Hwang Kyu-Baik: seen and unseen is the first print exhibition of the MMCA Korea’s Korean Contemporary Artists Series inaugurated to approach the history of contemporary Korean art from a multilateral perspective. Hwang Kyu-Baik(1932- ) was born in Busan in 1932 and moved to France in 1968. After his settlement in 1970 in New York, the heartland of contemporary art, he started to commit himself to the mastering of mezzotint techniques, one of intaglio printmaking processes. By internalizing and modernizing the traditional medium of mezzotint Hwang succeeded in shaping his own unique style. His fine mezzotints of refined composure and lyricism have been awarded prizes at various international print exhibitions since the mid 1970s: the International Biennal of Graphic Art, Ljubljana(1979, 1981), the British International Print Biennale, Bradford(1974), and the Florence Print Biennale(1974). This has led to the acquisition of his works by major museums throughout the world for their collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Albertina. He was also commissioned to make the poster for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo that made him the world-acclaimed artist. As the artist’s first solo show held in Korean Art Museum, a retrospective of his six decades career, one can appreciate the quintessence of the oeuvre of Hwang who had long ago accomplished his unrivaled status as a printmaker abroad.
The exhibition is largely divided into three parts - the first part is his early print works made in Paris after his arrival at France in 1968 and the reenactment of his printmaking studio; the second part showcases his mezzotints produced in New York from the 1970s to the 1990s; the last part consists of his paintings created since his return to Korea in 2000 until recent years.
As in a poem written in unequivocally selected words and balanced with cadence, everyday objects and scenery rendered in Hwang’s work are metaphorically juxtaposed and again recasted within the picture plane. The details of tenderness and delicateness facilitated by the use of the medium of mezzotint give birth to a world of poetical connotations and fantasies within. Along the way, we see the secretive dialogues between ordinary living things and inanimate objects that are in our surroundings and experience the eschewed memories come into the present.
1. The Move and the Encounter
Hwang was a member of the artist group Shin Jo Hyung and Shin Sang from 1954 to 1967 and participated in the Korea Contemporary Artists' Invitational exhibition organized by the Chosun Ilbo. His thirst for the western art in the midst of postwar aftermath of Korea drove him to leave for France in 1968 where he could give himself a chance to free his creative aspiration. Right after his settlement in Paris, Hwang attended the Atelier 17 founded by Stanley William Hayter, one of the most influential printmaking studios in the twentieth century, and this destined him to devote himself to printmaking. Hwang says that his stay in Paris taught him how to lead his life as an artist and allowed him to engage with artists from various fields.
As printmaking was one of the prominent artistic movements in France in the early 1960s, productions and exhibitions of prints were in full swing. Works he produced at that time were on the same thread of abstraction as his paintings made in Korea. Making full use of various intaglio techniques including etching and collagraphy, he experimented with atypical materials and amplifying chance effects while maneuvering objecthood on the surfaces of copperplates. Among the works made during this period are Origine de l’Histoire(1968), Évolution(1969), Fossile-1(1969), and Document de l’Histoire (1970).
2. An Experimenter of Intaglio and a Poet
In 1970 Hwang hit another turning point in his life and moved to New York when the artist actively worked as a printmaker and was showing at many renowned exhibitions as well as receiving fervent responses in the art market. During these years of seeking a unique direction for his art at a new environment, Hwang taught himself the techniques of mezzotint, one of printmaking processes that emerged in Europe in the seventeenth century and the most difficult printmaking methods to handle. During this period Hwang made frequent visits to grass field at Bear Mountain State Park near New York City where he immersed himself in mapping out ideas for work. Accidentally, his mind was seized by vivid images of the sky, the grass field and the handkerchief. These subjects grasped in his memory were realized into White Handkerchief on the Grass. Immediately after its production, it started receiving awards at various major print biennales, thus playing a decisive role in setting the course of his art-to borrow Hwang's own words, "my way". In other words, this work marked a watershed in Hwang's artistic career that guided him to pursue mezzotint, an ideal medium to realistically represent his artistic visions.
What makes Hwang's works distinctive and exceptional is his capacity to create a soft feathered gray background whereas traditional mezzotint has black background while translating the empty space within the picture plane into a visual vocabulary. Jo Miller, curator at the Brooklyn Museum mentioned that the artist was "a great experimenter of intaglio" and he "contemplates life in the structure of poetry". Furthermore, on the contrary to the lucid and simple images shown in his work, they are finished with superb mastery executed with extreme precision and labor intensive process. While repeatedly extending the depth and breadth of his work as a printmaker, he produced around 230 prints during this period.
3. From Paper to Canvas
In 2000 Hwang returned to Korea, ending his over thirty-year residence in foreign lands. As his physical condition did not allow him to continue making prints, he explored new artistic challenge in his homeland. The artist, who once again picked up paint brushes at his age of seventy, navigated to find ways to express the subject matters he dealt with in his prints. Hwang's passion for studying painting was even more stimulated by his trip to Italy which had been both the source of his inspiration and the object of his aspiration.
The balance between sensitive intuition and in-depth insight can be aptly used to describe Hwang's paintings made in the last ten years and the artist himself. Meticulous hands that once engraved 'poem seen with the eyes' on cold copperplates at his studio in Soho, New York might have lost its edges, yet one in front of his works is engulfed with Hwang Kyu-Baik's keen gaze toward the world of human consciousness of existence into the fundamental questions of life.