Childishly and Splendidly Frolicking
by Seung oh Shin, Perigee Gallery Director
YOO Seungho has created diverse works with characters and images. On display at this exhibition are his recent pieces that are an extension of his previous works. Reviewing his previous pieces and their context will be guides for grasping the current world of his art. His work is classified not by specific series but by exhibition titles, and any classification by period is of no significance because he has done several works simultaneously. His works can be reviewed and classified in a few typical styles.
The first style comes from the series using characters that helped make his work widely known. His character work represents images and situations by using words and sentences. This series can be divided into two styles: one exploits a play on words like a childish pun by children or comedians and the other appropriates both Eastern and Western masterpieces, especially Oriental landscape painting that is quite familiar to us. His work employing a play on words usually makes use of onomatopoeic and mimetic words and appropriations of foreign words’ pronunciations. This work is visually and semantically lighthearted and nimble due to the mixture of meanings characters retains and the twisted use of their associations with images. <Natural>, <Ball>, and <She> are examples of such works. “Gong” (공) in Korean means emptiness, nothingness, or ball. <Natural(뇌출혈)> in Korean refers to a cerebral hemorrhage, a state when one loses consciousness due to bleeding into the brain tissue, and coincidentally shares the pronunciation of the word “natural” in English. “She” in English refers to a woman but is also an onomatopoeic word in Korean for the sound of urination. In such ways YOO transcends text with diverse meanings which is the hallmark of his oeuvre. In comparison to this, his landscape painting composed of characters are filled with onomatopoeic and mimetic words often used in cartoons and the import of words and sentences adopted have nothing to do with the landscape itself. Any lack of connection between well-known images and texts the artist has chosen enables him to take only the meaning of the ideal and austere landscape found in past masterpieces as he intends. These two types of works give rise to cracks between texts and images that are not grasped from specific situations and meanings.
The second style morphs dots into texts and images and was produced in the same period as his character works. A dot is the starting point of both a text and an image and thus involves infinite possibilities to become something and stands for an ambiguous state that is not yet anything. With this in mind the artist creates and blends characters and images with something unknown using dots. This work continues the practice of entangling images and texts in a way that causes deformation through deconstruction and reconstruction and arranging them in a linear fashion. YOO continues to employ plays on words or the lyrics to popular songs even in formally complicated, equivocal works. This tendency has constantly appeared in his oeuvre as a hilarious point. His works triggered by what comes to mind and what he is reminded of with the unconscious self appear as ambiguous as a riddle. A clue to these works is found in his artist’s statement.
“I think one who is uncertain of his world and does not have his own subjectivity can hardly be free in a true sense. I try to go with my instinct but it’s really difficult. I have already been very much dominated by the conscious, which often hinders me from doing this.” (Excerpts from the artist’s statement)
The artist mentions that he does his best to be free and tries to explore the nature of his inner self in a way that depends on his instincts but things have become topsy-turvy due to external influences. His work displays a process of schematizing but it proves that we cannot grasp something in a way that would allow us to arrange what we think in order. In the series <Hypertext> that appears after this, YOO showcases organic contact between images and texts rather than their sequential alterations. As hypertext pages are organically interconnected by hyperlinks, this work is characterized by diverse experiments with discontinuous, nonlinear systems. A hypertext-like deconstruction that repeats centralization, decentralization, and recentralization relies on a free structure, departing from the fixed meaning of text. However, the artist adds his own interpretation of hypertext similar to the preexisting one. His work makes a foray into seeking a more complete freedom by starting division from a more elemental and formless meaning rather than established hypertext. The artist intends to draw out all of the ideas in his brain and distinguish his own source and nature from external factors in a way of intermingling text and image rather than unnaturally creating the new. In the process of such a distinction he makes his nature and things influenced by the external world naturally harmonized and recombined, completing simple yet complicated images. Although his work is unfolded in a simple plane, it is entirely vibrant and vigorous.
In his works on display at the exhibition <Shaking your Hair loose> we can catch a glimpse of the direction of his new work that grafts the elements of his previous character work onto experiments in the Hypertext series. In his recent work <The Lord`s Prayer, The Lost Player> he recreates a magnificent landscape painting by Fan Kuan, a Chinese landscape painter of the Song Dynasty, into a character landscape painting filled with characters that are as tiny as a grain of sesame. This painting appears flamboyant yet rigid and sublime with gilt applied to its edges. In contrast, other works appear in simple and concise form. The images standing out in his pieces include pyramids, dragons, Shin Yun-bok–esque obscene scenes, pinwheels, numbers, orchids often found in Oriental painting, and lotus flowers depicted in Goguryeo murals. His motifs flow over time and fly through space. The techniques he adopts vary from using brushes to tearing paper. The subject matter, form, and technique of the contents are mixed. As intricate, multifarious elements are tangled pell-mell despite succinct form, we can hardly grasp the meaning of his works. However, such motifs and work factures are all considered sublime, absolute, and ideal. Perhaps the artist can see the exact moment when text and image become tangled with each other and lose their specific meaning as the most ideal, liberal state. He makes it possible for everything to surpass space-time and navigate freely, escaping from the practice of segmenting meaning with preexisting words and images through an entanglement of even materials and techniques. His seemingly simple work has the same meaning as <The Lord`s Prayer, The Lost Player>, one of the pieces he gave his best effort in creating. In this sense his work is nothing and everything in itself and seems possible while impossible. It is thus meaningless to look for each individual’s meaning in YOO’s work. This aspect is associated with being hard to define and the simple dots he used in his previous works.
If this is the case, why has YOO practiced this type of art? What do we have to discover in his Seon (Zen) dialogue-like work? The pieces we have reviewed so far freely go beyond and blur the boundaries of everything, escaping preexisting frameworks. In this process he distinguishes his underlying elements from external factors, creating new meaning through reconstruction. He displays those elements that have constantly been recreated through congregation. He represents our inner aspects while illustrating fragmented images and words in his works. That is, he tries to free our thoughts and visualize them. Of course, his work derives from his own individual thoughts but he comments on the source and center we have to reach. After all, his work can be seen as a process of generating a lofty or boundless state rather than crossing the line between his intrinsic nature and the world as well as the inner self and the external world through his diverse experimental practices. To him, however, this sublimity differs from loftiness and rather verges on puerility. We can infer this from the fact that all of his works and their titles appear whimsical and his childish attitude is one of the significant elements of his art. His works reviewed above are different but manage to all be vibrant, puerile, liberal, lighthearted, and lively yet in a sense they are also imbued with his serious, heavy agony as an artist. His work seems anchored in his diverse personality. As he once mentioned, this resembles ancient scholars’ notion of art as a moral training and the theory of literary painting which states that a painter’s mind is reflected onto his painting and calligraphy. Although his works are composed of paring down images painted suddenly on a whim, they are in fact steadily rendered one by one with great care and pure spirit, revealing the artist himself as a whole.
If that is the case, then how does he manage to concentrate on his art? He refers to a vacant state as his attitude toward working. This means he concentrates on his work in a state of aimlessly emptying his mind. This state connotes his own artistic methodology to reach greatness and a pure form by orchestrating everything conscious and unconscious, mainly concentrating on the unconscious stemming from the state of emptying the conscious. In summary, YOO works on disclosing the sublime by blending standardized and liberal elements with childish titles, text, and images while in this vacant state. The force that forms his work after all derives from the process of conveying his ever-changing self through his creations. I would like to conclude with excerpts from his own statement:
“It is an ecstatic moment as if taking drugs. Like a balloon that bursts with a loud pop, it’s the moment of ecstasy!”