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Your Guide to Exhibitions Connecting the Korean and International Art World

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash
Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

A number of the world’s most prestigious galleries, such as König, Thaddaeus Ropac, Tang Contemporary Art, Gladstone, Esther Schipper, and Peres Projects, opened branches in Seoul in the past year. Big-name galleries that already had a space in the Korean capital, such as Pace, Lehmann Maupin, and Perrotin, have expanded their presence in the city by moving to a larger building or opening an additional branch. 

These international galleries have introduced a variety of international artists and their works to the country’s art scene, establishing a connection between these artists and the Korean art market.

Nonetheless, the Korean contemporary art world must consider whether these galleries are introducing local artists and how these big art galleries contribute to the city in which they are located. Galleries are indeed for-profit organizations, but they are also an important part of the industry that links artists, collectors, and the local art world, thereby fostering a healthy ecosystem.

These Seoul-based international galleries have been introducing several contemporary Korean artists or artists of Korean descent at their Seoul locations. Among the artists introduced after 2020, Lee Bul was introduced at Lehmann Maupin Seoul in a group exhibition; Pace Seoul brought together works by Ji Hye Yeom, Heemin Chung, Sang-ah Choi, and Hyun-Sook Hong Lee, as well as a two-person exhibition by Choong Sup Lim and Richard Tuttle. At Various Small Fires (VSF) Seoul, emerging artists such as Jungyoon Hyen, Mark Yang, and Cindy Ji-hye Kim were introduced.

Lehmann Maupin Seoul is currently presenting Recombinant, a two-person exhibition by Mandy El-Sayegh and Keunmin Lee, and VSF is holding Woman, introducing the works of Donghoon Rhee, at “and Milk” project space in Los Angeles. In addition to international galleries, Pibi Gallery, a Seoul-based gallery, presents The Unseen in the Seen, a two-person exhibition with artist Robert Elfgen as his first Korean exhibition with artist Gyungsu An.

Exhibition view of Mandy El-Sayegh and Keunmin Lee, "Recombinant," Lehmann Maupin, Seoul. (November 3–December 10, 2022). Photo by OnArt Studio.

London-based artist Mandy El-Sayegh and Seoul-based artist Keunmin Lee are presenting their new works at Lehmann Maupin Seoul, located in Hannam-dong.

A few years ago, El-Sayegh discovered Lee’s work through a search engine algorithm. Since then, the two artists have been sharing images to create connections and intersections within their artistic practices.

Both artists use the abstract imagery of the body in their works to explore different aspects of the self as an individual subject and within social contexts to reflect social realities. The exhibition’s name derives from recombinant DNA, a genetic phenomenon in which pieces of genetic information from separate genes, cells, or organisms are exchanged to create new forms.

Exhibition view of Mandy El-Sayegh and Keunmin Lee, "Recombinant," Lehmann Maupin, Seoul. (November 3–December 10, 2022). Photo by OnArt Studio.

In his large paintings, Keunmin Lee (b. 1982) combines images of fragmented parts of the human body, such as flesh, organs, blood vessels, arms, and legs, to depict his experience of hallucinations during his hospitalization in his college years. Lee, who suffers from borderline schizophrenia, has been experiencing vivid visions of human organs and smelling rotting corpses. 

However, Lee goes beyond merely depicting his visual and olfactory hallucinations to critically reflect our society, which separates the normal from the abnormal. Through these paintings that evoke body parts that have just begun to decompose, Lee expresses the dichotomous attitude of our society that defines and otherizes unsophisticated, ugly, sick, or different beings.

Exhibition view of Mandy El-Sayegh and Keunmin Lee, "Recombinant," Lehmann Maupin, Seoul. (November 3–December 10, 2022). Photo by OnArt Studio.

Mandy El-Sayegh (b. 1985), who works in a variety of media, also creates works that evoke blood-like smears or peeled skin. She carefully studies the language and materials in newspapers and magazines. By extracting fragments from images and texts and expanding them in her own way, the artist demonstrates how fragments can be distorted in various ways, thereby straining the truth.

On the canvas, El-Sayegh uses colors that evoke sunset skies or bruised skin. Working in a variety of genres, she also created a sound piece by collecting hospital sounds, recreating the buzzing sounds she hears in her ear, and later incorporating the sounds related to the recent Itaewon disaster.

Main image of Donghoon Rhee’s solo exhibition "Woman," VSF, Los Angeles. (November 12, 2022 – January 21, 2023). © VSF.

VSF is presenting Woman, a solo exhibition by Donghoon Rhee (b. 1991), at the gallery’s “and Milk” project space in Los Angeles. It is the artist’s first solo exhibition outside of Korea, featuring new wood sculptures and paintings. The exhibition’s title was inspired by the works of Willem de Kooning, Woman I (1950–1953) and Woman III (1953). 

Rhee combines and intersects painting and sculptural elements, such as hand-painting wood sculptures or drawing sculptural elements on canvas paintings. The artist, who touches on subject matters of plants, animals, and the human body, is particularly known for depicting movements and gestures on voluminous wooden sculptures and embodying the rough surface of his wood sculptures in his painting works.

Installation view of 'Next Level' (2021), "Sculptural Impulse" at Buk-Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul. (June 9, 2022 - August 15, 2022). Photo by Aproject Company.

Rhee expanded his artistic practice by capturing the dance moves of K-pop girl group idols in order to express more dynamic movements in his sculpture works. Among the new works is a sculpture of Hyein of New Jeans performing a move from the song “Hype Boy.” Rhee swiftly illustrated the gestural movement by using an electric saw and chisel, creating a rough depiction, but the sculpture also includes details of Hyein’s swaying ponytail and daisy-patterned ornaments on a blue varsity jacket.

Poster image of Robert Elfgen and An Gyungsu, 보이지 않는 세계 The Unseen in the Seen, Pibi Gallery, Seoul. (November 17, 2022 – January 14, 2023). © Pibi Gallery.

The Unseen in the Seen is Robert Elfgen’s first exhibition in Korea, presented alongside the works of the Korean artist Gyungsu An. The two artists present paintings depicting abstract spaces in experimental ways. In this exhibition, the two artists present works that depict the landscape of the mind.

Exhibition view of "보이지 않는 세계 The Unseen in the Seen," Pibi Gallery, Seoul. (November 17, 2022 – January 14, 2023). Photo by Pibi Gallery.

Gyungsu An (b. 1975), who majored in oriental painting, creates acrylic paintings that capture fleeting moments just before or after a seemingly ordinary event. His paintings contain a sense of tension that seems to happen in neglected spaces, such as redevelopment sites or empty spaces between parks and apartments. Using the element of light and the technique of repeatedly applying thin layers of acrylic paint, he creates surreal images based on real locations.

Exhibition view of "보이지 않는 세계 The Unseen in the Seen," Pibi Gallery, Seoul. (November 17, 2022 – January 14, 2023). Photo by Pibi Gallery.

Robert Elfgen’s (b. 1972) landscapes contain a poetic and mythical artistic universe. Elfgen uses unconventional painting materials that are readily available in daily life, such as metal, glass, wood, brass, and ink. In addition to paintings, Elfgen creates diverse landscapes using collage, video, and installation. In this exhibition, consisting primarily of paintings, the artist utilized textile paints, wood stains, metal powder, and ink to create watercolor-like landscapes on wet wooden panels.

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