Landscapes Becoming Objects on the Islands of Min Joo Kim -Eun Hyung Kim

(Translation : Doo Hee Chung, Editing : Aaron Cumberledge)
Connections with Traditions
Min Joo Kim’s work reveals the forest of her imagination. A backdrop of a Christmas tree with blue-green and apricot-colored lights becomes an island, and characters like half-human, half-fish mercreatures or a humorous person whose face is covered by a traditional bamboo hat produce a mysterious, curious scene. Despite their unique personality, Min Joo Kim’s paintings are strongly rooted in traditional paintings, because they faithfully observe elements of shan shui (traditional Chinese landscape painting) and shan shui renwu (traditional Chinese landscape and figure painting) in their composition of trees, rocks, water, houses, and figures. Utilizing these basic elements, the artist transforms and reconstructs them to create diverse works.
The techniques used in the depiction of trees and rocks are based on the traditional techniques found in the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden (a tome of Chinese painting instruction) that were also commonly used in paintings from the late Joseon Dynasty. In the case of the trees there are examples of several techniquessuch as the pepper dots stroke, the Jie dots stroke, the Rat’s-foot dots stroke, and the outlined leaves techniquebeing utilized and transformed in Kim’s work. In the case of the rocks, it could be said that the artist made her own technique by mixing the traditional techniques of the hemp-fiber texture stroke, staining by smearing, and shading.
In addition, the continuous use of blue-green and malachite-green (emerald green) in the coloring of the trees and rocks makes it possible to link them with the lineage of blue-green shan shui. The origins of the blue-green shan shui style are found in the work of the Li family (Li Sixun [李思訓] and his son Li Zhaodao [李昭道]) during the Tang Dynasty. It was later modified in Peach Blossom Spring by Jung Sik An in the late Joseon period and the Idiot Landscape series by Ki Chang Kim in the modern period. Seeing the connection between these works and Kim’s is not difficult. In Kim’s Fish Paradise (2000), the blue-green shan shui style makes a distinct appearance, and the style’s influence continues to be seen (directly and indirectly) in the depiction of the mountain rocks and the use of blue-green and malachite-green in subsequent works. The fact that Kim’s work contains basic elements of shan shui (utilizing traditional techniques for depicting trees and rocks), and the fact that it employs the color blue-green makes it possible to classify it as traditional shan shui or shan shui renwu. On the other hand, her use of quirky characters reveals her unique imagination and originality.
Subjective Interpretations and the Proportions of Shan Shui
The most prominent method by which Kim’s works subjectify and modernize traditional forms is the change in the proportions of the natural landscapes in her paintings. The relationship between the natural landscape and the other elements (houses, people, objects) changes depending on their relative sizes within the canvas. This variation in the size of the natural landscape is one of the most important features of Min Joo Kim’s work. In Forest of Meditation (2014), Waterway (2017), and Scenery of the Heart (2017), the natural landscape is large, and other elements (like human figures and houses) are small. Although the composition of the background is somewhat contemporary, it maintains a ratio between the natural landscape and the other elements that is more or less the same as in shan shui. This create an open space for poetry and spontaneous thought that allows one to become one with nature.
Kim also painted a series in which buildings are massive, and landscapes exist wholly or partially within the buildings. Two examples are Life is Beautiful (2011) and House of Rest (2012). In the modernization of realistic landscape painting, compositions from a more close-up perspective have emerged. Furthering this trend, Kim exaggerates and enlarges buildings such as single-family houses. Sometimes the exterior walls are omitted, and the insides of the buildings can be seen. Nevertheless, realism is indirectly brought to mind, because the buildings are based on the houses that are often seen in Korean residential areas. For Koreans, the combination of buildings that are familiar to everyone and natural objects reconstructed by the imagination of an artist is a combination of “the real” and “the artistic spirit.”
It is also interesting to note that the buildings in Kim’s paintings are depicted with a three-dimensional perspective, unlike the other parts of the landscape. Not only are they rendered in three dimensions, but they take up a much larger portion of the painting than buildings in traditional shan shui. The increase in the size of the buildings compared to shan shui is a metaphor that reflects a metropolitan culture where one is surrounded by high-rise buildings, unlike the more traditional society that lived surrounded by mountains and rivers. A landscape made of repeated patterns in a flattened perspective is contrasted with a realistic architectural perspective, so that the work reflects both tradition and modernity.
Landscapes Becoming Objects
A new idea in this exhibition, compared with Kim’s past work, is an experimentation with objects, installation, and space. The concept of installation art and the importance of the display space has been growing ever since Marcel Duchamp brought his object into the exhibition hall. This concept of “objectinstallationspace” has formed a relationship and a connection that cannot be separated. In this exhibition, Kim shows an acute awareness of this. This new initiative is an interesting extension of her subjectivation and modernization of traditional arts.
In the work A Dialogue of Thoughts: Landscape on a Table on a Table in 2017, a painting on a folding screen is set on a table, which gives the impression that the entire genre of landscape painting has become an object and been put on a table. The zigzagging of the screen grants a variability to the shape, because it can be folded into different dimensions and it can be placed in a specific space. Classical art museums display works by hanging them on a wall or displaying them on a stand, but modern art museums commonly use tables with installation artworks or art objects on them for displays. Min Joo Kim borrows the latter display type, then adds her folding screen with its features of spatial variability, revealing her unique sense of display. Of course, the entire installation consists of not only these layers of display, but also Kim’s actual painting on the screen.
A Dialogue of Thoughts: Landscape on a Table is a flat work that seems to include the ideas of installation art within the painting. A shrunken landscape painting in the shape of an island is placed on a table. It is reminiscent of landscape stones, like suseok (Korean viewing stones), and the traditional culture of the people who collected these stones for their aesthetics, suddenly comes to mind. A culture of collection that focused on only “choosing” an object and not making any man-made alterations to it resembles the using of found objects in contemporary art. This makes the landscape into an incredible, metaphorical example of contemporary art. The fact that the table is neither fully drawn nor visualized, but is expressed simply with lines, gives merely the vague suggestion of the idea that the landscape in on a table.
Among other new efforts, there is a work called A Dialogue of Thoughts: Landscape on Display, which uses the composition of Chaekgeori or Chaekgado. Chaekgeori is a traditional painting genre featuring booksand sometimes other objectssitting on a book shelf. These other objects can include bronzeware, ceramics, stationery, vases, suseok, fruit, and various other things. The fact that Min Joo Kim has placed objects on a bookshelf is yet more proof that she recognizes landscapes as objects.
In some cases, the reinterpretation of art history or traditions may be the subject of the painting itself. Min Joo Kim can be classified as an artist who produces such works, especially in her reinterpretation of shan shui or shan shui renwu. In this exhibition, elements of traditional painting are adroitly reinterpreted using the concepts of object, installation, and space. The landscapes that become objects in Kim’s work are sometimes referred to as “islands” in the artist’s titles. Although islands may not have a strong relationship with the surrounding lands and may feel isolated, I wonder if the island-shaped landscapes shown in Kim’s works grant the possibility of travelling to other worlds by boat. That would suggest a variety of ways to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity. I wonder if the fishing boats that often appear in her paintings were put there to show the possibility of heading out to the open sea at any moment and going to another land.