LA Artcore Webzine - June 23, 2012 by Robert Seitz
Painter Hea-Sook Yoo is in every respect the epitome of the dedicated artist,
whose considerable time and development is evident on each canvas. Though
she is classically trained, the greater body of her work is abstract, and this work is
internationally exhibited, and regularly used in television and cinema. She offers
us in a brief conversation an interesting perspective on abstraction that is
entwined in her personal and cultural journey.
She studied at Hong University in Seoul, Korea, the most prestigious school
available, originally known exclusively for the arts. In that school a broad
spectrum of training was presented, including a significant focus on classical
methods. After University she lived in France for five years, continuing a circular
orbit around many mediums, until meeting a mentor that encouraged her to devote
herself to abstract painting. It is easy to question whether this wasn't somewhat
arbitrary when viewing her representational work. It is readily apparent that each
medium us a vessel with its own course, as though Yoo traveled through several
versions of herself to arrive. Her watercolors are stunning and full of liquid light,
while her landscape acrylics show a native command of color and paint that is
evidence of countless hours spent in observation. The apparent ease behind her
abstract paint, especially the moody, saturated and shifting color-fields of her
mixed media work reveal the tangible devotion to her studies in France.
There is also something of a dilemma in the pursuit of multiple approaches, not to
mention the considerable energy required to do this. Yoo mentions that she was
restricted by size as she was living abroad, which translates to many smaller
works, and lent itself too variation. She also explains that throughout her stay she
maintained both representational and abstract approaches, thinking she would
return to Korea. In that country, though times are changing, it is the male that
receives the greater portion of opportunity. Nearly all of the professors are male,
making teaching a long shot; the only option she could count on for making a
living as an artist after returning was portraiture and commissions.
This concern for developing both approaches is also connected to an insight about
abstract art as it is viewed generally through an Asian lens. Or it may be more
accurate to say there is a lack of concern for making a distinction. In asking why
there was such a strong connection of feeling between the Korean born artists I
had spoken with and France, we arrived at the subject of Modernism, specifically
the absence of importance it is afforded.
Yoo felt that the respect for French art was well established, and during her visit to
the Louvre, looking out the window at Paris, it was plain to her that the ambience
and history contributed greatly to the cultural creativity. She explained that in her
generation many Korean students aspired to stuydy there, because the general
opinion is that France is a pinnacle of representational art. At the same time, this
raises an interesting, anachronistic question for the Western listener. Why would
as aspiring contemporary artist go to lengths to study representational art? Yoo
explains that modern art history was largely left out, meaning that more or less no
conceptual concern surrounding art was taught as central. Unlike Western views
of art, which are closely linked to the concept of linear time, the belief that
contemporary art, particularly abstraction, is a result of a 'revolution' against
classical art is simply not recognized. After all, Modernism is most popularly
framed as a cultural revolution for Western culture, therefore Asian cultures did not
carry the burden overthrown, and do not have a need to align with this self-
This alienation from a historical approach where contemporary art is distinguished
by its departure from earlier forms, could have its roots in several arenas. One
could repeat the idea that Modernism arose in step with dramatic changes in
social life, technology and the turmoil of was. and that there is a revolutionary spirit
of the times that was adopted in their perspective of art as a whole. One could
say that Modernism was a marked turn away from tradition in many forms, and
would be less compelling to any culture that is interested in preserving its
traditions. Whatever the reason, it would appear that the polarity of classical and
contemporary is generally disregarded in Asia, and a student approaching a
career in art would naturally approach classical training as their starting point.
Additionally, she mentions that there is a strong cultural rejection of copying, and
the idea of referencing another artist, or that an artist would imitate another artist
or movement is not considered very admirable, nor does seeking a place in history
make much sense as a goal.
The artist notes that her movement to abstraction was one of deciding to commit
entirely to her own vision, and ultimately gave up focus on the commission option,
discovering she is not at all motivated by selling pictures that she didn't choose to
paint on her own.
