In a hectic London Korean exhibition calendar which often seems biased towards installations and video art, we should welcome an exhibition which features well executed paintings which you would happily hang on your wall.
Mokspace’s current exhibition, An Eternal Cycle – Paradise and Purgatory, is doubly unusual in featuring Buddhist-inspired paintings. Such work is rarely seen in London, and is similarly not part of the mainstream in Seoul either. The two artists, Seoyoung Park and Songnyeo Lyoo work in similar media: paint (including gold powder) on paper attached to silk scroll.
The flowering of Buddhist art was in the Koryo period, before Confucianism gained the upper hand in the Joseon dynasty. The Koryo works are delicate and muted, while the Joseon dynasty works are much more robust, lively and colourful. This distinction is replicated in the works of Seoyoung Park, with her Amithaba Triad following the sepia tones of the Koryo paintings, while her paintings of hell pay homage to the Joseon dynasty style. In Park’s hell paintings, punishment of wrongdoers is confined, appropriately, to the very bottom of the composition, while the main body of the work is given over to an ornate depiction of a divinity perhaps passing judgement in a pavilion.
It would have been helpful to have had an accompanying talk, perhaps with the artist herself, to explain the iconography in the paintings and to understand how the work of the ancient masters has been reinterpreted.
Even more welcome would have been a talk from artist Songnyeo Lyoo, whose depictions of paradise occupied the upper floor of the gallery. Her utopian visions are paradoxically rather more disturbing than Seoyoung Park’s depictions of hell. Lyoo’s paradise is inhabited exclusively by strangely sexless men, whose hairy limbs and armpits contrast with their perfectly smooth chests. Golden wine bottles grow abundantly on trees while men bathe together in vats of champagne and smoke noxious substances. This is a hippy paradise where the inhabitants are bizarrely well-behaved and where even one’s normal bodily functions give rise to colourful fountains rather than anything unpleasant. Clearly these works are the product of a rich imagination, and they are executed in an appropriately rich colour palette.
Mokspace is to be commended for giving gallery space to both artists.
An Eternal Cycle closes on 10 November. Mokspace is at 33, Museum Street, London WC1A 1LH (In front of The British Museum), www.mokspace.com