures of stainless steel and copper, made from interlocking rhombus-shaped plates set at different angles.  They allude to the art of Chinese paper-folding (zhezi); the visual effect is more like an optical illusion come to life.

ART14 London
Olympia Grand, London
28 February to 2 March 2014

Above: Lee Hwaik Gallery at ART14, featuring paintings by Jeong Bo-Young and work by Meekyoung Shin. Photo: STF. 

Below: Song Hyun-sook, 8 brushstrokes over 1 brushstroke. Tempera on canvas. Hakgojae Gallery. Image at: http://hakgojae.com/2009/eng/sub4/artist_work.html?artist_num=64.

pic song hyun-sookBelow: Wang Jinsong, Flowers No. 8, 2008. Ink on rice paper. Height 137cm; width 69 cm. Michael Goedhuis. Image at: http://www.michaelgoedhuis.com/Wang-Jinsong-DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=45&tabindex=44&artistid=111286.

pic wang jinsongBelow: Jun Tan, Phenophase XVII. Acrylic and paper collage on canvas. Height 90cm; width 50 cm. Galleria H. Image at: http://www.galleriah.com/entj/work-6.

pic jun tanBelow: Zhao Zhao, Waterfall, 2013. Paraffin wax, paint on lacquered MDF. 310 x 410 x 250cm. Alexander Ochs Galleries Paris Beijing. Image at: http://www.randian-online.com/np_review/on-zhao-zhaos-waterfall/.

Zhao-Zhao-Waterfall

Meekyoung Shin: London show

140123 opaque vases

I first came across the work of Meekyoung Shin as part of Korean Eye 2012 at the Saatchi Gallery.  I found her Translation – Vases exhibit hugely appealing: a room filled with replica vases made of coloured soap, posed on shipping crates.  The work conveys her interest in the transfer of material objects from one culture to another, and the assumptions that are then made about them.

This recent solo exhibition in London featured a further round of Translation – Vases, with fewer pieces but a more dramatic presentation, set against the dark backdrop of the exhibition space.  The replicas are impressive because they seem so precise, so convincing – except perhaps for an extra glossiness on the surfaces.  Yet they somehow tease the viewer, as “ceramics” made of something soft and impermanent.

The more abstracted Translation – Ghost Series borrows the forms but not the surface decoration of the originals, resulting in a bold array of shapes in translucent soap of different colours.  In another twist, Toilet Project features soap replicas of antiquities that were left in UK museum toilets for handwashing purposes, then reunited for this display.  Had I encountered one in situ, it would definitely have featured here!

Meekyoung Shin: Unfixed
Korean Cultural Centre, London
12 November 2013 to 18 January 2014 (now closed)

Above: Meekyoung Shin, Translation – Ghost Series, 2007-ongoing. Soap, varnish. Photo: STF.

Below: Meekyoung Shin, Translation – Vase Series, 2007-ongoing. Soap, pigment, varnish, mirrored stainless steel plates, wooden crates. Photo: STF. Shown at Korean Cultural Centre 2013-14. The dark backdrop and intersecting spaces suggest a less formal setting, more like a warehouse or storage area, as compared with the big, white-walled gallery space at Korean Eye 2012.

140123 meekyoung shin vases

 Below: A single vase from Translation – Vase Series. Photo: STF. Shown at Korean Cultural Centre, 2013-14. This continues the butterfly theme from my last post on Kyosuke Tchinai.

140123 vase with butterflies

Min Jungyeon show

Recent paintings and drawings by contemporary Korean artist Min Jungyeon (b. 1979) were on show last month at the Hada Contemporary gallery.  The works fell broadly into two camps: large canvases in acrylics, very precise and in places very richly detailed, and smaller ink drawings of foam-related subjects – as in Mousse Destructrice, where a structure of girders and poles is broken apart by clouds of this foam-like substance. Organic forms contrast with more geometric or constructed ones, as in Travaux 2, where the realism of construction workers on a building site is off-set by a proliferation of strange biological forms, resembling layers of coral, or slices from a mammalian digestive system.  Her strengths as a technician are an essential part of the work, seen in the conscious choice of different pen strokes to create shade and substance – from very fine cross-hatching to a more cursive scribble.

Min Jungyeon Solo Exhibition
Hada Contemporary, London
7 to 31 March 2013