From this point, we have to ask why there is such a strong embrace of abstract
painting in Korea. In the West it is taught that abstraction marks a profound
departure, even completion, of art in its break from the past. Yet if we were to set
aside the historical argument, where abstraction was the natural evolution of
painting, and instead view it from the personal, inner life of the artist, we may find
there remains a common thread and see why abstraction is so well received,
without need of justification, in Asia.
The ideas of unconscious material in Surrealism, action and perception in Abstract
Expressionism, the pursuit of feeling within the visual arrangements of space,
color and texture, all of these are waypoints that describe futuristic revolutions in
the Western story. Yet we also find among of the individuals and arguments of
the time an interest in returning to the human element as the source of reality and
experience. The interest is expressed individuality - Josef Albers said that
abstraction was possibly more real than nature, while Paul Cezanne said that all
drawing and color are not distinct, but abstraction, because everything in nature is
colored. Jackson Pollack may have put it in a way that crosses cultural views
best, saying that every good painter paints what they are.
There is no concern for theoretical justification for Yoo, the approach comes
naturally and with no discord between methods. In a sense, arriving at abstract
painting from her cultural perspective faces few outside limitations, and the focus
rests comfortably on personal development. She explains, "In this sense, having
no education is no obstacle to becoming an artist. Sensitivity and many hours of
work will do."
Her method of working is a dedicated, recursive return to herself for inspiration.
She does not work by technique. Instead she erases everything in her mind,
particularly negative emotions, taking as much time as necessary to reach this
state. She never sketches or plans her work, making the painting direct action.
Having no concern where the work comes from, either within or without, she lets
go of every conception. She avoids looking at the work of other artists, or
attending receptions, and does not attempt tp explain her work. "The viewer
shouldn't worry about what the artist has put into the work, just look. The artist is
also looking, while they work, getting drawn in." She even avoids the use of titles,
calling the bulk of her abstract work Conversations, which she describes as "Just
a hint, a little hint at what I am doing." Echoing this draw from the unconscious, in
an independent manner she fully evokes the Surrealist's prized notions of the
automatic, especially in the drawings that define her C'est la Vie work, and
automatic writing, which can be found as a key element in many of her paintings.
C'est la Vie
Yoo talks about the enthusiasm for art in general in Korea as being driven by the
people. Much like the rise of Abstract Expressionism in New York following the
wake of the war in Europe, the war in Korea in the 1950s left devastation, and also
a driving desire to restore culture. While the government was initially slow to
respond, cultural institutions were a natural response within the recovery.
Eventually recognizing this, government support has led to the development of
new art centers throughout the country and a significant increase in young artists
being encouraged to enter the field. There is a strong sense that the source of art
is found in the people, rather than isolated as an institution. "That's how the
Korean people are, they wanted something better, they wanted art whether there
was help or not."
Finding a way to express her personal language through abstract painting has a
similar reflection in the people's history of writing in Korea. I asked about any
connections between Chinese culture and her own, and she centered in on the
fact that for most of Korean history, Chinese characters were used for writing,
limiting literacy to the highest nobility. King Sejong the Great formed an academy
called the Hall of Worthies to develop a phonetic writing method for the Korean
language, which produced in 1446, the Hangul alphabet. This faced resistance for
centuries, and in the first several decades of the 20th century it was outlawed, with
Japanese as the required language. Overall it took a long time to reach today's
widespread, official use.
In her artistic pursuit, studying multiple mediums and methods, it was as though
she faced her own struggle to adopt a personal language. Most significantly, and
mirroring this indifference to history as the source of her art, the artist reflects that
achieving her stride did not feel like the culmination of effort. Rather, it was an
arduous struggle to remove obstacles and arrive at herself that finally brought her
painting to its refined level of expression. "After finding my style after trying a
million ways, I felt exhausted once I did get there. I don't think it's a progressive
increase in ability, the only thing that is developed is the ability to enjoy what I do."
Arriving at artistic strength is being able to fully enjoy, to connect completely with
the act of creativity, which explains why looking back is so exhausting. "It's an