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Ancient Korean silk paintings get a mind-bending contemporary spin

Oscar Holland, CNN

The closer you look at Hun Kyu Kim’s paintings, the more disquieting they become.

At first glance, the South Korean artist’s creations combine the cutesiness of Japanese anime with the allegorical storytelling of centuries-old Buddhist scrolls. Anthropomorphic animals act out endless narratives in colorful, cartoonish worlds.

But the devil is, almost literally, in the details.

Beleaguered catfish, sword-wielding dogs and armored rodents commit acts of violence, malice and mischief, their expressions contorted, their eyes bloodshot and yellow, their faces sometimes partly decomposed. At once amusing and grotesque, the works put a modern spin on the historical painting styles that Kim spent almost a decade mastering.

“I want to be a bridge between the past and the contemporary,” he told CNN in Seoul, South Korea, where he recently showed almost a dozen new works at the city’s inaugural Frieze art fair.

The 36-year-old is usually based in East London, where he spends up to 10 hours a day, seven days a week, working on his intricate art. But before leaving his home country to study at the UK’s Royal College of Art seven years ago, he underwent a traditional and highly technical education in Seoul National University’s Oriental Painting program. The course required him to painstakingly reproduce Asian masterpieces and brushwork techniques from centuries past.

“My master was very strict — he didn’t want me to experiment,” Kim recalled. “They really wanted me to follow their orders, because it’s almost a belief (system) or a strict structure that they want the next generation to inherit.”

During his studies, Kim found himself particularly drawn to silk paintings from the Goryeo dynasty, a time when Buddhism flourished on the Korean peninsula. Like the Buddhist scrolls he was inspired by, his own detailed works are painted in thin, delicate lines using rich organic pigments. He too uses silk as his canvas, tracing images from paper sketches before bringing them to life with a tiny paintbrush.

In the process, Kim takes the historical art form into present day, naming inspirations that range from Dutch Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch to Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. (“I was part of the generation that was influenced by anime,” Kim said, referring to South Korea’s decision to lift a long-standing ban on Japanese animation in the late 1990s.)

Centering his work around a basic theme, be it a location or type of animal, he imagines — and then paints — small stories that exist independently while also relating to one another. But instead of depicting religious narratives like his ancient forebears, his microcosmic worlds are steeped in satire.

The painter’s latest works, shown at Frieze Seoul via the Paris-based gallery High Art, ooze with iconoclastic swipes at commercialism, social hierarchy and state authority.

In “Fitting Room N.7,” animal police stalk a changing room occupied by hairless rabbits, one of which appears to have been skinned, its pelt hanging from a nearby hook. “Too Cool for Shopping” depicts a lawless mall complete with escalator sword fights and a swarm of insects fought off with heavy artillery. “Empty Paintings of the Broken Hearted,” meanwhile, takes the form of a labyrinthine art fair (not unlike the one in which the painting hung), with partition walls and picture frames serving as portals to different — but equally chaotic — worlds.

Evolving perspectives

These new paintings (the most expensive of which sold for around $60,000) are perhaps Kim’s most complex to date. Like the impossible Penrose stairs — the paradoxical illusion of an ever-climbing staircase — his art increasingly plays with viewers’ sense of perspective. Existing on multiple planes at once, Kim’s worlds fold into one another to unsettling effect. Three of the paintings he created for Frieze Seoul feature the word “uncomfortable” in their titles.

Yet, having previously offered commentaries on current affairs, the painter says his new works are free from the politics in pieces from his early career.

“I used to think that art and politics were the same thing, and that by showing my work I could talk about political issues,” he said. “Nowadays, I try not to talk much. Instead, I spread images in my paintings very randomly, and destroy (any sense) of where the start is and where the end is.

“I don’t think I’m offering some kind of lesson through my paintings,” he added. “Rather, I want to show images that are against logical thought.”

The depoliticization of Kim’s work stems, in part, from his dismay at recent events in South Korea and around the world, he said, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an example. “I used to think our world was progressing in the right way, but observing the kind of historical tragedies, I think that sometimes it is not. I feel like I was wrong. I feel like I was building a huge castle but it totally collapsed, and I’m trying to rebuild it again.”

His methods have changed, too. What was once a meticulously planned painting process is increasingly improvised, with the painter sometimes beginning in the middle of a picture and working outward.

The results, however, are no less intricate. And Kim’s work may now be more amenable to audiences in South Korea, where talking about political issues is still “considered a kind of taboo,” he said.

Speaking on the eve of his Frieze Seoul presentation — his first time showing a body of work in his home country — the painter expressed uncertainty about how his art would be received by his compatriots.

“There’s a slight difference between the UK audience and the South Korean audience, but I think they’re going to meet at the same point in the end.”

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