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Copyright all right reserved 2008 Cho Duck Hyun

  Classical Works from a Moderate Point of View _ Youngna Kim 2008/08/24

Duck-Hyun Cho 조덕현


Among all the Korean  artists from the 1980s, Duck-Hyun Cho stands out most distinctively. His debut  as an artist came relatively late in 1988 when he was 31 years old. Since then,  his activities have been characterized by energetic involvement in several solo  exhibitions and many group shows. He has also received many awards including  the special prize of the Grand Art Exhibition of Korea in 1989, the grand prize  of the Dong-A Fine Art Festival in 1990, and the prize of Total Art Museum  in 1991. Recently he has been represented at many international exhibitions in America, Australia, and across the world. The  attention given to him in recent years may be due to the fact that he is viewed  as an artist who is certain of his thoughts and values, and has distanced  himself from the tendency common to young Korean artists to follow the latest  artistic trends of the West.

The most  characteristic feature of Duck-Hyun Cho’s work is classicism based on strong  drawing. The artist himself never hides his strong interest in studying human  bodies in the classical discipline. Considering that abstract art was  introduced in Korea  before academism had established a solid foundation, there are surprisingly few  intellectually oriented artists compared to the multitude of  expressionistically oriented artists. His way of thinking is indeed very  unique. Believing that in order to paint well in the Western style, one must have  a solid knowledge of classicism, he has been interested in the works of Poussin  who pursued order and rigorous structure, Caravaggio who endeavoured to convey  vivid realism based on classicism, and Cezanne who sought to realize in his  canvas, both visual reality and essential structure. However it is another  gifted classicist, Edgar Degas, that one finds Cho sharing the most affinity  with.

The inspiration from  Degas is apparent in one of his earliest works To Think over Again, which captures the passing moment of action, a  carefully controlled rhythm and order in the figural grouping. He says the work  was conceptualized when he began commuting to Seoul National   University after several  years of military service in the quiet countryside. He was overwhelmed by the  coming and going of the crowds at the subway station. In a cryptic fashion, a  group of nude figures in monochrome disappear and reappear in the left and  right wings, while the figures in the center panel are depicted in colors. The  anatomical chart, that was later added to the lower part, with its gauging  lines creates a sense of deep space and contrasts the two dimensional aspect of  the chart. This superimposition of the chart also adds interest to a subject  that may otherwise be overly conservative.

Duck-Hyun Cho’s  inclinations towards classicism can be found not only in his subject matter,  such as human bodies or particular appropriation of the images from the  classical past, but also in his structure. He always seems to like to achieve  order and balance within his paintings. His relentless pursuit for rational  structure was realized in a series of works where he combines different sizes  of rectangular canvases. One of the first series was Sky which was created by connecting several square canvases or  papers that measured 150X100cm. The subject of Sky has long been the inspiration of Romantic artists such as  Delacroix, Constable, and the Surrealist Magritte, with its infinite space and  endless diversity. Just like there are certain classical aspirations in the  works of Delacroix and Constable, the classicist Cho said that one summer day  after the rainy season he was looking at the clearing sky from a rooftop, and  felt and immense urge to paint the ever changing sky and clouds. What began as  a simple sketch of the sky and the flow of clouds became increasingly complex  as he began appropriating and developing upon the images found in the works of  the great masters of the past.

The result was Sky, dating from 1985, created by  connecting several square pieces of paper. The work is divided into three parts  with the left section depicting the face of Rembrandt and the right section  that of a contemporary Korean, both in colors and monochrome. A similar work  from the same year, also titled Sky,  portrays a contemporary Korean in the pose of Adam, from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam of the Sistine  Chapel ceiling, while on the opposite side, the countering image of Isaiah is  depicted. Cho copied the exact coloring of the original in one section, while  in another section, he simulates the original in a mosaic fashion by arranging  small rectangular pieces of primary colors with a contemporary feeling. This  kind of drawing, with images from art history, is meant to signify meetings  with the great masters who lived with intense artistic determination.

Multivision around 1985 is a synthesis of previous experimentation. The compositional  shape of a T is formed by connecting together twenty-seven pieces of paper,  each measuring 35X35cm, that can be separated and rejoined in numerous ways to  suggest many possibilities of composition. In other words, the basic rectangle  can be transformed into many different shapes as it is moved horizontally or  vertically, placed in a T, or a + formation according to the conditions of the  exhibition site or the artist’s mood. This reminds us of the Minimalists’  compositional method. Upon a few of the twenty-seven square surfaces appear  such images as Ingre’s Odalisque or  Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, as well as a  face of a Korean woman, and apples. These images are veiled in a sense of  mystery, some presented in whole and some in part against a black background.  As suggested by the title, Multivision,  the work strongly reflects the influence of video art. Each of his square  canvases which function as a unit, can call out images of works in art history,  transcending time and space in a way television screens do. They also serve the  traditional concept of “painting as a window” as each offers its own point of  view and demands a careful look in its own right.

