At New York's first Korean Art Fair, which debuted last week at Chelsea’s spacious La.venue event space, a photograph dominated by a grand palace nearly filled the entire wall at GallerySun & Gallery Sun Contemporarys booth. Though at first glance it appeared to be a simple, poetic landscape, closer inspection revealed tiny Japanese manga characters — movie stars, royalty, fairies, heroes, sexy video game characters — cavorting on the terrace of the Korean palace in various vibrant outfits. But instead of simply providing an amusing juxtaposition, the work, by artist Lee Sang Hyun, slyly alluded to Japan’s long occupation of Korea. Titled 3,000 Court Ladies, the captivating piece was just one of the complex, culturally engaged artworks to be found in the event’s 25 exhibitions, which were sponsored by South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism.
Timed to coincide with the city’s major art fairs — the Armory Show, SCOPE, PULSE, Red Dot, and VOLTA — and to precede Asia Week (March 20-28), the event included 104 internationally known artists, among them Lee U-Fan, Kim Won-Sook, Min Byung-Hun, Kim Tschang-Yeul, and Chun Kwang-Young, as well as such emerging as Ji Yong-Ho, Byun Soon-Choel, and Kim Dong-Yoo. For neophytes, the selection proved a good introduction to the contemporary art of a country that boasts a 6,000-year-old cultural history. For the cognoscenti, it went a long way toward reaffirming their belief in the country's art scene, which began gaining momentum more than 20 years ago. “Korean art is the art to watch in the market,” said independent curator Amy Poster, curator emeritus of the Brooklyn Museum's Asian Art Department. “It’s often undervalued and more affordable.”
Until the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea largely devoted itself to rebuilding the country after the Korean War. Once it emerged from isolation, though, the government quickly decided to vigorously support the nation's artists, funding art centers, galleries, and private art museums across the country. (South Korea holds its own major art fair, KIAF, in Seoul in the fall.) Today, its artists have emerged from the shadows of China and Japan to gain more than a foothold in the consciousness of art lovers, and to share the benefits of the general excitement about Asian art. This has translated into higher prices at auction, and the establishment of Korean galleries in Beijing, Hong Kong, New York, and Los Angeles.
Korean art’s growing prominence can be attributed to a variety of factors. “Japan’s contemporary art is not as edgy as Korea’s, and Chinese prices are often out of reach,” said dealer Jiyoung Koo, former head of the Korean art department at Sotheby’s New York. “This gives it an advantage in the market for buyers interested in provocative works that are not exorbitant. Also, the government gives it a big push. All this conspired to help Korean art really take off in spring 2007.” The highest reported price paid for the work of a living Korean artist is $1.94 million for a large 1978 painting by Lee U-Fan, From Point, which sold at a Sotheby's New York contemporary art auction in June 2007.“If anything holds it back, it is its diversity," added Hyunsoo Woo, associate curator of Korean art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "But then, that’s also its strength. Painting, sculpture, video and installation are all vital, and you can’t generalize about any of them.”
This was apparent walking the aisles of the fair. Gana Art, which also has a New York gallery, offered an especially powerful work by photographer Kim in Sook, who trained with the Thomas Ruff in Dusseldorf. Like many of her trademark images, the work had a voyeuristic quality, which she achieves by peering though windows with her camera to capture the loneliness in urban environments, in the manner of a more cynical Walker Evans.
Kim Dong-Yoos large oils on canvas of icons like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn at the Lee Hwak Gallery initially look like clones of Warhol silkscreens, but he places image upon image, so that in Audrey Hepburn vs. Gregory Peck, traces of Peck’s face are embedded in Hepburn's, producing an effect very different from Warhol.
Gallery Artside featured Seung Wook Sims strong Black Mutated Ornamentation. Mounted on a steel frame, it's composed of mounds and tendrils of melted black glue that form a mass that looks like a cross between a web and lava. At Juliana Gallery, Won Sun Paiks Pause, a large square enclosed ink drawings of people and animals, which highlighted the relationship between the rice paper’s texture and the figures’ delicacy. In the same space, there stood the infinitely graceful Calligraphy, a sculpture of two painted bronze figures, one white and the other black, all sensual curves, tenuously entwined like dancers.
By the fair’s end, Misun Pyo, chairman of the Galleries Association of Korea, reported that sales had gone well. “It’s exceeded our most optimistic expectations,” Misun said. “What I liked best was seeing people's surprise at the quality and the variety. We’ll be back.”