Guest-curated by Eleanor Heartney, this two-gallery exhibition featured the work of one of Korea's foremost political artists, Ok Sang Lim. A leader of the Minjoong movement, which arose in response to the repressive military regime that ruled Korea in the '80s, Lim makes mural-scale, multipanel paintings that successfully demonstrate that contemporary Asian art indeed extends beyond exotic references and spiritual mysticism. This exhibition, in fact, presents not Asia but a dizzying panorama of African colonial and postcolonial history called "The History of Modern Africa." Done in the Social Realism-meets-Expressionism style characteristic of the Minjoong movement, the work has an effervescent array of dazzling color, from the rich reds symbolic of death and destruction to the fabulously lush greens indicative of paradise and plenty. This epic work fluently regurgitates themes of war, pollution and oppression -- but also consistently portrays Africa as a tribal, primitive Other, which is disturbing, to say the least. In cataloging the sins of the West, Lim forgets to examine conventional perceptions of Africa.
More fascinating are his paintings and paper reliefs relating to Korean sociopolitical issues. The collage Newspaper (1980) consists of torn fragments from Korea's major dailies, and is a forceful protest against the censorship that was so rampant in the early 1980s. In the pressed paper relief Way Home II (1983), the haunting, hunched figures of farmers posed against a plain backdrop are a chilling reminder of the authoritarianism that subjugated farmers as part of the rapid industrialization that has transformed Korea from the late 1960s to the present. Poster-like in their use of primary colors and forceful simplicity, these works successfully embed individual Korean subjects within a social panorama.
Ok Sang Lim at the Alternative Museum, April 11-May 24, 1997, 594 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.
JOAN KEE frequently writes on contemporary Asian and Asian American art