The Botanical Sublime: Po Kim, Sylvia Wald, Young Sup Han, Young Hie Nam
The Wind, The Stone, The Sky at Sylvia Wald Po Kim Gallery
April 11 to June 6, 2019
417 Lafayette Street, between East 4th and East 8th streets
New York City, waldkimgallery.blogspot.com
At a moment when the natural world is under terrible threat from human activity and when the enormity of the challenge can leave one feeling mournful and overwhelmed, this exhibition offers a sense of solace, an occasion to remember how great our capacity to collaborate with nature actually is. In their different ways, each of the four artists in “The Wind, The Stone, The Sky” —Po Kim, Sylvia Wald, Young Sup Han and Young Hie Nam — reaches out to the natural environment for subject matter, for materials, for guidance. In the textured collages of Young Hie Nam, for instance, the sheets of layered and folded hanji (traditional handmade Korean paper) have been dyed with red clay that the artist has collected from various locations. As she has explained to critic Chung-Hwan Kho, the clay from each site has a unique color, a naturally occurring variation which determines the palette of the collages. Hanji also plays an important role in the work of Young Sup Han, but with distinctly different techniques and effects. Preferring frottage to folding, Young Sup Han lays his sheets of hanji over a variety of materials, including stones, twigs and perilla leaves. By rubbing inkstick and acrylic paint into the hanji, he is able to create vigorous striated marks that he organizes into dense patterns that flood his often large-scale works. In Sylvia Wald’s sculptures (she is also represented by some early prints from the 1950s), the human-made elements (wire, plaster, paint) outnumber the naturally occurring ones (stones, feathers) but the overall structures of the sculptures, which can expand in profligate fashion like brambles, testify to the artist’s feeling for nature. Although the paintings by Po Kim included don’t feature any “natural” materials—they rely on acrylic and collage on canvas—his subject matter clearly involves our relationship to the natural world, especially in an epic 1995 painting titled Delight where a frieze of human figures and animals hover against a grid of Tibetan prayer flags.
As you make your way through this exhibition, which offers a wonderfully generous selection of work, much of it recent but some reaching back decades, the evocation of natural light (notably in Young Hie Nam’s collages), the connection to organic growth (chez Wald and Young Sup Han) and the interdependence of humans and animals (Po Kim), as well as the sensitive attention to surfaces throughout, has a cumulative effect of slowing down your thoughts, heightening your senses, gently sweeping away the anxiety that increasingly permeates our thoughts. Perhaps this soothing effect has something to do with the handmade tactility of the work and the absence of all things electronic. All you need to make something worthy of attention, these artists remind us, is a rescued fragment of the natural world and a pair of hands. The botanical dimension of the show is fascinating: since hanji is made by combining the inner bark from the paper mulberry tree with a viscous liquid from the sunset hibiscus, and perilla is a ubiquitous Asian crop, the show is a veritable cornucopia of Asian plant life.
But a paean to nature isn’t the only thing on offer in “The Wind, The Stone, The Sky.” The exhibition is also a celebration of love and companionship. Po Kim and Sylvia Wald had a productive and enduring marriage that only ended with Wald’s death in 2011 (Po died in 2014), while Young Sup Han and Young Hie Nam have been married for over 50 years. These two couples should take their places in the annals of great artist couples (a subject explored in last year’s “Modern Couples” at the Centre Pompidou in Metz and the Barbican Art Gallery in London). There is so much to be learned by looking at how the works of artist couples overlap and diverge. The history of Abstract Expressionism, for instance, cannot be truly written without considering the dialogues between Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle, Pat Passlof and Milton Resnick, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. Here, the dialogue between Young Sup Han and Young Hie Nam is especially intriguing. Both rely extensively on hanji, both employ an abstract language that draws on natural phenomenon, but their differences are just as evident: Young Hie Nam composes in planes and pursues translucency, while Young Sup Han favors linear motifs and dramatic value shifts. She folds and creases, while he applies relentless pressure.
If these qualities seem distributed according to conventional gender roles, it’s not entirely by accident, at least in the case of Young Hie Nam, who has long taken inspiration from the traditional methods of folding and wrapping performed by Korean women. She is also cognizant of the fact that hanji was used to cover all the interior surfaces of traditional Korea houses, even the doors and windows. Her choice of material is full of meaning. In a 2010 statement, she explained that the “essence” of her work is “to celebrate and sublimate the ordinary and noble life of Korean women, [to] make, with ordinary material, with the heart of an ordinary Korean woman. I choose hanji which was a common material at my time, as primary material and I try to draw out that old cherished world that is now in the process of vanishing little by little.” Pervading her work is a conflation of the abstract and the everyday: her folded planar shards evoke the geometry of crystal formations, while her titles frequently allude to quotidian events and basic human relationships (Mother and Daughter, A Trip to an Island, A Trip to the Sea).
There are also some nice echoes between the two couples: the Tibetan prayer flags and newspapers that Po Kim paints on and the Japanese paper Wald uses in several screenprints and in two wall reliefs are a perfect complement to the hanji employed by Young Sup Han and Young Hie Nam. Also noticeable is the way in which Po Kim and Young Sup Han sometimes use very wide formats to envelope their viewers in a sublime expanse. Among the outstanding works in the show is Young Sup Han’s The Evening Baltic Ocean Number 7001 (2007), a 17½-foot wide ink-on-hanji painting in which the seemingly endless slashes of ink perfectly summon the feeling of choppy waters (one can almost hear the waves) while stopping just short of explicit representation.
Over the last few years there have been numerous museum and gallery exhibitions in the U.S. devoted to Korean Dansaekha (monochrome) painters, but we still have some catching up to do when it comes to contemporary Korean art. Among its other virtues, “The Wind, The Stone, The Sky” is a welcome opportunity to discover the work of two long-established Korean artists whose work deserves to be better known in the U.S. It’s also great to see more of the gradually emerging oeuvres of Po Kim and Sylvia Wald, who worked under the radar in New York for so long, and whose legacy helped create the non-profit Wald Kim Gallery, which also deserves to be better known.
Raphael Rubinstein was guest curator of the Sylvia Wald Po Kim Gallery’s summer 2018 exhibition, A Time Before We Were Born: Visions of Arcadia in Contemporary Painting