Dialogue between a Fisher and a Woodcutter - Min Byung-Jik (Chief Curator, Pohang Museum of Steel Art)
When looking at paintings by Kim Min Joo, one even wonders whether we hitherto have not lived quite aridly and barrenly. May this be because the shapes operate with a focus on images of flowing water? It is because, like sheets of rain that quench the earth, the supple feelings transmitted by liquid sensations are palpable. The unfolding of imagination that differs from the mean reality of today, which is but arid and rigid, seems to play a part as well. In the same vein, though they, at a glance, seem to overlap with our daily lives, upon close inspection, the stories depicted in the paintings likewise bear leisureliness, restfulness, and even flowing freedom that are a far cry from our way of life, which is as brittle as can be, and so in themselves make one feel magnanimous. Indeed, they prompt one even to laugh a little. However, because these laughs are tensely related to what surrounds reality of late instead of simply being unadulterated bursts, they should be seen as humor that even exudes refinement.
At this point, “Dialogue between a Fisher and a Woodcutter,” which Kim has borrowed as the titles of her works, seems to act as a very useful context (background) for the paintings. While it will amount only to a conversation between a mere fisher and a woodcutter when interpreted literally, “Dialogue between a Fisher and a Woodcutter” is an expression that reflects the way of life aimed at by our ancestors in its entirety. For it is an expression that refers to the scene where, away from a turbid and careworn reality, one communes with mountains and rivers, discussing the principle and beauty of nature. It implies the refined lives of the wise and the benevolent who, distancing themselves from the mundane world, lead leisurely lives in comfortable retirement, and the dialogues held in such a life likewise are called “pure conversations” (qingtan), referring to a conversational pastime that, through questions and answers, pursues the thought of Laozi (Laocius) and Zhuangzi, which may be seen as the principle of the world. Because it is no ordinary communication but an exploration of and a pursuit after the law of nature, it is a philosophical discourse second to the maieutics (maieutke) mentioned early on by Socrates in the West. However, as even Socrates’ maieutics in fact began from the trivial questions of everyday life, Kim, though not grand, likewise unfolds fragments of her certain insights into the world through paintings. In other words, her works are new dialogues between a fisher and a woodcutter set in a different era. In particular, because the paintings submitted to the present exhibition reveal meticulous insights into life in an uncommon and even more compact manner than in her previous works, the artist seems to be reciting sundry conversations with the world and calmly conveying them, face to face with her paintings. In other words, like the scholar-gentlemen of yore, the artist, too, with the careworn reality of the world behind her, styles herself a “fisher” (yufu) or a “fishing recluse” (yuyin) and maintains a certain distance from the world, looking back and reflecting on this through her works and holding a long dialogue with the world. In the end, she will create her own organized thought through the long journey of questioning and responding to herself (and her paintings), at times projecting the artistic imagination created in the process on the diverse shapes in her works and repeatedly bypassing and omitting fragments of invariably complicated thought about the world. Seen thus, in Kim’s case, one wonders whether a considerable weight of meaning is not placed on the process or act of painting itself. Of course, artists are bound to have unique painting methods of their own so that, in addition to the transmission and revelation of something through paintings, the act of painting itself can serve as a means in life of calming one’s mind and playing with one’s senses. Likewise, the process of painting itself holds an uncommon meaning for Kim. In that respect, even though she has created paintings that feel quite different from traditional East Asian paintings from the past because of her unique style, she nevertheless seems to be accepting wholly certain virtues of traditional East Asian thought in that she endeavors to bring about an agreement between the act of painting and mental and physical praxis. For, she unravels complicated problems by producing paintings of her own and, through paintings to which her thought and imagination have thus been added, prompts one to empathize with the differences in and joy of thought. In the end, the artist’s “dialogue” may be termed the artist’s unique way of starting a conversation with the world through or with paintings, and that slow and leisurely conversational style is removed from the ordinary conversational styles of everyday life so that it feels as though one could gladly respond. This is because not only the subdued paintings of green tones overall but also the artist’s imagination, which appears frequently and even borders on the outrageous, play a part in such joyful dialogues.
As with earlier works, many parts of Kim’s works in the present exhibition are related to images of fish and the water that they wade in. Often, the fish on the canvas form one body with human shapes, and the underwater world likewise overlap with the landscapes of reality in diverse ways. It feels as though the artist seeks to skirt around and to overcome the world of suffocating and solid reality flowingly, through the images of swimming that water holds. Titles of past exhibitions such as “Paintings of the Happiness of Fish” and “Paradise of Fish” seem to be related as well because they seem to reveal an orientation to ideal situations or spaces where leisureliness and comfortable rest exist. In addition to these, a mermaid (half-fish, half-human) who seems to be Kim’s alter ego often freely roams about that quiet space, thus gently showing the artist’s discomfort with the world from a certain distance. As did our ancestors, who sought to live in mountains and rivers in quiet nature, her critique of the world will be adequate even without being direct. For, at times, it is possible to overcome the ways of an illiberal reality as much as one wishes with an implicit tune or desire for the freedom of an active life alone. Such sentiments expand gradually into specific spaces of reality and even occupy quotidian spaces, with images of rivers and lakes (jianghu) infiltrating spaces in not only traditional Korean houses but also ordinary houses and buildings and scenes from East Asian landscapes overlying not only pleasure boats but also massive cruise ships from the mundane world. The artist’s delightful imagination thus alights on and settles down in real spaces, but the result is by no means excessive or ponderous. She does not seem to have wished to exclude even the joy of the meticulous forms in her works. Even the titles of her paintings seem to be aimed at transmitting such feelings, for they reflect an orientation to a life of leisure and comfortable retirement: A Moment of Leisure, Living without Ado, Rowing a Boat, Life Is Beautiful, To the Land of Hope, The Memory of a Journey, and Excursions to Scenic Landscapes. The motifs of ships and travel seem to carry important semantic weight in Kim’s works. They perhaps are manifestations of her frank if implicit desire to free herself from the mundane world and to live in retirement on or by mountains, rivers, and lakes, aiming at the leisurely beauty of worldly affairs. That in itself will already be a journey-like life, and the artist may have wished in a relaxed manner to reveal, through her paintings, the desire for a free life, swimming around the world as if traveling.
