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Korean Female Artists Featured on Overseas Platforms: Artists Julia Jo, GaHee Park, Wook-kyung Choi, and Jung Kangja

Many Korean artists are being introduced to the global art scene. Emerging contemporary artists Julia Jo (b. 1991) and GaHee Park (b. 1985) were recently introduced in Ocula and ARTnews, respectively. The works of Choi Wook-kyung (1940-1985) and Jung Kangja (1942-2017), whose works had a significant influence on the modern and contemporary Korean art world, will be presented in group exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery in the UK.

Julia Jo, 'Provenance of Tall Tales,' 2022, Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 in, Diptych. Courtesy of the Artist and Ronchini, London.

Ocula, an online platform introducing contemporary art in the Asia-Pacific region, introduced Julia Jo, a South Korean artist based in Brooklyn, New York, as one of the “Five Artists to Watch in 2023.”

Artist Julia Jo (b. 1991) focuses primarily on oil paintings that embrace both the figurative and abstract, incorporating condensed energy immersed in rich colors and forms. At first glance, the works appear to be a feast of colors revealed by heavy brushstrokes, but upon closer inspection, images with multi-layered narratives slowly emerge. Influenced by Baroque art, Jo’s unique and dramatic artistic practices are also connected to Abstract Expressionist painting.

Jo’s works, which fluctuate with frantic colors and shapes, capture the changes in relationships and various experiences in everyday life, as well as the changes in emotions resulting from these experiences. Jo’s works allude to a state of missed connections and a sense of distance in interpersonal relationships, as she has been unable to settle in one place since elementary school, moving from country to country.

Julia Jo is currently having her solo debut at Charles Moffett from January 6 to February 11, 2023. She will also have solo exhibitions in May at James Fuentes in Los Angeles, CA, and in the fall at the Jessica Silverman Gallery in San Francisco, CA. Her work is in the permanent collection of the ICA Miami. 

GaHee Park, ‘Domaine de Fatigue,’ 2022, Oil on canvas, 63.5x76.2 cm. Photograph: Marion Paquette. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

According to ARTnews, Emmanuel Perrotin, who runs more than ten galleries worldwide, including Seoul, invited two artists last summer to his second home in Cap-Ferret, located in southwestern France, to provide a residency opportunity.

One of the artists was American sculptor Genesis Belanger (b. 1978), and the other was Montreal-based Korean-born artist GaHee Park (b. 1985). The two artists co-curated and participated in the exhibition Finger Bang, a group exhibition of twenty-two artists held at Perrotin Paris in September 2022.

Through her paintings, GaHee Park deviates from the strict social gaze to express a voyeuristic fantasy. Naked couples are drawn in an exaggerated round shape in a private space, showing everyday scenes such as hugging and eating dinner while pets relax on the other side.

Park depicts sexuality with greater nuance rather than revealing those desires directly. These images are conveyed in an everyday setting through the composition of the painting, the movements of the figures, and various images that stimulate the imagination. Images of lovers, animals, food, and plants in a home are somehow depicted in distorted shapes. She also adds other visual interventions, such as windows and mirrors, to establish boundaries between the public and private, thereby stimulating the viewer’s imagination.

Park, who grew up in a conservative family and a hierarchical social system in Korea, explores taboo subjects such as sexuality, nudity, and the female body. Through her works, Park attempts to escape the feelings of guilt and shame experienced in such an environment. In an interview with Ocula in 2020, Park said, “In a single image, I’m trying to express the multiple ways we inhabit our bodies: physically, psychologically, sexually, socially, and so on.”

GaHee Park has held solo exhibitions at Perrotin galleries in Paris, New York, and Seoul, and a solo exhibition is upcoming at the Tokyo gallery. Her works are in the collections of the Columbus Museum of Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, and the Medianoche Foundation in Granada, Spain.

The Whitechapel Gallery in the UK will be presenting two group exhibitions of female artists worldwide. Both exhibitions will be held concurrently, introducing female artists who have been neglected in art history.

