Hwang Jai Hyoung: Restoration of Human Dignity is a solo exhibition highlighting the artistic achievement of Hwang Jai Hyoung (b. 1952) in his identity as a "miner painter." "miner painter" is a crucial term that traverses Hwang Jai Hyoung's art world from the 1980s, when the artist experienced the life of a miner for three years and portrayed his experience like a diary. This term reveals Hwang's intention to match his art with his life and implies his artistic world who brings a realistic portrayal of the object in front of his very eyes.
Minjung Art, which was actively developed along with the democratization movement in the 1980s, advocated the return of images to contain "reality in art," and presented the desire for social reform enough to be called "critical realism." The Minjung Art groups including "Reality and Utterance," "Gwangju Free Artists' Association," and "Imsul-nyeon" took on the role of a sober accuser of social absurdity. Hwang not only just participated in the "Imsul-nyeon" but became a miner and closely depicted the field of labor. In the 1990s, Hwang sought a change of his perception in order to connect humans and nature in the landscape of a waning mine village and Gangwon-do. After 2010, he used new material and medium to repaint his previous subjects and presented the coal-mining town from various angles. For the past forty years, Hwang Jai Hyoung has redefined the word “miner painter” into a contemporary term. The artist continued to experiment to acquire "reality" despite the changes of the times he was facing, which allowed him to maintain his realist attitude as a painter.
Hwang interpreted the life in the coal mine on a universal dimension: "The dead end of the mine is where humans despair. It exists not only in Taebaek but also in Seoul." According to him, the portrait of a miner becomes the face of reality that testifies to "now, here" as a proxy for alienated beings. As life continues after despair, this exhibition is intended to convey the message of hope and recovery like the meaning of the title, Restoration of Human Dignity.
1. A Miner and A Painter
Hwang Jai Hyoung formed an art activist group "Imsul-nyeon" in 1982 with students from the Department of Painting at Chung-Ang University. The artists of "Imsul-nyeon" expressed their critical perspective on social irregularities by presenting paintings with solid formative properties. Hwang Jai Hyoung's Hwangji 330 (1981) was used a realistic technique to reveal the life of a miner who died in a fatal mining accident. After that, he settled in Gangwon-do and worked as a miner for three years, presenting artworks including Bath (Unwashable)(1983) and Lunch (1985). Pits, head lamps and masks of coal pickers, the work clothes, and dirty slips depicted in his works represented reality.
In the mid-1980s, Hwang quit mining for health reasons and then proceeded to the stage of exploring the elements that formed life in a coal mine. He used wastes of coal mines as objects or used wire mesh and irregular plywoods as canvases. Hwang became a miner to find the "essence of art," as written in the inaugural declaration of "Imsul-nyeon." He devoted himself to drawing objects that were detached from real life onto the canvas as a way to embody reality. For the artist during this period, the reality was based on physical reality beyond representation.
2. From Taebaek to East Sea
The South Korean government recommended the use of clean energy ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympics and implemented the Coal Industry Rationalization Policy in 1989. As the usage of briquettes decreased, Taebaek, the nation's largest coalfield, was engulfed by the blast of dead mine. Against this backdrop, Hwang Jai Hyoung participated in the commemorative project for Sung Wanhee, a Gangwon coal mine worker who burnt himself to death in 1988, and operated joint workshops, Taebaek Madang, Habitat for Humanity, and village murals project. At the same time, he drew various traces of life as a result of the compressive growth of South Korea with the eyes of a witness.
The artist emphasized the connection between humans and landscapes by saying, "The miner's house is the look and expression of a miner," and focused on capturing the essence of the object while completing a work over the years such as Baekdu Mountains (1993–2004). In addition, he presented works such as Black Cry (1996–2008) and Mother (2005) by using soil and coal as materials for the "figuration of reality." When it defines realism as "an objective expression of reality subjectively grasped and perceived by the artist," Hwang Jai Hyoung, in the 1990s, expanded the scope of reality to the object's inner dimension through a landscape painting that transitioned from a coal mine to Mother Nature.
3. The Face of Reality
Since the 2010s, Hwang Jai Hyoung drew trans-historical landscapes and universal portraits outside of his rooted area and reinterpreted the subject of the 1980s using hair as new material. The miners and surrounding landscapes were reappeared on the canvas, while contemporary issues such as the sinking of Sewol ferry and the 2016 South Korean political scandal were described in his works.
Hwang viewed hair as a film on which life was recorded, and as an entity with vitality in itself. Exposed Face (2017) reminds us of the traditional concept of Asian painting that reality should contain the energy or the soul of an object. Yet, hair is connected with how the artist tried to realize actual reality using materials in the 1980s. Meanwhile, a hyperrealism work A Place of Father (2011–2013) and Olkhon (2016) drawn with graphite are works about the history of individuals and the nation. Hwang re-emphasized the connection between human and landscapes by expressing the traces of time with a retired miner's wrinkles and a lake's waves. Likewise, Hwang Jai Hyoung combines reality with the concept of spirit and time to evoke the life in the coal-mining town as of today's story.