A quick lesson on the history of the presidency in South Korea might help viewers decode the harrowing narratives and biting symbolism embedded in Lim Ok-Sang’s epic large-scale paintings. But even without knowing who all the players in contemporary Korean politics are, his evocative and visceral style and gift for distilling atmospheric settings into a universal emotional message get the message across perfectly. His dynamic is akin to the convention of European painters of the 18th and 19th centuries finding recourse in ancient mythology and cryptic literary/folkloric references in order to sublimate their social critiques in a veil of apparent classicism. Think about Raft of the Medusa, Saturn Devouring His Children, or Death of Marat. All this makes event more sense when you realize Lim Ok-Sang was educated in France, graduating in 1986 from the Angouleme Art School. This stylistic and cultural immersion shows in his formal choices and in assertive techniques that combine visual tropes of Asian painting with Western portraiture and propaganda, and a taste for emotional irony.
Because nothing happens in a vacuum, there of course plenty of figures -- Obama, Hillary Clinton, Kim Jong-Un -- recognizable from political coverage, although notably not seen from an American perspective. Obama is a smaller-scale figure, a player in the scene but not at its center, Kim is larger as a function of proximity and ubiquity. Secretary Clinton is the subject of her own portrait, shown alone in front of a grand civic building, wrapped in mummy-like white gauze, covered save for one bright, seeking, penetrating eye. Her stance is strong, her condition, injured and restrictive. The looming, talking-heads compositions, intense palette, assertive linework, and thick impasto fleshiness of the portraiture, especially in the context of political critique, will evoke the work of legendary political painter Robbie Conal for Los Angeles audiences. And indeed they both share a foundation of European art historical painting, fused with edgy, urban, situational satire. Lim also creates depictions of landscapes and other works that are primarily abstract - both idioms that transcend language in other ways that relate to his broader practice of sculpture and public art. Interactive to say the least, he emerged as a key leader in the political resistance that emerged in South Korea the 1980s.
A decades-long struggle against systemic corruption has recently resulted in the jailing of the deposed president. Park Geun-hye was removed from office last year after millions of people protested for months in Seoul, with Lim as a high-profile leader of the resistance. She’s in jail now. Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, who was the president of South Korea from 1963 to 1979. He had seized power in 1961 in a bloody military coup, and declared martial law In 1972. After previous attempts, including two North Korean operations, Park was assassinated in 1979, and Major General Chun Doo-hwan quickly morphed his investigation of the incident into his own power-play, assuming the presidency for himself in 1980, ordering a shocking massacre in the process. It was then that the populist art movement Minjung was born. Chun was in office until February 1988 and people had started disappearing right from the beginning.
Returning to South Korea following his European education, this was the cultural and political climate, the legacy of the still-active Minjung movement, in which Lim (who was born in 1950) would become a mature artist. Following decades of acclaim and painful blacklisting, the situation with Mrs. Park became the social crucible of Lim’s own generation and he was ready to deal with it, through art. He became beloved in the global Korean diaspora and well-respected back at home, physically a leader and a face of the protests, using art as a central tactic to expand and inspire citizens at home and abroad. His rich textures, saturated palette, visceral brushwork, operatic billboard-like scale and forced perspectives mirror history painting as a genre to create something both timeless and specific, of its time and place and yet available to all those curious about politics and history, expressed with the hybrid strategies of our modern global visual culture.
Lim Ok-Sang at CMay Gallery in the Pacific Design Center
Exhibition: October 5 - November 9, 2017
Reception for the Artist: Thursday, October 5, 2017 (5-9:30pm)