The works submitted to the present exhibition, however, seem to differ somewhat from previous ones in their overall ways of speaking or attitudes toward such a quiet and leisurely life. This is because they, with the addition of more active actions and gestures on Kim’s part, reflect more graceful and therefore longer breaths. Might there have been a certain insight? For far more leisurely and even transcendent attitudes toward her relationship with the world are palpable. A large-minded spirit that may even contain the entire world even in a net with holes, heedless of whether she is catching fish or the world, even reveals a certain leisureliness before laughter. In addition, Kim seems to seek to free even the mermaid on which she has projected her own freedom, back in its abode, the underwater world. For, though some of the mermaids retain their human shapes, also visible are process through which they return to their original piscine images. And the movements of such transformations are as free as can be. Far more leisurely toward the world, such fragments of the artist’s thought are conveyed in an even more direct manner through small ink drawings. This leads, once again, to the thought that, at times, small drawings may be more appropriate for gathering complicated thoughts and unfolding such pieces of thought in a concentrated way. While the composition of the entire canvas seems more solid than before, the room for movement available to the forms of thought spread out in the paintings seems larger than earlier. This seems to be due not so much to an exaggeration of images as to an enlargement of the breadth of thought. Thus repeating movements, at times large and at times small, thought surely proceeds toward the diverse internal conditions of the world. Likewise, the artist fishes for the world with a more large-minded attitude, as large as the depth and breadth of the nets that she casts in her paintings. Perhaps fishers’ boasts that actually catching something is unimportant is no exaggeration. Kim’s works are dotted with anglers who are not even interested in fishing and scenes where one even draws water from the depths of a lake with a completely empty net. These are moments that lead not to a sense of irony but even to the leisureliness of a large-minded life. In addition, in small drawings, one can find images of fish escaping through torn nets, clear images of torn nets that put to shame the hands grabbing them, and images of mermaids freely transforming into fish (or perhaps vice versa) and swimming. Eye-catching paintings hold images where thoughts that fill the head become trees and, in turn, forests, as if one were returning to nature. Does the artist mean to let them alone as they are (ziran)? It is as though she does not care even if the forests turn into lakes and, once more, into trees. For, in the end, all will be but small changes in that vast nature. Such attitudes at times overlap with her actual reality as well. A leisureliness by which even incomplete, failed drawings are exhibited, crumpled, in fishing nets and even smudges left on the canvas are not heeded will be attitudes manifesting such points. In other words, certain complete results are not all, bu every single process in itself has meaning. As do our lives. So, paintings will be no exceptions. The countless thoughts that the artist must have undergone to produce her works, too, will have been immensely precious parts of her journey of life. She thus seems to have realized the virtue of life that the bottomless and endless agonies about the world are things not to be resolved each time through solitary struggles but to be resolved slowly, even enjoying the process. Or she may have realized forever that she must let such torments return to their places as parts of broader affairs of nature. Perhaps for such reasons, even paintings depicting living spaces infiltrated by landscape images, witnessed in previous works as well, seem to be naturalized in the optimized condition of tenement houses that, as “resting homes,” exude a more quotidian feeling in the present exhibition. Should one say that Kim has allowed them to return to nature or settled down in a more realistic manner? For they seem not to be the distant paradise in traditional East Asian paintings from the past but to have been reborn as more naturalized landscapes from reality. A more mature and settled expressiveness will have played a part as well.
In addition to the refinement of plain thought held by traditional East Asian paintings, Kim’s paintings thus hold even the freedom and joy of forms transmitted by the sensibilities of today. Hidden in every nook and cranny of her works are not only the wit of life that she has learned by experience in the world but also games created by delightful imagination. To traverse across and to distort the shapes of standardized images freely, one must possess the strength of stable drawing that can buttress it and, above all, the breadth and rhythm of the free transformation of the artistic imagination. In other words, a freedom of expression that can actuate the strength of forms and images must be accompanied. Even Kim’s style, which, at a glance, can seem unfamiliar, does not strike one as so remote probably because, in addition to the power of her strokes, which can govern the transformations of the shapes to a certain degree, the logic of the meaning held by those transformations makes full use of consistent pragmatics. Implying a frustrating and rigid reality with a free world penetrated by flowing liquid and borrowing the titles of traditional East Asian paintings to unfold the artist’s orientation to a life in comfortable retirement will be such aspects. Here, the traversal across the human and the animal, unfamiliar forms in irregular spaces, and phases of transformation that even border on the outrageous themselves are not truly problematic. For, after all, what is important is the strength and effect of the expressions created by the artist’s thought and imagination. Of course, debates on whether or not they are contemporary transformations of traditional East Asian paintings, too, will be age-old. Kim thus freely, as do young artists today, seems to exude the diverse strengths of her sensibilities through paintings and to seek to advance toward a certain refinement of life that is more leisurely, old yet invariably new.