Koreans at the supermarket of modern Western style

It is always fascinating to see how various non-Western nations adapt the principles of modern Western art to their own painting and sculpture. The ones who do it most successfully, by and large, are those anxious to become a dynamic part of the international community. Cultural isolation is not for them, not necessarily because of any lack of pride in their own great traditions, but because they see the past and present as two separate entities.

And they see the vital art of today as a fusion of the best of their own tradition with the best of what international modernism has to offer.

It's not easy, however, to affect such a balance. The temptation to dump one's tradition wholeheartedly in favor of a fashionable modernist theory is often overwhelming. Some have succumbed to that temptation -- others have not.

Among those who have not succumbed are the artists of Korea. At least that is the impression I received while viewing the current exhibition of six leading contemporary Korean artists at the Korean Cultural Service here.

Korea's recent crop of artists is interested in taking only what they want from modernism, and then fusing into that forms indigenous to their native land.

They are, in other words, careful shoppers at the supermarket of Western modernism rather than indiscriminate consumers of whatever is new and fashionable.

Of the six artists in this exhibition, Hwang Kyu Baik is the only one likely to be known to American viewers, not only because he has lived and worked in New York since 1970, but because his sensitive prints grace some of our major museum and private print collections.

He is also the only one so far with something of an international reputation. Working in mezzotint, probably the most laborious of all graphic techniques, he has created a number of the most exquisitely haunting and lyrical color prints produced anywhere in recent years.

These are simple images executed with superb technical mastery, and with a remarkable fusion of Eastern formal discretion and Western pictorial ambiguity. Although he owes a very minor debt to surrealism and a slightly greater one to Friedrich Meckseper, these influences have by now been throughly assimilated and transcended by his own invention. "A Box" and "A Stone and a Match" would stand out in any print exhibition anywhere. They are first-rate examples of graphic art.

HWang Yung Sung's paintings look good enough to eat.Which doesn't mean that they aren't also beautiful to look at, or that they don't hold up as strong formal statements.They do. It's just that he so very obviously loves the physical nature of paint and color, and knows how to communicate that love simply and directly, that he makes a gourmet meal for the viewer out of luscious color and sensuous dabs of paint. And all within warm and handsome semi-abstract images derived from his Korean homeland.

Both his "Straw Roof Houses" and "Village of Years' Past" are what painting is all about.

Choi Young Rim paints wonderfully frisky and delightful people and animals going about their everyday business or play. These characters are lightly sketched on sand-textured canvas painted varying tones of reds, browns, and ochres. The result is a pictorial world that is half fantasy and half irony -- and which exists as extremely sophisticated decoration.

Hong Chong Myung also utilizes a warm, brownish color surface upon which he projects his imagery, but in his case the forms he employs are firmly embedded in the paint itself rather than floating upon it. His art is more expressionistic than Choi Young rim's and is thus less carefree and fun filled. There is both joy and pain in these highly subjective canvases, as well as, I felt, a deeply ingrained touch of mysticism.

Both Yim Jik Soon and Yoon Jung Sik are painters of passion and verve who obviously love what paint and color can do. They are thoroughly accomplished artists who impressed me with their craft but not quite so much with what they did with it. It's not that I didn't like their paintings -- only that I've seen work life that before.

The fact these artists have not succumbed entirely to modernism should surprise no one familiar with Korean history, studded as it is with instances of the Korean genius for assimilation of foreign influences without loss of national integrity.

As Gene Baro writes in his forward to the show's catalog. "Korea's geographical position between the Asiatic land mass and the islands of Japan, and the peninsula's strategic importance to the development and well being of the emergent Japanese state and of dynastic China, accounts for the turbulent history of Korea's great people. . . .

"Her people have been able to somehow to absorb and turn to their favor ideas and technologies from abroad, mastering them, sometimes improving them, making in the face of great odd a society, a culture, an art uniquely Korean."

In the case of post-World War II art, this has meant an open but cautious attitude toward anything Western and modern, and an electric assimilation of formal influences from abroad. Judging from this exhibition, the best of contemporary Korean art relates to the current advanced outposts of Western modernism much the way American art of the very early 1920s related to the European avant-garde of that time.

all in all this is an extremely handsome show, the kind that is well worth a visit, not only for the sake of seeing what some of Korea's best artists are up to, but simply for the pleasure of looking at good art.

This exhibition of the Korean Cultural Service, 460 Park Avenue, New York City, will remain open to the public through Oct. 10.

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