Torpedo Factory Art Center Presents Suh Yongsun Utopia’s Delay: the Painter and the Metropolis

By Editorial Team on January 24, 2018
Suh Yongsun, Dash bus-1, acrylic on canvas 2018, 12 x9”. Courtesy of Torpedo Factory Art Center.
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Currently on view through Wednesday, February 28, 2018.
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Utopia’s Delay: the Painter and the Metropolis focuses on the theme of city dwellers and its landscape(/cityscape) among many other themes that he has been working on for 7 to 8 years since his exhibition in 2007.

Utopia’s Delay: the Painter and the Metropolis is yet another museum quality solo exhibition by artist Suh Yongsun. Suh’s previous exhibitions include Memory, Representation: Suh Yongsun with 6.25 at Korea University Museum, Historical Imagination: The King Danjong Stories by Suh Yongsun at White Block in Paju, Korea, ARS ACTIVA 2014_Arts & Their Communities at Gangneung Museum of Art, and The 26th Lee Jung-seob Art Award winner exhibition, Suh Yongsun’s Heterotopia: the Forfeiture of Myth at the Chosun Ilbo Museum of Art.

As if it was planned, the series of exhibitions display the images of the Korean War, historical tragedies, myths, landscape and cityscape, all of which intricately highlights his world of art. Of course, this does not convey the entire world Suh has experienced. From self-portraits, which he has worked on in his whole career, paintings of the abandoned mine town Cheol-am, that he has persisted on for nearly 15 years, and to new paintings of Bukchon, which he started in recent years – these artistic steps are diverse and there are still more themes that Suh has not introduced in his exhibitions yet. However, it is remarkable that one artist has produced several quality exhibitions in a short span of 2 to 3 years. This may suggest that his world of art is ‘problematic,’ but such controversy itself is unprecedented in our history of art.

I
The City series, a fundamental interest of Suh, is the latest theme focused on in his exhibition. He started working with the city theme early on and even made his art world debut with his city paintings. During when Suh was gaining attention from his Pine Tree series, Suh introduced his city dweller portraits as a part of his first solo exhibition in 1980s – a task Suh has worked on since his early years as an artist.

It is not certain whether his interest was rooted in a longing for a city life or an uncomfortable perspective towards it, but few paintings that he made in the 1970s including Men with Necktie series could be regarded as one of his city paintings. This may be a natural sequence. Growing up in the Miari border zone on the outskirts of Seoul, there were many stories about the war, as the war had demolished or broken everything. For Suh, painting itself may have been the commencement of reality. Whether it was an expression of conflict or an attempt for reconciliation, making paintings that demonstrate such images and configurations was not easy for Suh, especially when the ‘white monochrome’ dominated the Korean art market and became an aesthetic order and standard in academics as well.

What is clear is that Suh Yongsun has never ceased to paint cities. Cities are what started and continues in his paintings. There is no exception when he traces back to the political tragedies of Nosangun or when he goes deep into landscapes of Jirisan or Odaesan. The city is a place that he has to stand upon whether or not he wants to. In such aspect, it is not an exaggeration to say that city life was the birth point of his artistic will. The city is an object of motivation for Suh.

His attitude as an artist towards the reality of the city may have been interpreted as disturbing and ideological during the politically and socially turbulent time in the 1980s. In the 1990s when the expansion of the city of Seoul reached the limit, his work explored individualized and isolated loss of human nature.

II
To what extent have Suh Yongsun’s city drawings reached today? Where is it heading?

From this exhibition, it is noticeable that cities are not geologically limited to Seoul, the city where he was born and eventually settled in. The metropolis-scape and people living within expanded to cities that include New York, Berlin, Beijing, Tokyo and Melbourne. Suh stayed in each of these cities numerous times varying in time from a few years to 5 to 6 months.

Suh’s interest in humanities and imagination is more extensive than anyone. However, it is hard to read or catch such narratives from his cityscapes. There is no conceptual approach or traces of intellectual examination. It is not even a literary report on urban life or interest in touristic leisure and folklore. Furthermore, in this series, the indication of isolation and loneliness that we could have found from the Seoul landscape is missing. Then, where does this aesthetical persuasion or humanitarian/social voice coming from?

There are noticeable differences in time periods, but it is not hard to find a common mysterious aura emitted from Suh’s city paintings. This energy not only operates in the global world as one huge market, but it also conditions our lives. His city drawing is about the landscape and the people within, but the keen perspective of the artist towards an invisible power across the landscapes and people, captures the viewer’s attention. Sometimes this spirit approaches the viewer with an expressive touch and vivid colors and other times with composition and order. Something that crosses the so-called globalized capitalistic system does not differ much from how they appear as the evidence of truth in front of us or as rational documents that cannot be denied or through the artist’s physical experiences. Each part of the city remains as material evidence by the artist’s hand. Systemized by the capitalistic market mechanism, people in cities and the world get distracted by capital and stock market or turn their attention to the surreal landscape of J. Baudriallard’s term: ‘symbol-image, media.’

