Consumerism, nature and dreamlike landscapes shine in the work of South Korean artist Kim Jongsook.

The exhibition “Spectacle or Phantasmagoria”, running until 13 May 2016 at Busan-based commercial space Gallery rae, showcases a body of work by South Korean artist Kim Jongsook, continuing her research on traditional Korean ink art and landscape painting that incorporate mixed media and shining Swarovski crystals.

Kim Jongsook, ‘Luminous Greige’, from the series “Artificial Landscape”, 2014, mixed media on canvas, made with Swarovski’s cut crystals, 90.9 x 116.8 cm Image courtesy galleryrae.

Gallery rae in Busan presents the new works of South Korean artist Kim Jongsook in an exhibition entitled “Spectacle or Phantasmagoria”, from 6 April until 13 May 2016. The gallery, located in the Audi building, in operation of an authorised Audi dealer of Ucaro Automobile in Korea, glimmers of the artist’s best known Swarovski studded paintings, which were recently displayed at Art Central in Hong Kong in March 2016.

Kim Jongsook, born in South Korea, received her BFA, MFA and PhD from Hongik University in South Korea. Her works have been widely exhibited both nationally and worldwide, and a part of them is housed in the permanent collections at the Mogam Museum of Art and The Hoseo National Museum of Contemporary Art.

The artist reinterprets traditional Korean ink-brush landscape paintings, giving it a modern vocabulary by incorporating Swarovski crystals into it. Her father, who ran a mother-of-pearl workshop, used traditional landscapes and motifs as prototypes for the objects he made. This early memory influenced her to create artworks of her own, onto which she incorporated the iridescence of Swarovski crystals, combining it with Korean tradition. According to Mehee Kim, CEO of Gallery rae:

Jongsook deserves to be in the spotlight since she represents a new generation of Korean artists, who tries to bridge the gap between tradition and modernism. By discovering artists like her we will successfully gear up towards the international art market. Her use of Swarovski crystal is similar to other international artists and designers, who present visual phantasmagoria of urbanism. I am thrilled to present her works to friends and collectors of Audi and the public as well.

Kim Jongsook, ‘Golden Picture’, from the series “Artificial Landscape”, 2014, mixed media on canvas, made with Swarovski’s cut crystals 130.3 x 194.0 cm. Image courtesy galleryrae.

Landscape paintings or jinKyung sansoohwa have a central spot in the history of Korean art. Initially influence by Chinese art, it was only during the Joseon Dynasty that these pastoral works became influenced by realism. Until 1945, Korean art de-emphasised colour, considering it to be an attribute that restricted imagination. It was only post-1945, under the influence of European artists such as Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Camille Pissarro, that bright colours began to be incorporated into Korean paintings.

The exhibited works are a part of “Artificial Landscape”, an ongoing series that the artist has been working on since 2004. Jongsook follows the tradition of representing richly hued pristine landscapes, but extends it to incorporate a consumerist tendency of modern society. According to the artist:

My new series recreates traditional Korean paintings and represents consumerism of modern society – superficially enchanting and glamorous. The landscapes also speak for today’s spectacle desire for phantasmagoria.

Kim Jongsook, ‘Greige Mountain’, from the series “Artificial Landscape”, 2014, mixed media on canvas, made with Swarovski’s cut crystals, 80.3 x 100.0 cm. Image courtesy galleryrae.

The dazzle of consumerist society is depicted through the resplendence of Swarovski crystals, each one hand applied painstakingly by the artist. Deviating from her older works from the same series, where geometric grids overlaid the landscape, Jongsook’s newer works represent traditional landscape, with much lesser abandon – vast and encompassing. Rather than serving the purpose of depicting objects and forms, the crystals interact with surrounding light, interplaying with it to create gleams and dazzles that catch the eye. The works at a glance represent the traditional pastoral landscape, but the twinkling crystals also become representative of the modern day urban metropolis. Through this treatment, Jongsook embraces tradition and modernity in one bold stroke, encompassing both the old and the new.

Jongsook comments on the traditional cultural past of Korea and critiques the present day 21st century consumerist culture in the country. The dichotomous relation between past and present, the old and the new is addressed in Eun Young Jung’s (Professor of Art History at Korea National University of Education) review of the series Artificial Landscape. She writes:

Kim Jongsook, ‘Luminous Blue Mountain’, from the series “Artificial Landscape”, 2016, mixed media on canvas, made with Swarovski’s cut crystals, 180.0 x 180.0 cm. Image courtesy galleryrae.

In Artificial Landscape Jongsook makes commentary on the past as she critiques the present. The two layers of time in the series consist of the re-production of landscape painting from the remote past and the obsessed accumulation of jewels from present consumer culture. But the temporal levels converge in the fleeting moment of unique critical awareness; the mountains and rivers leap to the present breaking the myth of eternal identity whereas thousands of crystals trace strokes brushing the history against the grain. The past is subordinate to the present, which, in turn, is conditioned by the past.
The working method to produce these works is a painstaking labour of love. The artist transfers the image onto a silkscreen using varying techniques and different materials. Using crystalline pigments, transparent silicone and thousands of Swarovski crystals, she creates a bas-relief effect to the work. She overlaps the crystal line drawing with silk-screened images in order to create a multifaceted painting that has both depth and dimension.

By incorporating crystals, their brilliance becomes integral to the work, thereby making passing light an important medium of the work and a precondition within which the works must be viewed. The changing light on the crystals makes the work a dynamic entity, inviting the viewer to engage with it, viewing it from different angles in order to partake in it. Recognising the importance of crystals in her work, Jongsook said:

The hundreds and thousands of crystals make the whole scene an illusion, rather than just an image on the canvas. For me, it presents a vision of traditional Korean paintings, which have simultaneously been reinterpreted. For this process, I work over a period of months at a stretch, applying each of the crystals by hand.

Kim Jongsook, ‘Siam Maewha’, from the series “Artificial Landscape”, 2013, mixed media on canvas, made with Swarovski’s cut crystals, 130 x 130cm. Image courtesy galleryrae.

A recurring motif in the “Artificial Landscape” series is Maehwa flower, known as the Japanese apricot in English. The beautiful blossom ushers in the onset of spring and has become culturally appropriated to symbolise purity and chastity in Korea. The timing of the exhibition in the middle of spring makes the symbol relevant and befitting. According to the artist:

The flower is very famous for surviving the bitter cold winter, so it represents integrity. Maehwa is also an icon of longevity. One of Korea’s famous traditional painters depicted the flower in a modern way, arousing within people a sense of innocence and dignity.

Kim Jongsook, ‘Cobalt Maewha’, from the series “Artificial Landscape”, 2013, mixed media on canvas, made with Swarovski’s cut crystals, 130 x 130cm. Image courtesy galleryrae.

Jongsook takes inspiration from the late Josean dynasty painter Jang Seung-eop, who reinterpreted the Maehwa flower, imbuing it with an accurate realism. By appropriating a common cultural symbol, conventionally depicted in landscape paintings, Jongsook wants to depict a Korean identity that is both traditional, yet modernised. In multi-hued ways, the Maehwa comes alive, dancing and dazzling in front of the viewer.

The other noticeable motif that occupies the artist’s “Artificial Landscape” series is the mountain. The scenic mountains of South Korea have a prime place in traditional landscape paintings. Following in the footsteps of artists like Jeong Seon, who depicted mountains punctuated by forests, Jongsook’s works are versatile in their materiality, dotted with sparkling crystals. The resplendence causes her works to function simultaneously as both realistic landscapes and utopian dreamscapes.

Ambika Rajgopal