SUBLIMINAL ICONS
SoHyun Bae and Traditional Korean Art
IN CONTEXT

If it were not for the titles of some of her works, especially the early Women of the Josun Dynasty (1998), one would hardly perceive how deeply shaped SoHyun Bae’s iconography has been by Korean cultural history; a history lived from afar, therefore colored by the absence/presence of memory, doubts of otherness, longing, mythologizing, and an awareness of archetypal belonging. And if it were not for the wording in those titles, we may hardly understand how much her pictorial practice has been affected by what had been almost invisible in that history: precisely, women. Since portraits were the most important aspect of representational painting in the Joseon era, and they were invariably portraits of individual men, SoHyun Bae has painted universal portraits of women of the Joseon era, their eyes downcast or closed to signify their political absence. Since Buddhism and Shamanism, banned as official religions in the period, became practiced mainly by women, it’s their spirit that permeates her work. In the seventeenth century, it was mandated for women to wear their hair in a chignon to erase their personal sense of feminine power, thus SoHyun Bae’s idealized ladies are coiffed and, if this were not evident enough from the way the hair is minimized on their round faces, she paints Little Sister (2004), the image of a woman’s head seen from the back, with a prominent chignon locked in by a long hairpin with a hook at one end as the social rules dictated.

SoHyun Bae is, however, not interested in just being a counter-history painter, even if she clearly identifies more with the popular, spiritual worldview than with Confucian rationalism dominant in the Joseon period (shamans, indeed, were mostly women in Korea; and female, shamanistic, incantatory Korean chanting is still one of the best-kept secrets in the world of Music). Her most recent painting in the exhibition, Jasper Lake (2011), interiorizes landscape into an abstract image of dark inner depths, using acrylic color poured in a liquid state much like the ink used in traditional Korean landscape painting. In the group of paintings titled Grace (2010-11), representing body parts fallen from the sky, whose forms recall the cascade of boulders in Yongt'ong-dong, one of the Travel Sketches of Songdo (1757) by Kang Sehwang which at some point morphs into shapes of stoneware pedestal pots from the Silla period or glazed porcelain jars from the Joseon period. Earlier, between 1997 and 2003, Bae had painted a series of geometric abstractions titled Bo-ja-gi, all of the same size, 18x18 inches, directly inspired by the quilt- and scarf-like, squarish textile pieces used to wrap things (or heads) by tying their four corners together, ubiquitous in Korean everyday life. Rather than replicating the complex designs and brilliant hues of some of the original cloths, she simplified the composition in ways closer to a suprematist or neo-plasticist image, approximating their chromatism to the even, dark tones of her Women of the Josun Dynasty paintings, again implying a subliminal counter-history. The expressive abstractions of So Wang Mo’s Garden and Seven Immortal Peaches, both from 2009, reference and re-iconographize the Korean vision of an afterlife, the paradise of the Peach Blossom Land, as presented in two late Joseon quasi-mystical paintings, Sun, Moon, and Immortal Peaches and The Longevity of Symbols. Peaches are considered to be an emblem of springtime, of sexual love, of immortality. This further points to the fundamentally symbolic structure of all the artist’s imagery.

Ceramics have certainly had an important role in construing Korean cultural, artistic identity. Their characteristic monochromism has probably had a major influence on SoHyun Bae’s palette and the memory of their peculiar glazing may have impacted her moving from an early strong painterliness to the present surfaces that obliterate all brushmarks and construct solid, earthen, often shiny surfaces recalling the celadon vases of the Goryeo dynasty. This is obtained by separating the pigment from the binder and letting it settle and adhere to the ground as it dries, striving for a metallic tone whose textural evenness aspires to the epic, to the timeless, therefore to pure memory. Dark gray (the deep earth: the past), dark green (the forest: the unmovable present), recently a brilliant red (blood: the promise of future) are the dominant colors of a painting guided by an aesthetic code that inscribes history without naming it, that looks for art and finds the story behind the art.

MARIO DIACONO