These works are different from just a simple city anthem or emotional judgment or social critique. To an ordinary person, despite living in extremely abstracted transportation, communication and monetary systems, we cannot explicitly explain or sense it, but we continue to live in this system anyhow. Suh’s works inform us how much our everyday lives are careless and nonessential. Each work shows us the gap between the utopia that we dream of, living in such cities in reality. Therefore, we can be aware of where we are between utopia and reality. It may look or sound expressful from a cursory glance; however, people and landscapes that Suh ran into are depicted neutrally or without judgment. It looks like the reality of city life or the mechanism that operates in the background are exposing themselves and are showing the truth rather than emotional or subjective judgment of taste. In this point of view, Suh’s city drawing does not engage much in acumen but exposes his skin and body to the world through his artworks.

Now Suh’s city drawings seem to possess an air of cumulated insight toward the inlayers of life or experiences of reality. From the Pine Tree series, historical theme including the Diaries of Nosangun, tragedies of Korean War, myths or landscapes, Cheol-am drawings and experiences that he gained through art community movement and Baekryungdo projects. Therefore, the reason why the exhibition, <Utopia’s Delay: the Painter and the Metropolis>, is not interpreted as one-sided on the engagement with the reality or political and social environment is not just because of the ambiance of the era.

III
Recently, the artist’s interests are focused towards a city where people can dream about happiness. The city is depicted as an unavoidable site in the global world where human beings are bound together by a common destiny. Despite often being a topic of interest to us, cities often lead us to an uncomfortable and unstable world. Most often, those cities are unstable and guide us to crisis or tension.

However, are Suh’s interpretations of landscapes provable without including the desire to live together? The power that makes us confront the reality or truth comes from his interpretation by asking fundamental questions such as: What is the meaning of life? How do human beings exist? Suh’s artworks are aimed towards people who reside in cities, people who relinquished to live poetically, but at the same time, people oblivious to their existence. Therefore, Suh’s city drawing paradoxically changes dreaming about a happy community to aesthetical desire. Like Heidegger once said, Suh’s city drawings are an exploration of the methods to “residing poetically” and finding “the way to write poems contemplating through ones who are going to die” by “accepting one’s nature.”

Recently he is returning to history and the place where he was born and raised. He explores Seochon, the western foot of Inwangsan and Bugaksan where Anpyeong Deagun in early-Joseon period and Kyumje Jeongsun in mid-Joseon period resided. His wish to live together as a community spatio-temporarily continues even today.

If the exhibition of “The Artist of the Year 2009” by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art was an introduction, several museum quality exhibitions of Suh in recent years can be seen as the details. This may not have been possible without his works’ rich possibilities for interpretation and extensive amount of work. “From pine trees to his numerous self-portraits, historic figures like Kim Siseup, King Danjong, Um Heungdo, King Sejo, Kim Jongsuh, warriors that composite the tragedy of the Korean War like Stalin, Churchill, McArthur, and numbers of grass roots that suffered without knowing reasons… people living contemporarily in the landscapes of Seoul, Berlin, New York and Melbourne are apart from the essence of life and even people are invisible in the landscape.” Such works explain that the reality what Suh Yongsun has faced as an artist living in the same period, was not much different from the puzzled lives of people and the existence of human beings with communal destiny and their condition of life.

“This is never a mere literary narration. This is reality that awakens us to our surroundings and daily lives, and is the phenomenological and physical reality under our skins.” Suh’s perspective toward the world and life radiates tension that resembles a poem, while his quantitative volume has reached the level of possessing the breadth and depth of a saga.

Recently, the artist’s interests are focused towards a city where people can dream about happiness. The city is depicted as an unavoidable site in the global world where human beings are bound together by a common destiny.

Despite often being a topic of interest to us, cities often lead us to an uncomfortable and unstable world. Most often, those cities are unstable and guide us to crisis or tension.

Suh’s artworks are aimed towards people who reside in cities, people who relinquished to live poetically, but at the same time, people oblivious to their existence. Therefore, Suh’s city drawing paradoxically changes dreaming about a happy community to aesthetical desire. Like Heidegger once said, Suh’s city drawings are an exploration of the methods to “residing poetically” and finding “the way to write poems contemplating through ones who are going to die” by “accepting one’s nature.”

Torpedo Factory is located at 105 N. Union St., Alexandria, VA. For more information, visit http://torpedofactory.org/event/suh-yongsun/.