The artist states  that through serial work such as Multivision,  he is seeking to demonstrate not only the relationship between the parts and  the whole, but more significantly between each individual and the community. He  says that as Korean society undergoes Westernization throughout the 20th  century, it is becoming more individually oriented, and it is this  transformation that he wanted to portray in his works. It was also during this  time when Cho was preoccupied with this series, and the political situation in Korea was very  tense. Against the authoritarian government, the oppositional party leaders,  students, and workers organized massive street demonstrations. Violent clashes  between the demonstrators and the police and even tear gas were a part of the  everyday life for Koreans. There were few young artists who were not agonizing  over the choice to be made between “pure art” and “socially or politically  conscious art”. Cho, who remained in the camp of “pure art” nevertheless  painted Multivision –sound with different faces and voices  with strings tying them together, which reflected the social situation.

The idea of  Multivision soon developed into quite a different subject of apples. Drawn  against a black background, apples, rendered most realistically in beautiful  red and yellow with a sense of weight and volume, convey sensuality nearing  mystery. It seems that he is alluding to Cézanne as he includes a portrait of  Cézanne or inscribes both Cézanne and his years of birth in a few of the  paintings. Subsequently some of the critics have referred to these works as “Cézanne’s  Apples”. However, the naturalistic and detailed portrayal of the apples, the  geometric balance and accuracy, and the mysterious illumination against the  dark background, recall more powerfully the early still-life of the seventeenth  century painter, Caravaggio.

Duck-Hyun Cho’s  quest for more personal subjects and methodology is marked by his eventual  abandoning of appropriation and using instead photographs as a basis for his  works following his first solo exhibition in 1988. Although the shape of a  rectangle still constitutes the absolute basic form, he began working on more  ambitious projects. The most representative of these were Sky-Meditation on the 21st Century and The Site-Gate of Brandenburg. Instead of  the clouds that were introduced in his earlier works, he begins by applying a  detailed map that has been reduced to 1:25,000 in scale. The curving lines that delineate the  roads on the map, which resemble the minute veins beneath the flesh, soften the  stiffness of the rectangular form.

The idea for such a  monumental work The Site-Gate of  Brandenburg, which consists of nine canvases, 390X486cm, is conceived by  the moving reunification of the two Germanies. Many Koreans realize that the  reunification of Germany  left Korea  the last divided country in the world. In the center of the work, Cho draws  with graphite and charcoal, the enlarged version of an old photograph of the  Korean War, showing people excavating the executed corpses found in an air-raid  shelter near the city of Wonsan in North Korea. As  the austere rectangular shape of the canvases surround the canvas, a bird’s eye  view reveals the scene of the war crime and transforms the painting into an  epic.

One may then wonder  what the Korean War means to the artist. Despite the fact that the Korean War  is historically an unforgettable tragedy for all Koreans, it has surprisingly  not often been treated as a subject for a painting by the generation who  actually experienced the war. Cho, who was born in 1957 and thus belongs to the  post-war generation, approaches it in a rather aloof manner and presents the  incident as if he were looking through old photo albums. The Korean War, again,  is the subject for A Memory of the 20th  Century. This time he uses a photograph of children playing innocently on  top of an abandoned tank. The canvas is again surrounded by canvases which  appear to be either a curtain, photo frame, or a window pane. This work  includes an enlarged, painted reproduction of the original photograph without  any alteration, any addition or deletion. The scenes which were photographed by  anonymous photographers through the means of mechanical reproduction, were  later revived by the artist’s hand. The artist, nevertheless is determined to  stress the fact that the work is hand-drawn, and by carefully looking at the  canvas, one can detect that he has drawn over the unraveling strands with  graphite and charcoal.

Cho seems to think  that photography is the medium that conveys reality most accurately, and it is  that reality he seeks to accentuate in his works. Having discovered the  interesting pictures while frequenting the Korean Photography   Center, he began using  these in his series titled The History of  Korean Women, which started around 1991. In that year, he became the father  of his first baby girl and began seriously thinking about the life of women in  Korean society. He selects individual photographs of women from the end of the  19th century to the early 20th century, the period of  Korean modernization. Now the individual photographs begin taking larger  portions of his work than the war photographs. The women in these twenty or so  works in the series are consorts, or for the most part, official photographs from  the upper class of the royal family. It is because at the time cameras were  extremely rare and commoners shirked at being photographed and thus it is  indeed difficult to gather material on them. As a result, photographs of common  people are limited to women of the most recent times.

In viewing The History of Korean Women, one may be  touched by the dignified pose of the queen of King Sunjong, the last King of  Chosun Dynasty, whose face is not quite familiar to most of us today, or be  fascinated by a picture of an elegant lady clad in beautiful traditional  clothing only to find out surprisingly that she is the spouse of an infamous  national traitor Wan-Yong Lee. Once again we may relive the flow of a trouble  filled history and contemplate the traces of its happiness, anger, sadness,  love, and pleasure.

It is quite  remarkable that Cho, unlike many other young artists of Korea today,  has been undaunted by the continuing influence of contemporary Western art. He  is very conscious of Korean history, and its experience in the process of  modernization, its ideological conflict with North Korea, and political turmoil  of the recent past. It is from these events in history and the life of Koreans  that he tries to draw this subject matter. He is able to convey what he wants  to say with a strong sense of composition and solid figurative expression. One  might say that his role as an artist is limited to editing the records of  history and is only looking on as a spectator. But even within his moderate  point of view, we no doubt feel the warm affection for human beings and life in  general.

Youngna Kim  (Professor of Art History, Duksung Women’s University)


3   Photographic Memories _ Susan Candel  
2   Fictions _ Michell Nuridzany  
  Classical Works from a Moderate Point of View _ Youngna Kim  
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