Kim Minjung Text
The work of Kim Minjung (Korea) demonstrates both her foundation in the traditional Korean calligraphic arts and the influence of mid-20th Century abstract expressionism.
Kim attained her MFA at Seoul National University. Through her studies she discovered that both traditional calligraphers and the action painters of the mid-20th Century shared an appreciation for the ability to convey energy and spirit through the manipulation of line and practiced spontaneity.
Much of her subsequent work exhibits this poetry of line and explores the expressive potential of pure material. The tone of her work is often at once contemplative and whimsical, ethereal and scientific. It moves onlookers to consider man’s place in nature and our relationships to each other. Her compositions variably recall the awesome grandeur of traditional landscape or the blurred geometry of chromosomes under a microscope, but always Kim guides onlookers to focus on marks and material rather than representation. For Kim, meaning derives from process. In order to convey the passage of time and organic decay, she has perfected a method of layering rice paper and tearing the edges to create line, paradoxically utilizing a method destruction in order to create contours which envelop form. She is hesitant to label her work as art -- rather she describes her practice as a “discipline of life,” a meditative process which simultaneously requires her to focus her energy and to clear her mind.
Se Kwon Oh (Art Critic and Professor, Daejin University)
Traditionally, Korean paintings were drawn on a paper surface with black and colored ink. Many Korean artists today still use the same technique in their works. But while traditional modes of expression remain important, some seek to change ancient techniques and materials to meet the needs of the modern era. Inevitably, this has given rise to discussions about whether it is important to adhere to tradition or to be contemporary. Generally agreed upon is a middle ground allowing the artist to create contemporary pieces while respecting tradition. The question then becomes whether it is possible to meet the two seemingly contrasting needs and, if possible, how to do so. This is an ongoing task for Korean artists.
In exploring traditional materials, artists have sought various ways of using Hanji, Korean traditional handmade paper. In contemporary Korean art, Hanji is used largely in two ways: as a painting surface and as an object. When used as an object, its physical properties such as texture are worked into the art. Thus Hanji is both an expressive material and part of the artwork itself.
Since the 1960s, Korean artists like Ungno Lee and Young Woo Kwon have been experimenting with the physical properties of Hanji. Many artists have followed suit, with most using paper mulberry pulp or fibers before they are made into finished Hanji paper. Such attempts by Korean artists to use Hanji’s properties can be viewed as an experiment in formative art.
In the works of Minjung Kim, one of the most interesting aspects is her use of Hanji itself as an object. Kim arranges small uniform pieces in geometric patterns. She studies composition, harmony, dimensions and forms utilizing the physical properties of Hanji. In her work, the Hanji pieces are torn by hand when wet, leaving their torn sides smooth and natural. Unlike most other artists, who tend to experiment with paper pulp before it is made into Hanji, Kim uses only the finished product.
In creating her works, Kim first divides the surface with rhythmic straight lines and strokes of Korean ink in black or color. With meticulous consideration of the effects of color and overall composition, she paints the background in solid color or in multiple layers. Then she adds dots or other effects. Lastly, small hand-torn pieces of Hanji are pasted in patterns, adding texture and three-dimensional effects to the work.
Kim’s works are marked by the harmonious repetition of geometric patterns. Colored dots, lines and planes in the background and the Hanji collages on top remain separate yet achieve a harmony of repeated square forms. Consistency of size and color stands out rather than variation in form. The small repetitions create a greater form, producing an effect similar to that of a minimalist piece.
The small uniform squares of Hanji collages create a soft, three-dimensional effect. They are repeated methodically throughout the entire surface. As in an all-over painting, one can feel unbounded expansiveness and continuity. Moreover, she emphasizes color in parts and composes the entire surface effectively using color variation, proportion, harmony and repetition.
The making of Kim’s works requires much patience. The process of preparing the surface, penciling in lines, tearing wet Hanji pieces and pasting them in a harmonious composition is a complicated one that follows a detailed plan. And it takes a long time to finish. The laborious process recalls an ascetic performing spiritual exercises as she patiently handcrafts each work to completion.
Minjung Kim did not set out to use Hanji as an object but sought to express the beauty of Seoul at night. She chose Hanji as a means to express the city lights rather than to accentuate its physical properties. Her works are a metaphor for urban life today. The squares of black ink and colors in the background are the buildings and windows, reflecting the structured lives of urban dwellers. The lines are the shadows of people and objects—the shadows of our lives. The small, torn pieces of Hanji are the city lights.
In a nighttime cityscape crowded with high-rise buildings, the lights are denser in some areas and scattered in others. The variations produce a rhythmic effect, and Kim’s paint-and-paper collages recreate the rhythmic night view. Moreover, the collages serve as a metaphor for the repetitive, structured lives of modern people.
Minjung Kim uses the traditional Korean art material Hanji not as a painting surface but as an object in her collages. She creates images of the nighttime cityscape, a metaphor for modern city life. Kim’s work is a formal experiment that both expresses the city and explores Hanji’s physical properties.