Sa Suk-wonby Robert C. Morgan
Gana Art October 16 – November 15, 2008
It has been said that among the three major countries in East Asia, Korean contemporary art is the least identifiable. This may imply that artists from the Republic of Korea are pretty much doing what they want to do. They are less apt to be ruled by trends in the market or to accept a uniform style that somehow makes the work look “Korean.” In this sense, Korean artists have adopted a transcultural approach in the way they think about art, one that moves ahead of mainstream globalization. Generally speaking, Koreans enjoy living as an independent people and therefore, by association, the art they produce may reflect this quality.
There is nothing mainstream about the work of Sa Suk-won. There is no school or movement with which his paintings are connected. There is no particular avant-garde tendency in his work. Sa’s paintings are made on blackboards on which immigrant workers from the ports of Incheon have written their sentiments, their fears, their intimate thoughts. He takes these blackboards to his studio and begins painting animals on top of the writing. The words of these immigrant workers is something the artist can relate to, for he himself was an outsider when he was a child. Sa Suk-won did not speak until he was seven years old. He was a “bad boy” in school and consistently failed to do his homework. As a result the teacher would humiliate him in front of the other students. He would have to face the blackboard each day as punishment. Often his ears were boxed, leaving him in excruciating pain. Sa suffered in front of the blackboard. The blackboard represented pain, torture, and hostility.
At a certain point in his young career as an artist, Sa had a courageous change of heart and began to accept the blackboard into his work and allow immigrants to inspire him with their painful and heartfelt writings. As a result, his expressionist-style animals—his rhinos and owls, his elephants and tigers, his lions, leopards, and cheetahs—form not merely a bestiary, but a personal lexicon that touches the inner-core of animal life. What is the core of the animals? How do they feel? The owls are painted with dense, staring eyes or a single eye, just as the feline have a single eye. The brushwork is steady yet frenetic, intense but never sullen. There is a kind of liberation in these paintings. Sa Suk-won borrows from his childhood pain and reinvests it in his adult life as an artist. His animals are on guard. They stalk. But they are afraid of nothing. They are never ferocious, but they retain an uncanny look, something out of Blake’s poem: “Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright / In the forest of the night. / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame Thy fearful symmetry.”
Yet Blake’s mysticism is less apparent in Sa’s work. His is more earthly, more given to the internal struggle of the soul trying to move forward in life. He expresses his sentiments in a remarkable passage in the catalog: “I sometimes paint half the animals’ bodies with masks on. A disappeared body is disappeared life, and a painted body remains forever. I want to talk about time, which is the destiny for living beings to vanish as time goes by.”
Another aspect of Sa’s painting focuses, in a similar expressionist style, on his hands, which are sometimes pierced with bird quills as in the painting called “Hand Acupuncture” (2008). Of course, there is a personal story behind this painting. Hands are very personal. To paint one’s hands is nearly as intimate as painting one’s face. Hands are portraits that reveal the violent potential of repose—like the lions, tigers, and cheetahs, seated alert somewhere in the meadow, the guardians of the world.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.