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Koh Sang Woo: Borderlines, at James Freeman Gallery

The first new exhibition of 2018:


Koh Sang Woo | Olivia Kemp | Stephen Walter
James Freeman Gallery | 354 Upper Street | Islington | London N1 0PD |
11 Jan 2018 to 3 Feb 2018
Opening Reception: Thursday 11 January, 6:30 – 8:30pm
Tuesday – Saturday, 11 – 6:30

Borderlines head

To welcome in 2018, we are pleased to present ‘Borderlines’, an exhibition about how we identify with a sense of place. The exhibition brings together three contemporary artists: Koh Sang Woo, Olivia Kemp, and Stephen Walter.

Koh Sang Woo is a Korean artist who uses his models as a canvas. He paints allusions to their dreams or desires onto their skin, then photographs them and inverts the colours to suggest how our inner worlds can conflict with society. In ‘Borderlines’, Koh presents a new pair of self-portraits that explore the relationship of the self with the structures of nationhood. In one he is painted with the American flag with one of the stars as a tear (Koh has been a Korean based in the US for over twenty years); in the other, a grid of basic freedoms of expression (love / hate, speak / hear, wish / believe) are written in mandarin Chinese. These works look at how the individual comes into contact with a nation’s systems of order, and how a sense of identity can also become a net of limitation. Koh Sang Woo recently had a retrospective exhibition at Asian Art Works, 798 in Beijing. His work is held in the Korean National Museum of Contemporary Art and the Savina Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul.

Olivia Kemp’s drawings are expansive and relentless, fruit of an enthusiasm that borders on obsession. They take the idea of a romanticised or idealised place and run with it beyond any natural geography or sense of proportion. While her smaller drawings are intimate and precise, her large works seem endless and complex in the extreme, packed with a plethora of tiny details which are each given minute focus but built up into scenes without any focal point or respite. Most are of places Olivia has known but which she then turns into something ‘other’ through the processes of remembering and drawing. It is memory in action, an attachment to a physical place that is fired by imagination: specific and particular, whilst at the same time sprawling and continuous. Olivia Kemp’s work is held in The Royal Collection (including the personal collection of Prince Charles), the Victoria & Albert Museum, and The Rothschild Collection, for whom she was commisioned to create a piece based on the RIBA award-winning Flint House (2015).

Stephen Walter is a British artist well-known for highly detailed map drawings that combine geographical accuracy with personal references. In ‘Borderlines’, Stephen presents new collage works which interweave his drawings with printed maps and painting, using an almost geological process of stratification to create an abstracted rendering of place. Mechanical map reproductions blend into his personalised lines and marks. The logical precision of cartography exists side-by-side with painterly expression, so that the graphic becomes gestural in a layered object. This approach then becomes a means of creating a personalised representation of place beyond specific memories or symbols, one that ventures into the sense of emotional memory that we can attached to specific locations. Stephen Walter’s works are held in numerous collections including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Government Art Collection, The British Library, The Houses of Parliament Museums, and The London Transport Museum.

Koh Sang Woo: True Stories

Text by James Freeman

Koh Sang Woo has a taste for controversy. His images may look beautiful, but the stories beneath needle away at the unspoken do’s and don’ts that tie us up in social and cultural obligations. His last exhibition in his hometown of Seoul, South Korea, was almost pulled at the last moment due to a call from KBS, the Korean equivalent of the BBC. It featured one of their presenters, with her husband, in a state of undress and, more importantly, without their permission. Another show picturing a mixed race couple was simply avoided and mothballed, to avoid offending ‘cultural sensibilities’. And yet it’s hard for us in the West to believe by just looking at the work. Koh’s art is part painting, part performance, documented in photography. Carefully choosing his subjects for their personal stories, he paints directly onto their bodies as he works, and then reverses the colours in the final exposure to give his photos an unmistakeable electric vibrancy. In one way, he is an artist that paints photographs, and sees the world in reverse. But this reversal is also a social statement, a means of subverting the way society can push people away from their ideals, and make them compromise and change to accommodate social pressures. In True Stories, all his photographs probe the kind of subtle conventions that restrain and limit their subjects – be it corporate control, racial prejudice, or the pressure to “be the best” as in his Portrait of a Girl / Portrait of a Woman” series. The works thus become a kind of release and defiance, beautifully rendered. And it’s his Eastern form of kicking against the system that makes Koh’s work so interesting. Not in the obvious punk aggressive way, what the West is used do, but a more discreet and suave manner of counter-culture, balancing Korean values of discipline and respect with the need to make a point.

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