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This article examines through case study the dilemma faced by modern Korean painters who came of age during the turbulent years of approximately 1930–75, when the question of artistic style and representation became inextricably linked to issues of identity at the level of both the individual and the nation. Many South Korean painters from this period turned to the idea of materiality, the amplification or replication of soil, rice, and earthenware on painted surfaces, as a means to create a visual culture that was bound to a unique Koreanness while simultaneously emerging as universal and timeless.
The article focuses on the work of one artist in particular, arguably South Korea’s best known from this period, the painter Kim Whanki. Through an examination of Kim’s oeuvre, I argue that he sought to develop a method of painting that allowed him to fuse the painterly practice of Western modernism with the process and surface of Korean earthenware to create a new visual language that disengaged from simple dualisms between East and West. Instead, Kim sought to envision a mode of painting that allowed both artwork and artist to embody the ambiguity of somewhere in between.