Jienne Liu (Curator, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea)
Kwon Kisoo’s works are known for their exuberant colors, patterned backgrounds and charming figure-like
characters. Kwon’s works from the early 2000s show single protruding characters with patterned backgrounds. These
works show the process of his own introspective, answer-seeking process to the question of how one can navigate
society. We can glimpse the artist’s hope to establish himself in his field and his desire to continuously confirm his
position in the art world. In reflection of these aspects, the characters endlessly wander around in the air or aimlessly
stroll on an undesignated pavement; the background is an ideal world or scenes from the artist’s on experience.
The sentiment of isolation and solitude seen in his early works are ways of revealing Kwon’s reflection or
introspection on the external world, a modern way of portraying Zhulinqixian; that is, leading a carefree life and
turning his back against the world which is filled with migraine-inducing controversies and conflicts. As seen from this,
Kwon’s background is deeply rooted in traditional Korean painting, and we can see that his world is still connected to
traditional Korean art. His character-image in the early era was a utilization of an already-familiar image seen in the
ancient painting catalogues of Eastern Asia or shown in simple black ink drawings.
Kwon wished to unravel the inner turmoil and conflict caused between his inclinations for a carefree life
and suffocating realities with impromptu-like drawings in simple black ink. The character-image is soon greatly
simplified and becomes like a sign; nowadays, it is more fixated to a single icon-like figure.
Kwon’s recent works, however, show changes in this character image. As the background grows even more
splendid and exuberant, more abundant narratives are being unfolded. Within this mainstream, the character image
is both a delegate or surrogate of the artist and at the same time, a story-teller in a clown costume who provides
entertainment to the viewers. Before, his character-image was all about smiling faces, causing some
misunderstanding that all Kwon ever tries is to make a pretty work or one at least resonating with happiness.
However, looking closely, we can see that the saddened fact of life is also present; for some people, it is imperative
and inevitable for them to grin even under the grim facts of life, and, as a mere human-being, one is ruled by the
human sentiments of joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure. This is like the pathos of the clown who must make people
laugh on stage. Kwon’s figure has a standardized smile, a diamond-shaped body and simplified outline, all of which
accentuate and stress the presence of the icon-life figure, placed at the center of the picture. Due to the simplified
representation, the figure has less impact of an actual, lively existence yet the untold stories of the figure are overall
complemented by the theme, composition and the impression of colors.
With the variety of subjects, meticulous compositions, refined color expression and simplified figure, Kwon
makes his work much more ample. The subject matter is still dealt with in a simplified manner, but the juxtaposition
of the color field and partially-divided section further boosts the adornment of the screen. The exuberant colors of
the screen may look like a digital print, but they are still imbued with analogue sentiment and technology.
Kwon’s use of colors is like the traditional multicolored paintwork found on Korea’s ancient buildings. The
colors were carefully chosen and meticulously applied through a laborious taping process with retouch after retouch,
requiring hundreds of hours of labor. As can be witnessed through the sharp cut cross-sections in the background,
these further protrude upon and emphasize the jubilant color fields. Such vibrant use of colors is a by-product of
Kwon’s efforts through which he maximizes and fully utilizes the value and assets of the genuine painting work.
Kwon’s method of screen composition is not an enumeration of subjects but a creation of stories with
carefully-chosen subjects all together. The subject of bamboo trees, flowers, or wave-like rainbows enrich the screen
narrative, further inspiring the audiences’ imaginations. Each subject entails its own stories.
His recent works frequently show the reflected image of the figure on the water, which could be
interpreted as the artist’s hope of reflecting his life in the past. In this respect, this figure is like a self-portrait. On the
other hand, the reflected image of the rainbow symbolizes the realm of fictional imagery. The rainbow makes the
viewer doubt the world or reality unfolding in front of one’s very own eyes.
The repetition of the meaningless illusions reminds us that such doubts will strike us again and again in the
as-yet-unarrived future of reality, because the repetition is not in a stand-still status. On the other hand, the
orthodox meaning of a rainbow from the traditional painting field could be also applied. Conventionally, a rainbow
signifies a medium that connects reality and the imaginary. It can also be a bridge that could connect a solitary
hermit with the world.
