Hastings Contemporary, Hastings, UK
Hastings Contemporary is pleased to present the UK’s first solo museum exhibition of works by Yun Hyong-keun, one of the leading figures of Korean art.
“The thesis of my painting is the gate of heaven and earth. Blue is the color of heaven, while umber is the color of earth. Thus, I call them ‘heaven and earth,’ with the gate serving as the composition,” Yun once explained. This quote is particularly relevant to Hastings Contemporary’s location, as the gallery is sited on the Old Town’s Stade, looking out onto the differing shades of blue of the expansive sky and sea. This is further reflected by the exhibition’s opening sequence of paintings: a small group of umber and ultramarine works from the early 1970s.
The show then continues by exploring the genesis of “the gate of heaven and earth” with several works displaying the gate’s gradual widening until it almost disappears with the closing work—from the year of Yun’s death in 2007—realized in burnt umber and ultramarine blue, in which “heaven” is now almost completely suppressed by “earth.”
The concept of silence created by Yun’s work, particularly through the interpretation of gates or portals as voids, has the effect of turning the gallery space into a chapel or temple. The window onto the Old Town is veiled, as are the skylights, to enhance the meditative power of the individual paintings. This allows the viewer to be absorbed by the subtle range of tones, which on closer examination reveal the mix of ultramarine and umber through the blending of the two colors. And while the gate in each of the works from the 1970s absorbs the eye, the two late works both titled Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue (1999 and 2007) with their narrowing portals place the emphasis back on earth, into which the artist himself would eventually be absorbed. As he said himself in 1990: “Since everything on earth ultimately returns to earth, everything is just a matter of time. When I remember that this also applies to me and my paintings, it all seems so trifling.”
In the aftermath of the Korean War, the country found itself effectively isolated from the rest of the world’s art markets and movements. This led South Korean artists to create their own sets of rules derived from the Korean tradition and creative parameters in the field of abstraction, with a group including Yun founding the Dansaekhwa movement.
From 1973, Yun began to establish a distinctive style of his own. His work was informed by nature, as well as by the scholar and calligrapher Chusa Kim Jeong-hui. He also engaged with Western art during his 2-year relocation to Paris with his family in the early 1980s, and his encounter with Donald Judd in 1991, among other experiences. These influences led him to create his signature palette and his rectilinear compositions, reminiscent of traditional East Asian ink-wash paintings. Using pigment diluted with turpentine, Yun would spend days, weeks, or even months layering the paint to create fields of intense darkness. This process effectively creates a physical manifestation of time, with the various layers of pigment resulting in blurred outer edges.
Although Yun lived through historical traumas in Korean history—the Japanese colonial rule, the Korean War, and the political turmoil during the postwar dictatorship—he never compromised with injustice, but stood against it. His anger and sadness inevitably surface in his early works.
Yun Hyong-keun’s career and contribution to the Dansaekhwa movement during the sixties have begun to attract fresh interest internationally. His paintings’ combination of performative, rhythmic strokes, meditative qualities, and monochromatic elements represent a contrast to Western Minimalism and artists such as Agnes Martin or Mark Rothko. Yun’s paintings reflect his own culture while sparking comparisons with key artists in the canon of 20th century American and European abstraction: a point the Hastings Contemporary show demonstrates.
Responding to a question in 1976, Yun said: “What is painting? I still really don't know the answer. Is it a mere trace from combustion of life? I think one's ego is more freely and definitely expressed in the world of unconscious. The more one tries to express oneself, the ego becomes self-conscious, hence, the expression becomes contrived. Therefore, I don't think there can be answer to painting. I have no idea as to what I should paint, and at which point I should stop painting. There, in the midst of such uncertainty, I just paint. I don't have a goal in mind. I want to paint that something which is nothing, that will inspire me endlessly to go on.”
Hastings Contemporary Director Liz Gilmore says: “Our gallery, Hastings Contemporary, strives to show the very best of modern and contemporary art whilst also being one of the greenest galleries in the UK. The inspirational presence of Yun’s retrospective on the occasion of the 58th edition of the Venice Art Biennale gave momentum to our thinking and planning to bring Yun to Hastings. The exhibition will focus on Yun’s stunning and reflective umber and ultramarine paintings, which makes such a fitting juxtaposition with our location between land and sea.”