Political art is hard to pull off. What makes it so difficult to do well is that political art has two not-necessarily-compatible assignments: to simultaneously be credible as a work of art and convey a comprehensible message. It’s not enough to just throw around some paint or collage elements and put in a slogan — it really isn’t.
Cogent political art reflects the authentic responses of skillful artists to the shared yet special social, political or cultural circumstances in which they find themselves. And surely that’s why so much of what’s been included in CounterArt: Aesthetics of South Korean Activism, now at RedLine, is so incredibly good: Just like Coke, this work is obviously the real thing.
All of the art is in some way connected with the nonviolent protests of South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution, which ran from October 2016 to March 2017. What sparked that series of events was the discovery that the country’s president, Park Geun-hye, had been secretly receiving private counsel from Choi Soon-sil, a woman who claimed to have shamanistic powers that enabled her to communicate with the dead — in particular, Geun-hye’s mother. The revelation that the president had a fortune teller looking at top-secret documents was just the tip of the iceberg, and the story quickly expanded to encompass financial crimes, including the extortion of Korean businesses for tens of millions of dollars by Park and Choi’s staff. Protests were mounted in cities and towns throughout South Korea, and millions of people participated at one time or another. The center of the protests was Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, which became a temporary exhibition space for art and performances, attracting hundreds of thousands of protesters daily. Ultimately, Park was impeached, an action cheered by the throngs in the square that brought a close to the protests.
CounterArt was curated by Yang Wang, an art historian from the University of Colorado Denver, and Denver-based Korean-American artist and arts advocate Sammy Seung-min Lee. Art was a key aspect of the struggle, says Lee, who has firsthand knowledge of the events that occurred during the Candlelight Revolution and the artists associated with it. A number of creative professionals — not just visual artists, but filmmakers and writers and others — joined the protests early on. The government, of course, wanted to crack down on the demonstrators, so it announced the compilation of a blacklist of the creative types involved, who would then become ineligible for government grants and public commissions. This blew up in the government’s face, though, since it pushed many more creatives to join the movement, swamping the blacklist and making it ineffectual.
The show comprises work that was actually made on site or brought to Gwanghwamun Square, along with other pieces, both older and newer, that share the same spirit politically. All of the works have the look of some kind of international contemporary art, but it's all specifically Korean, too.
Among the pieces that directly relate to the protests is a re-creation of one of the tents that covered the square; inside is some seating and a video by Song Joowon that examines a day in the life of an ordinary Korean woman. Behind it on the wall are framed pages from a parody of a newspaper created by a committee of artists and others who were at the protests; the fictitious news items convey the kind of country that the Candlelight movement envisioned. Among those who created the newspaper was Noh Suntag, who is represented by another parody of a publication: three sequential Time magazine covers brought together on a poster. The first depicts the shamanic advisor to the president; in the second, her face mask has been raised to reveal Samsung’s Lee Jae-yong; and in the third, the mask is lifted to expose Hyundai’s Chung Mong-koo. The artist thus draws a straight line from the spiritualist to the capitalist captains of Korea’s economy.
Reflecting the street scene in Korea, but within the context of contemporary art, are strange and compelling embroideries on ad hoc materials, including stitched-together burlap rice bags imported from China and the United States. In these works, from the “Red Graphic” series, Ma C “borrows” the text and imagery already on the bags, paints in more, then adds sewn cartoons or abstracts in thread on top. He also likes to incorporate paper receipts and bills. A major work related to these is “Pattern,” in which Ma has taken a white plastic tarp and, using red thread, “drawn” the outlines of figures, animals, insects and other recognizable things. Some of the imagery is really out there, riffing on not just pop culture, but also hardcore pornography. Ma’s pieces successfully mash up highbrow sensibilities with lowbrow ones, representing an Asian punk aesthetic.
Much more refined and traditional in technique are two monumental paintings hanging near each other: “Putting Up Propaganda During the War,” from 1990, and “Bora,” from 2016, both by Park Younggyun. The former is a sincerely (and expertly) wrought depiction of a demonstrator pasting up a poster, while a self-portrait of Park peers around a corner to watch for nearby policemen. It’s very socialist-realist, and comes out of the anti-dictatorship protests responding to the Gwangju Uprising from that time, in which students were massacred. “Bora” is an updated parody of the first, with a palette dominated by red. Park is striking the same pose, looking around the corner, but the setting is an art-filled studio rather than the street, and one of the paintings propped up against the wall behind him depicts the cartoon symbol of the Candlelight protests. These paintings are absolutely majestic — not just because of their size, but because of how expertly they're painted.
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The show also includes works on paper that, while mostly modest in size, are big on visual charisma. Standouts include the calligraphy-cum-graphic by Mun Seungyeong, in which she creates a would-be yin-yang using the Korean symbols for “you” and “me,” and lyrical woodcuts of all-over patterns of repeated candle flames by Yoo Yeonbok. A longtime political activist, Yoo employs a method that is both part of Korea’s art-making tradition, the woodcut, and a process that’s a relatively cheap way to print up pamphlets. More clearly cleaving to traditional Korean practices are Kim Sundoo’s ink-painted scrolls of plants, which are depictions of modern life. Their connection to the Candlelight events: Kim participated in the protests, creating these paintings as impressions of ordinary life when he returned to his studio.
The showstopper is “Tide of Candles, II,” a huge, multi-panel mural that commands the gallery’s back wall. Done by Lim Oksang, it was conceived as a salute to the Candlelight marchers, depicting them as they walk toward the viewer, holding signs and candles. Lim covered the surfaces of the panels with a mortar made from soil and binders and scratched the surfaces when the soil mixture was still wet, incising caricatures of people holding signs and candles into the mud, then adding paint and ink to better express the details of his subjects and the illusions of depth and three-dimensionality. But the handling of the candles is the most remarkable feature of this painting: Routed-out circles that cut completely through the dirt-covered surfaces, they have been filled out with paint in various shades of yellow and orange and arranged in a non-repeating pattern. Because these colored circles are so bright and the dirt so muted, the circles are the first thing you notice, with the figurative imagery receding behind. But this is precisely the opposite of the painting’s physical reality, since the imagery is actually in front of the circles.
There's a lot of great work in CounterArt, though viewers may need to stretch to understand its many nuances steeped in recent Korean history, as well as the twists and turns of contemporary art.
CounterArt, through December 15 at RedLine, 2350 Arapahoe Street, 303-296-4448, redlineart.org.