In this regard, the person who crosses the rainbow in his works could be seen as someone who is seeking
another person who has been placed beyond the rainbow, i.e., the other world. Likewise, Kwon does not differentiate
the past and present while endowing meaning in the subject. The fountain, shown in simplified outlines, are similar
to orchid paintings, and the bamboo trees represented in the color fields are also frequently seen Korea’s traditional
painting, which both symbolize the hermit’s place and, at the same time, are similar to skyscrapers with their
emphasis on verticality. Kwon’s way of transcending the past and present again accentuates the fact that his way of
succeeding to tradition is not simply adopting the traditional way of painting, as in using ink.
Even with the seemingly-splendid background, he limits the subject matter, such as bamboo trees, flowers
and rainbow waves; these are self-replicating, or breeding, within the screen on their own. It seems like this may
have inherent limits, but does not. The Four Gracious Plants--the plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo--were
long-lasting themes in gentry paintings, lasting four hundred years.
As these subject matters had long-enduring dominance in the art world, Kwon’s combination of subject
matter and composition manifest numerous variations. For a while, the Four Gracious Plants were the most
commonly-chosen subject matter for the learned gentry and scholars, who used ink and Hanji (Korea’s traditional
paper). They were the symbol of the endeavors to overcome reality and to harness one’s temperament.
Under this influence, Kwon wishes not to isolate himself from Korea’s world of traditional painting,
constantly reminding himself that his source of artistic inspiration was from this venerable history. Kwon aims to train
himself as an artist by utilizing modern tools and methodologies. Kwon is aware of the fact that simply adhering to
ink painting is not properly portraying and conveying the spirit of oriental art and Korean art. This is why he
challenges himself with various mediums such as painting, sculpting, installation or video.
For him, painting is the medium with which he can unfold and ensure the most primitive ideas of the artist;
he liberates his imagination with painting, such as the utilization of colors and forms. The limits residing in painting,
however, such as constructing composition, adding elements of motion or a lack of haste, were overcome with
animation. When he encountered problems in space dominance, he again challenges himself with sculpting and
While he further masters his skills and techniques, his works are becoming even more splendid yet complex
at the same time. The background space is a single space where the division of the ground, sky, ocean or water is
unnecessary, and hidden behind the varied subjects and figures.
The whole space is dominated by a single colored background, making time and space even more
ambiguous and further provoking viewer imagination. The canvas is packed with those motifs, with Japanese apricot
flowers and bamboo in full bloom, from any perspective or three-dimensional feature. This gives the works an allover
painting-like concept, further advocating the adornment tendencies of his work.
Like a cosmic big-bang, energy is internally conglomerated and condensed within the screen; then
exploded and expanded into the outer realms of the canvas. Contrary to this explosion of energy, the serene
introspection is concurrent with the exploding energy, even minimalist in a way. Kwon adopts a dialectical principle of
achieving overall balance by seeking appropriate control of the screen composition.
Through this process, Kwon continuously raises the question of what is artistic reflection and action, finding
his own answers and being constantly aware of this issue. As for how to unfold his idea, Kwon learned to have an
open mind toward methodology and processes in this. As Kwon strenuously seeks how to actualize his ideas without
physically involving the artist’s engagement, this becomes his most impending task: his works are embroidered with
a variety of new trials and ventures, at the same time, ensuring profundity for his content and maintaining a boost
for his career perspective.
From the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s, new artists have attracted attention with novel ideas
and subject matters, gaining dominance and influence in the art scene. However, there are still few who continuously
develop novel ideas based on artistic tenacity; Kwon absolutely stands out even amongst these few with his
harmonious combination of new ideas, integrity toward art and technique.
In this regard, the time is now ripe to endow proper assessment and interpretations of Kwon’s works,
going beyond mere curiosity. This exhibition provides ample support and grounds to meet our expectations further
attuned to the sentiments and imagination of the audience. All this as a whole could be a new impetus with which
Kwon can envisage and unfold a new story.