Wook-kyung Choi, 'La Femme Fâché,' 1966, Oil on Canvas, 137×174cm, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art Collection. Courtesy of the artist and the MMCA.

The exhibition Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–1970 will be held from February 9 to May 7, presenting more than 150 works by 80 female artists from around the world.

Rather than focusing on the predominantly white male painters who led the Abstract Expressionist movement, the exhibition sheds light on various international female artists who continued to create gestural abstract works in the aftermath of the Second World War. Among these artists is the Korean artist Wook-kyung Choi.

Wook-kyung Choi (1940–1985) was an artist who created abstract paintings with bold and intense colors and free-spirited strokes that responded to both the languages of the international and Korean art worlds. Choi was also an artist who introduced Abstract Expressionism to South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s when the country’s art scene was dominated by the Dansaekhwa and the Korean avant-garde movement influenced by Informel from Europe and Mono-ha from Japan.

Choi spent 15 years in the United States, where she was greatly influenced by American Abstract Expressionism and artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Robert Motherwell. Later, she incorporated visual elements from Korean culture, including the five cardinal colors, calligraphy, ink painting, and Korean landscapes, into her works, combining Eastern and Western techniques and concepts. She was an artist who endlessly experimented with color and its form, introducing a new trend to male-dominated Korean modernism and postmodernism.

After graduating from the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University, she traveled to the United States to study painting in 1963 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Brooklyn Museum Art School. After working as an assistant professor at Franklin Pierce University from 1968 to 1971, she returned to Korea in 1978, where she suffered a fatal heart attack while working as a professor at Yeungnam University and Duksung Women’s University.

Choi held solo exhibitions at the Shinsegae Gallery, Seoul (1971); the Roswell Art Museum and Art Center, New Mexico (1977); the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwacheon (1987); and the Ho-Am Art Museum, Seoul (1989). She also participated in important group exhibitions, including the Annual Invitational Exhibition in New York sponsored by the Skowhegan School Foundation (1967–1968), the Invitational Exhibition of Korean Contemporary Artists in Tokyo (1972), the 16th São Paulo Biennale (1981), and Korean Drawings Now at the Brooklyn Museum (1982–1985).

Jung Kangja, 'To Repress,' 1968, Cotton, steel pipe, 250 x 215 x 95 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Arario Gallery.

The exhibition Action, Gesture, Performance: Feminism, the Body and Abstraction, which runs from January 17 to May 7 at Whitechapel Gallery, focuses on the pioneering practices of female artists who used their bodies to explore the freedom of expression, subjectivity, and politics. Jung Kangja, a Korean artist, is included in this exhibition. 

In 1968, Jung Kangja’s (1942–2017) Transparent Balloons and Nude, one of the first nudist performances in Korea, had a significant impact on the Korean art scene. Men tore the artist’s clothes off as she stood on stage and invited participants to burst the transparent balloons attached to her body. The performance took place during a time when the Korean military government strictly regulated many things, including the dress code; women were punished for publicly exposing their bodies, such as by wearing short miniskirts. Nevertheless, images of exposed women’s bodies on the streets, such as those in magazines and advertisements, were accepted mainly for the purpose of attracting the male gaze. Jung’s performance criticized this reality of the time. Later in the late 1970s, Jung devoted herself to painting, expressing her life as a woman through geometric forms composed of natural symbols.

Hongik University granted a BFA in painting to Jung Kangja, one of the earliest feminist artists in Korea. In 1967, Jung emerged in Korean art circles through the Korean Young Artists Association Exhibition. From the 1960s to the 1970s, Jung was a member of the “New Exhibition Coterie” and “The Fourth Group,” creating works that challenged traditional ideas and social systems. In 1970, the government began imposing stricter restrictions on all activities involving the human body, and after her nudist performance, her first solo exhibition was forcibly demolished by the government. Since she was no longer able to work as an artist in the country, she moved to Singapore. Jung returned to Korea in 1981 and focused on painting. After Jung passed away in 2017, she had her first retrospective exhibition, Jung Kangja: I Want My Last Trip to the Moon, in 2018, held simultaneously at Arario Gallery in Cheonan and Seoul. 

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