The major South Korean brush painter, Suh Se Ok, is having his first exhibition in New York at the age of 89. This is clearly a celebratory occasion for those impassioned by his paintings and for those who have vindicated their importance over decades of time. Suh’s work instills a cool elegance combined with a propensity to experiment with abstract forms in ways considered outside the standard practices of brush painting. In doing so, Suh captures the literati tradition at its height and in all its magnitude. His method is recognized among elite counterparts as Muninhwa, or painting in the manner of noble scholars. Suh Se Ok is a master of his craft.
Within this historical context, Suh was one of the first brush painters to reject the modernist enclave coming into Korea by way of Paris in the 1950s. Over the course of his career, he has retained the historical precedent of Muninhwa by pushing it toward another level, a more daring and potent level, where the brush becomes a rapid spiritual equivalent that signifies “emptiness” within space and time. He functions as a Zen artist given to meditation prior to the application of ink on paper, which is known as hanji.
Hanji is a unique form of Korean paper in which the pulp is made from the bark of indigenous mulberry trees. Some claim that hanji is capable of enduring for a millennium. In addition to its function as a surface for the painter’s ink, it is also used to insulate houses made of wood, to wrap medications, and to keep vegetables fresh. In earlier times, hanji was used in making lightweight armor for soldiers in that it could resist the puncture of arrows.
One of Suh Se Ok’s most consistent and important series of work refers to people, what he calls geu–rim–ja or, in translation, “shadows on the stage of life.” His people are painted in an instant using what might be called a semi-ideographic abstract form that does not exactly show a recognizable person, but instead represents the gesture or position of a person or of people. The ink paintings that comprise this exhibition suggest themes, such as a singular person (seated), a dancing person, a duo of two, or a gathering of several. The current selection was taken from various periods in the artist’s extensive career, ranging from 1978, through the 1990s, with several from the unspecified 2000s, which means the present.
In addition to his work as an ink painter, Suh Se Ok is an accomplished philosopher and poet. In many ways his interest in Muninhwa was a way to confront his relationship to Japanese nihonga painting. He was in search of a counterpart that offered a Korean point of view. This most likely began early on during the years following his graduation from Seoul National University.
By the 1960s, Suh’s paintings begin to reveal his involvement in allowing the ink to spill and spiral across the paper. At the same time, he became interested in how to deal with the presence and absence of an image: “What is there and what is not there are in a constant cycle.” This eventually led to Zen and to the beginning of his people series. Suh was fascinated with the idea that bodies are part of the universe at large, and that the human figure, no matter how far reduced, transcends time and culture.
Needless to say, Suh Se Ok is the recipient of several major awards and has been collected regularly over time in major museums and collections throughout Korea. The importance of this exhibition at this point in his career cannot be underestimated and I am not certain as to why a larger more comprehensive exhibition was not mounted for the occasion. Hopefully, in the near future we will see it happen.