Critical essay on the recent works of the artist Gum Sahong 

Another gaze on 'the holistic expression of painting'

Hong Gyeonghan, Art critic

1 No matter what the genre is, to respect the basic is difficult. For example, the question of indigenization or having native characteristics is fatalistic concept no one can disregard, but it is not easy to achieve it. It is sure that, to the extent of the same era, the phenomena are more or less the same in the un-limited areas of contemporary arts. Even cried out loud, if an art cannot prove that the art is an art. or cannot demonstrate its truthfulness in the artistic attitude, it is just specious.

From this perspective, the life and the art of the artist Gum Sahong are full of interesting suggestions to us. He doesn't value specious forms or focus on superficial techniques which are like only a house built on the sand. He puts the most value on the spiritual side A painting focusing on the appearance without any fun-damental essence is meaningless while an accomplishment from inner self can only create the artistic value.


The paintings of Gum Sahong, traversing time and space with various forms, techniques and genres, are so invested a distinguished originality that we can recognize even without the signature of the artist. As if he considers his life in a far valley in Gyeongi Province so perfect, the idleness in his works and his pursuit of esthetical conscience create enough sense for us to meditate on his distinction of different valucs. From his earlier works trying to overcome the difficult moments of our history with humor, to those focusing on the role of the art in the ordeal of the history, or even to those caressing softly the natural scenery and human life, his esthetic boundary is far from being narrow. But the remarkable value of the art of the artist Gum Sahong lies in its experimental nature kept from the "80s. To make a long story short considering the limited pages, for him. the art is a container of the origin. through a sort of fusion of life and visual language, and the art is also the substance of the existence of the artist himself. And the existential characteristics have been blossomed in his joumey as an artist over several decades.


When it comes to Gum Sahong's art, the prior thesis/topic is the keyword of being 'holistic'. Being holistic is to see the position of each individual being in the cognition of the whole: it is a unity. based on the organic viewpoint about nature. On the other hand, it is concrete and distinguishing but also general, same as the process of an individual becoming the whole. It can also be substituted by some value expressed through unique experiences of an individual.


If we apply this to the real world, it is a kind of self-torment because it is a fruit of a penance, not a result of an imagination. At the same time, it is a counterweight cultivating the joy of life and a spontaneous trial to face the pain. But this is also displaced as an actual person with the art and the life bound together, and it is substituted with various forms on a canvas, like in the work “The Song of My Life" where he tries to understand the truth of life through the flow of water. Seen closely, it possesses each drive but seen from a broader view, it is equivalent to the long journey seeking for the genuine source of the art, which meets also the concept of being holistic from a present perspective. Thus his art and life aren't either dissected or fragmented. So far.


2 Gum Sahong's works are products of wisdom, distinguishing profound meanings and pushing to a holistic relation. His works, seemingly similar but different, make sometimes people ask what is the identity of these works, but it's a viewpoint disregarding the fact that, on the contrary, the variation with boundless technique, content and form by period keeps the holistic nature of each, and all these are unified in a holistic way. That viewpoint misses the duty of an artist penetrating the life-art and an esthetic palpitation which occupies all the works. The time changes. How can an artist be buried in an only issue?

Gum Sahong has created so many works Iike growth rings through the time, but his reaction to the era is more obvious in his recent works. If his earlier paintings, expressing the nature and the life and containing the torment of the history, are orchestrated by rather direct language, his present works bear a contemplative composedness. Among them, one piece has captivated my attention: < The Song of My Life-Pensive Bodhisattva >(2017).


This work is composed with some arbitrary-looking brush strokes with simple but liberal colors, some traces of motion, but more than enough to emphasize the image of benevolent Pensive Bodhisattva. In this work, the borderless substitution of situation, the result of a cognition between undefined interval-cracks and self are naturally intertwined, Samsara and circulation based on Buddhist theory of causality are harmonized and blossomed, while being individually fragmented. As the artist says, we ask 'where did you establish your boundary?", but the setting itself implicates the boundary.


< The song of my Life-pensive Bodhisattva > reveals that the paintings for us is to feel. be moved by, think over and breathe. This work is composed with very specific forms, especially Buddhistic. and from a western, logic and analytical perspective, the series is relatively comprehensive, oriental and holistic. Simply speaking, the painting is not defined as a painting any more, but a nirvana from the existing things, a kind of lesson of Buddhistic 'idleness', This is also the nature of pensive Bodhisattva.


