In this essay art critic and curator, Andy St. Louis, reviews the Park Rehyun: Triple Interpreter exhibition on display at MMCA Deoksugung in Seoul. The following photos are credited to Andy St. Louis.
Retrospective exhibitions these days tend to be rather staid affairs, aspiring to please the greatest number of visitors possible by mounting unadventurous presentations of recognizable works from an artist’s oeuvre. While these exhibitions are certainly “safe” from a museum ticketing perspective, they rarely provide much content deserving of critical mention. So it’s all the more surprising to encounter a retrospective that does just that, especially within one of Seoul’s most conservative-leaning art venues: the Deoksugung branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), which typically presents anodyne exhibitions of modern Korean art from 1900 to 1960.
In Fall 2020, however, MMCA mounted a retrospective that bucked this trend, featuring a most unlikely protagonist: Park Rehyun (1920-1976). Best known as the wife of Kim Kichang, a foundational figure in the realm of modern Korean ink painting, Park carved out her own niche in the burgeoning art world of postwar Korea as a genre-defying artist whose work encompassed the mediums of ink painting, printmaking and tapestry. Park Rehyun: Triple Interpreter moves chronologically, from Park’s early explorations of modern ink painting in the 1940s to her mature works of abstraction in the late 1960s, before shifting its focus toward the experimental prints and tapestry works she created in the early 1970s. Not only does Triple Interpreter argue for Park’s rightful place in the canon of twentieth century Korean art history as a groundbreaking modern artist, it traces the trajectory of a woman asserting her own agency in a male-dominated neo-Confucian society.
At the age of 20, Park traveled to Japan to attend the Women’s Academy of Fine Arts in Tokyo, where she studied nihonga, (modern Japanese ink painting). It was during this time that she first began to experiment with new mediums—paint, as opposed to traditional ink, and paper substrates rather than silk—foreshadowing the avant-garde spirit that would propel her career thereafter. In 1943, she received the top prize at the Joseon Art Exhibition in Seoul for a two-panel folding screen titled Makeup (1943), which depicts a woman looking in the mirror. Installed prominently at the outset of Triple Interpreter, this work is notable for the intimacy of its female protagonist, who kneels on the ground to tie a pink bow into her braided hair, as well as for the strong color contrast between the woman’s jet-black kimono and the crimson mirror stand. What is most demonstrative in the work, however, is the parallelism between the two panels: the woman on one side and the mirror on the other. This compositional logic equates the female figure with a passive and decorative aesthetic object, visualizing a social convention that she herself would go onto dismantle in subsequent decades.
After five years in Tokyo, Park returned to Korea in 1945 shortly before the Japanese surrender in World War II and married the renowned ink painter Kim Kichang in 1947. As Korea experienced the upheaval of war on its own shores in the early 1950s, Park sought to eradicate all traces of Japanese style from her work, developing a distinctive aesthetic that foregrounded expressive nuances of the female figure. The elongated bodies that appear in works like Open Stalls (1956) and Reminiscence (1957) are rendered with sweeping curves and bold colors, conveying the strength and resilience of Korean women during the chaotic and bleak postwar period. Toward the end of the decade, Park started to render these figures in a more radical mode, embracing aspects of Cubism and Fauvism in highly stylized works like Banquet (early 1960s), which confirms the artist’s continued experimentation with new techniques that challenged notions of materiality germane to the medium of ink painting.
It was also during this period that Park’s domestic duties began to take their toll on her painting practice: not only did she give birth to four children between 1947 and 1956, she also served as the primary caregiver for her husband, who had been deaf since childhood, and accompanied him everywhere in order to assist with his hearing disability. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her dwindling creative output toward the end of the 1950s was dominated by images of birds, cats and fish, which can be seen as visual representations of the limitations that imposed themselves on her creative expression: that is, domesticated animals that harbor existential desires for freedom beyond their externally-imposed enclosures. Such visual metaphors transcend Park’s own circumstances to bespeak a general attitude of discontent toward the conditions faced by women in Korea’s ultra-conservative midcentury social milieu.
As Park began her 40s, she began to venture abroad, first to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, and later to the US, Latin America, Europe and Africa. Her travels during the early 1960s introduced Park to a range of new international trends in contemporary art, particularly the diverse approaches to abstraction that had taken hold in the West. Park absorbed these influences as she pivoted away from figuration, resulting in wholly non-representational works in that adapted the aesthetic language of Art Informel to the paradigm of ink painting. At first, these paintings retained a semblance of similarity to her previous bodies of work—for instance, Bird (1961) depicts a pair of slender birdlike forms enveloped by a predominant agglomeration of amber, ultramarine and black paint that overwhelms the composition—but by 1962, Park’s paintings were completely unrecognizable from her previous output.
At this point in Triple Interpreter at MMCA Deoksugung, one can’t help feeling as if entering another exhibition entirely, that of an artist liberated from strictures of convention and empowered to pursue an art practice on her own terms. The works produced by Park beginning in 1962 are breathtaking in their balance of ambition and restraint, experimentation and conviction, bearing all the marks of a painterly breakthrough: complex layers of ink and paint that reveal unexpected textures; minimal compositions that reclaim blank space as a functional structural element; and integrations of geometric and organic forms asserting a sublime visual logic that is almost spiritual in character. Even today, nearly 60 years later, these works are singular in the visceral response they evoke in viewers. Park’s avant-garde artistic sensibilities were far from spent, however; beginning in 1965, she innovated an entirely new form of abstraction wholly her own, free from the conceptual baggage of the Art Informel movement.
Commonly referred to as her “straw mat” or “brass coin” series, Park’s paintings from the latter half of the 1960s are characterized by winding saffron-colored forms that resemble ropes or thick woven threads, surrounding areas of thick white, black and burnt orange paint. Although these works introduced an aesthetic heretofore unseen in Korea, their distinctive formal attributes were deeply ingrained in the native cultures of the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, in creating works like Glory (1966-67), Park drew heavily from the motifs she observed in indigenous crafts and artifacts during her visits to Santa Fe, New Mexico and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Not only do her paintings from this time exhibit a new sense of color and form, they also demonstrate Park’s boundless experimentation with the medium of painting itself, an impulse that would drive her to explore other avenues of expression
In 1967, Park moved to New York, where she spent seven years studying and experimenting in the mediums of tapestry and printmaking, creating a compelling body of work that allowed her to continue to develop her unique approach to abstraction. In Triple Interpreter, an entire gallery is filled with an astonishing array of etchings, aquatints, collographs and photo transfer prints from the early 1970s that testify to Park’s ability to incorporate new techniques and uncover new means of realizing her artistic vision. Her enthusiasm for printmaking extended to the realm of tapestry, allowing her to deepen her engagement with abstraction on a tactile level, incorporating curtain rings and even sink strainers into woven works that embody her boundless energy from this period.
Sadly, Park was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1975, and passed away at the age of 56 in January of the following year, cutting short her prodigious career. As an artist, she achieved heights of creative expression equal to, if not greater than, most of her male counterparts, including her husband. The exhibition’s title Triple Interpreter pays homage to her ability to speak Korean, English and read lips; although Park may have possessed an impressive linguistic skillset, she communicated most clearly through the diverse and inventive means of visual depiction that she deployed throughout her brief but brilliant career. Now, 45 years after her untimely passing, she is finally getting the attention she deserves in this remarkable and momentous exhibition.