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[A0018] Human Alienation Examined in Oh’s Back Street Paintings(1998)

October 21st, 2007 Posted in Prior Article

The KOREA TIMES  Thursday, November 12  1998.

Human Alienation  Examined in Oh’s Back Street Paintings
” My themes dealing with human existence have always been the same. It is an aspect of society I’ve always felt needed to be dealt with. But people keep relating my recent works to the IMF woes. I guess it’s the timing, “Oh explains.

By Kim Mi-Hui   staff Reporter

One can tell he has done it thousands of times before. Lifting the huge canvas three times the size of his lean, six-foot two inch frame and hauling it from the corner where it had lain to another where he places three canvases side by side to complete a picture. He backtracks a few steps and examines the effect for a minute.
“Don’t mind this, it’s no effect at all, “  he says as he prepares to make several more trips back and forth across the room, like an ant busily preparing for winter. Except, in this case, it is no ant, but Oh Won-bae, 45,  a renowned artist, and it is no winter he is preparing for but a solo exhibition to be held at the Chosun Ilbo Gallery(02-724-6328) through Nov.29.
 But the “workinig ant” analogy seems particularly fitting to both the artist and the situation considering the subject matter of his art deals with occupation and playing an active role in society. For example, a picture, covering one entire wall of his roomy studio in Dongguk University, where he is currently teaching, is of six young men standing under a heavy structure, They are staring at something on the ground, each tense form betraying excited expectancy.

“A portrait of contemporary human beings,” the artist explains. Heads shaved and half-naked with only factory uniform blue jeans on, the young men are those who have failed to secure the future of their dreams and who suffer the psychhological conflict of waiting for something but feariing what it may be.

“They may be any one of the bourgeois we run into on the streets,” he says, referring to the obviously downcast characters exuding an aura, if not an expression, of depression deriving from not knowing their rightful place in society. The exhibition, filled with works of this type, is a requirement Lee had to fulfill as the winner of the prestigious Lee Joong-up Art Prize. According to contest policy, the winner must hold an exhibition within one year of receiving the award. Considering the chance an opportune one for showiing his “more mature” ideas, Oh completed 20 large paintings averaging 380 x 260 cm in size.

” My themes dealing with human existence have always been the same. It is an aspect of society I’ve always felt needed to be dealt with. But people keep relating my recent works to the IMF woes. I guess it’s the timing, “he explains.
The connection, however, is not completely groundless. The expressionless characters in his cool, detached works could be any one of the unemployed people one might run into on the street, in subway stations and shelters for the homeless.

The youth in his works, whether they are playing a game, exercising or standing contemplatively against collapsing structures are all subjects dying for a chance to lift themselves out of their seemingly hopeless environments. This, however, makes his use of young men as his subjects somwhat ironical. But considering the nature of his work, they are the best choice, the artist insists: “They are in life’s mid-stage. They are expectant, hopeful. They are full of energy but opportunities don’t always present themselves to them; they are frustrated. And, yet, they still find themselves hoping, waiting.”
The irony does not end there, however, since Oh himself never had problem finding his own place in society.

Born in Incheon, in 1953, he graduated from the department of fine arts in 1979 and from graduate school in 1982 at Dongguk University. Thereafter, he studied in Paris until 1985.
Slef-described as a man having been “bestowed with luck,” he has participated in group exhibitions like Salon Realite Nouvelle in Paris(1985), Asian Contemporary Art in Seoul and Japan (1989) and Cagnes International Painting Festival in Cagnes(1991). Moreover, his works are on permanent exhibit at various museums in Korea, France and Japan.

In short, he is the picture of success. So where does his need to address the existence of social problems come from ?
” The way this society is structured often devalues and dehumanizes individual potentials and dreams. Being conscious of pressing social issues is the artist’s duty to the time he is living in,” Oh argues. But more interestingly, Oh questions not only human beings and their role in the society, but also the space in which they struggle to live “because they are connected in so many ways.”

Accordingly, the physical world in which Oh places these restless hopefuls is just as goloomy. The cold structures are filled with metallic stairs and walls ad coppery rust crawling slowly across the bulwarks; the human beings cannot help but fail to harmonize with the environment. Inside the dart and wet space, they find their desires worthless and are discouraged. Consequently, they experience psychological and physical discomfort that may never have arisen in less stark surroundings.

“Too many Koreans only care about beginnigs. They are so proud when a building opens but no one takes care of the structure afterward. It just decays into a ruin and after a period becomes a forgotten husk. It’s very symbolic of the state of our society today,” the artist points out.
Thus came about another striking work centering on a rough stone-carved human figure with missing limbs. Towering over the figure, whose head is bowed Christ-like during the crucifixion, is a decomposing construction such as are familiar in the rough parts of the city like Chonggyechon which the artist frequents to scavenge for ideas.
The body with the missing limbs parallels the rotting edifice. “Our contemporaries are crippled in more than one way,” he says. Part of the reaseon Oh’s new works are receiving so much attention is that they have progressed to an unprecedented stage.

At the end of  1970’s, when he started his careers as an artist, for example, Oh painted mainly masks - A symbol of dualism since it at once allows one to escape from oneself while at the same time restricting and restraining the very self - showing he was not quite ready to face what lay behind. After he came back from France in 1982, Oh escaped from this symbol by revealing the face behind the mask in the form of reptilian human beings.

In the recent works, however, Oh’s series of suffering human beings have been somewhat purified. These shapes, which were full of pain and rage, have transformed into blue-tone line drawings which seem to suggest spirit. The spiritual “glow” in electric blue and blinding white that contrasts sharply with the start backgroud effectively portrays not only the alienation of human beings in their own environment but also their desire to escpe. But his work is far from being over, the artist says. As the subject is quite a large and essential one, there is no definable limit for how deeply he can explore its innate themes.

” My painting world begins with the alienated human image in dark and despairing times but increasingly it will serve as self-recognition and, in turn, help overcome alienation toward a future of hope,” the artist promises.