Park Seo-Bo is one of the leading figures in contemporary Korean art, widely acknowledged as the father of the ‘Dansaekhwa’ movement. Encompassing works from the 1970s to this year, this exhibition at White Cube West Palm Beach serves as an introduction to Park’s influential practice, as well as being the first opportunity to see his work in the US since it was shown at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in 2019.
A series of vividly coloured ceramic works made in the past year reveal an artist continuing to innovate into his nineties. In collaboration with a master ceramicist’s studio, Park has worked with wet clay in a similar manner as he has previously when he is manipulating the wet pulp of hanji paper, a medium he uses in other works. For this group of works, successive layers of wet clay slip are pinched and pushed line by line into long, parallel ridges, and, after firing and sanding, contrasting pigments are then carefully applied to the furrows and peaks of the fired surface. This latest evolution of technique and introduction of a new material is true to the energetic, naturalistic materiality and tactility that characterises Dansaekwha.
Park’s use of traditional Korean hanji paper, hand-made from mulberry bark, an earlier innovation dating from the 1980s, is represented here by exceptional large-works in subtle shades of grey-black and in blazing, vibrant red. The remarkable durability of hanji has ensured the survival of some of the most ancient scriptures of Buddhism in Korea and is integral to the structure of daily life, including being used in wall coverings and door panels. To Park, the material not only offered endless opportunities for experimentation but represented the connection between his work and the natural world which he had begun to regard as essential. When applied on to a canvas backing and soaked with water, the hanji reverted to a pulp that could be pushed and scraped into sculptural forms.
Park mixes pigments that further evoke connections to nature, as well as to personal memory. The black works have the deep, matte darkness of the charcoal and soot that built up in layers around the artist’s childhood hearth, while the vivid red was inspired by the maple forest in autumn foliage around Mount Bandai near Fukushima in Japan. Within the compositions, smooth rectangular areas or ‘windows’ of single colour offer a textural contrast and a ‘breathing hole’, to let the mind rest.
Several exceptional works from the 1970s testify to the epiphany that was to prove so formative to the development of Korean minimalism or ‘Dansaekwha’. Park calls these ‘Myobop’, a word taken from the Chinese characters ‘to draw’ and ‘a method’, which has been translated by the French term ‘Écriture’ (writing). Centring on an exploration of drawing within painting and on the union of action and spirit, they reflect a consistent approach, one that is inextricably linked to time, space and material; concepts that underpin all of Park’s practice. In these works, mark-making becomes akin to breathing and emptiness is achieved through reduction, a process that Park has termed "forgetting the self". Executed within a single sitting, harnessing an energy flow through meditative action, they combine technical skill with mental focus, within a defined period of time. This method reflects that, for Park, the making of art is rooted in a spiritual methodology, drawing on Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy as well as the Korean tradition of calligraphy.
In 2019 Park was to return to this language in the ‘Pencil Ecriture (colour)’ series, which feature horizontal blocks of pencil lines over a single, pale colour, such as light pink, sky blue or acid green. Thin, undulating horizontal bands and cloud-like coloured shapes of background pastel colour are glimpsed through the space between pencil marks shaped, as always, by an intense meditative focus and by the rhythmic, controlled back and forth movement of the artist’s hand on wet oil with a thinly sharpened pencil. Park regards them as a ‘reinterpretation’ of his earlier ‘Ecriture’ works, but rather than a programme of self-cultivation, the artist’s focus turned to art’s potential for collective healing, harnessing the therapeutic properties of colour, nature and meditation.
Park Seo-Bo has been widely lauded throughout his career for championing Korean art, and received the Art Society Asia Game Changer Awards in 2018 and Silver Crown Cultural Medal in Korea in 2011. His work has been exhibited internationally, including; Château La Coste, France (2021); Langen Foundation, Neuss (2020); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2019); Museum of Fine Art, Boston (2018); the Venice Biennale (1988 and 2015); Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul (2014); Portland Museum of Art, Oregon (2010); Singapore Art Museum (2008); Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2007); Tate Liverpool, UK (1992); Brooklyn Museum, New York (1981), and Expo ’67, Montreal (1967). His work is included in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; M+, Hong Kong; Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, UAE; The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul; and the K20, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, amongst others.
© the artist. Photo © White Cube (Oriol Tarridas)