On the other hand, < The song of my Life-Shadows on the water >(2016-2017) impresses with the 'feeling of fragmented mass'. But the residual images of his paintings are not a mere feast of water and color, but are close to a beauty of balance bearing the energy from the lines of light, colors as a crystallized light, beauty of harmony navigating freely space and time, and all these elements agglomerated in a frame. But these are just exterior impression. The essence is closer to a void than a material revelation. This void is a eventually revelation of emptiness of everything, including myself, and also a margin of fullness. In other words, the void is a light: the light is invisible but exists. That existence is blossomed in a living thing as a Splendor which is color. This principle works in the same way in Gum's works. Moreover, the essence of this idea meets also Gum Sahong's philosophy: the holistic expression of painting.


The series of beautiful nature landscape such as < The Song of my Life-Northwest ridge of Seorak Mountain >(2015) demonstrates these holistic properties. Nevertheless, the works of beautiful nature landscape don't guarantee the nature-reproducing, realistic disposition. Painting either nature or things, the artist proves that a painting for him consists in the way of inner representation. It is a profound analysis on how to accept the 'real value' in relation between the human being and the world (nature), to establish his original universe of expression with a contemporary perception.


This tendency is also present in his series of the beautiful nature landscape. At a glance, these paintings seem to follow the philosophy of nature of the great artists in the late Chosun period, but in fact they are re-contextualized according to contemporary criteria.


The characteristic of the beautiful nature landscape is the looseness and disperse are filling the entire canvas instead of detailed observation. This tendency is more obvious in his recent works. When we observe this characteristic of margin, there is a difference between the ordinary beauty of void and that of his works. When we talk about the beauty of the margin in general, it is based on the oriental philosophy with the dual concept of the ‘infinity' of void and the 'fullness' of emptiness. However, in Gum Sahong's case, it is neither the fullness nor the emptiness, but it is a meditative margin. That distinguishes this void from other cases in oriental painting.

This meditative margin makes a big difference, because it invites the viewer to experience the breathe of the artist himself and also to feel his thought. So it is up to the viewer to feel the thought of the artist. The idea and the explanation of the artist are already expressed in the painting. But Gum Sahong adds here one more intention, a consideration for the part of the viewer to complete the act of appreciation of an artwork. Based on such spiritual setting of the artist, Gum Sahong avoids the common way of pictorial representation, which is a reproductive description of a visible fact. He shows a 'flat' representation of image, through ellipse and simplification of shapes. It makes the clearness of the content even more obvious. This tendency is present in the most of his recent works.


In these works indeed, there float always non-artificial language and those words are connecting the real space and the space in the painting, between the style and subject of the painting. He leaves the appreciation absolutely subjective to the viewer. The viewer is invited feel the emotional charge arousing from the space, before he/she knows, a warm after-feeling surrounds the viewer. His works bring to life the fine surface of silk, paper and canvas just as it is. Not only the appearance of his works catches the attention of the viewer, but his works also invite the viewer to be immersed in an endless flow of time. Looking into his works, the empty place of the margin he produced is creating a quiet atmosphere, providing the viewer with a time for meditation. This is the genuine pleasure enabled by the 'meditative margin'.


For Gum Sahong, the distinction of the concrete and the abstract in a western perspective doesn't have much meaning. He focuses on the thinking of multiplication of the individual elements. In a word, he thinks the word is indivisible, living whole. Thus As soon as we try to divide the world and reduce to the minimum unity, the properties as a whole end up disappearing. As in < Shadows on the Water >, the uncertainty


principle demonstrates the division of the subject and the object; the part illuminates the whole, the whole reflects the part. This is the consistent context projected in his paintings. Of course, to seize this point, we need to grasp the meaning, not just seeing the appearance.


Anyway Gum Sahong is now placing emphasis on the holistic formation of his own personality, through the logic of things and the wisdom of seeing himself. When we analyze this concept esthetically, we can tell this attitude invites us to look through the humanism in an esthetic creation, and it can be regarded as the best gesture about human life which is attainable through art.


Gum Sahong creates a unique image in the procedure of synthesizing, arranging and processing the unlimited materials or plastic methods, in a sensuous way according to his own concepts of things. The hamony between the materials, colors, senses and shapes functions as a valuable standard to understand the intemal relation between things (including the nature) and inner self. The more complete this standard gets, the visual perception is obtained smoothly and the chain of internal and external relations combines one interpretation to another. For this reason, it is not difficult to discover in his works a universe of refined dignity.