Artist Oh Kyun Kyu

When Oh Kyun Kyu was included in the GMA exhibit “Walking on Autumn,” that coincided with the 2010 Gwangju Biennale, “10,000 Lives,” his ability to apply ink in homage to landscapes gave viewers a chance to escape the daily stress of city life to a countryside space without history.

Distant trees sharpen your focus as foreground hills dissolve from dark to light. Farm roads dissect the scenes so we are not as lost in thought as the artist. Yet, if we’re open to being taken away, then being lost in the scenes is a pleasantry.

In that set of pictures, why does he make each painting move away from us? The dark-to-light motif pulls us back to the far reaches of the farms. His magic comes not by insisting, through bold color smashing or outrageous subject matter, but by laying a welcome mat on the wall that gently coaxes us to take the walk.

By gently pulling us into his vision of non-possession he delivers a subtle philosophical statement, while also providing artistic sanctuary. Though color does appear in many of his works, “the spiritual side of my work can be seen in color or black and white,” Oh says, as we sip tea in his “Idea Building” studio. A while back a friend sent him bamboo because he knew it would make him happy. He always wanted a country home surrounded by bamboo. There is a good wind that surrounds countryside bamboo, but, unable to plant the bamboo, he had the small tree in a pot in his studio, but by a closed window due to cold winter. When Oh saw it was not faring well, he opened the window and brought in a fan, but by then it was too late. Form this he learned that he would not be a scholar. “Nobody can be a scholar,” but by this he implies, that through diligence, someone can be a painter.

For a long stretch his life was dominated by Han, and from this heavy sadness his training began. He did not train to paint or draw as a way to make any gains for himself, but as a way to cleanse, first himself, and then, if the works were successful, society itself. Oh is humble, which may stem from his time as editor of the Songkwangsa Temple Buddhist newsletter near Suncheon, the place the Venerable Seunim Beop Jeong often visited when he was not on retreat. One painting, that of a simple chair, “represents the very clean and beautiful moon on a cold winter night,” and even though it may be the chair the highly revered master once sat in, Oh would remind us that the simplicity of the chair itself is what matters.

Art therapists might conclude that art has been a path of self discovery and a way for Oh to emerge from years of depression. This would be a largely accurate assessment, but also miss the importance of his achievement as an artist whose work truly can cleanse viewers, if they are willing to stay in the room long enough. And who wouldn’t? From landscapes to temple scenes to the quiet majesty of a lone bird flying above autumn rice, Oh guides us, step-by-step to a less hurried life, one so few dare attempt because it is labeled as impoverished these days. But is the life of a poor farmer who spends most of his day with his family lacking? Or is the man who spends 100 hours per week chasing more Won, and who never gets to know his own children, no less guide them, lacking?

“If seeds are kept cold and dark for a long long time they will grow stronger and taller once put in fertile soil,” Oh says. It’s a way of recounting his own dark experience, because he needs no support to remain focused on the task of painting. “I paint whatever subject hits me as I approach the new paper.” Indeed he has earned at least that much.

Inside his pictures, the birds and trees represent him. He wishes to live his entire life in such scenes. The temple is not specific, but one inside his heart. He paints his own temple that allows him to become free to make more art.

In the painting below, the artist shows his knowledge of color (red and green make a perfect contrast) Korean history, and the hope prayer, that one day a simple countryside life can return. How do we know all this? From the man, ever so simple, not taking up too much space, who is holding a traditionally made broom, and appears to be finished with his work for the day. This type of philosophy is cleansing only to those who see his paintings, to be sure, but his work, in itself allows Oh to be a part of the positive side of life. So few humans are anymore.

In music they say that in order to play the blues, you have to live through them too. In art it doesn’t always work that way. Oh’s work is both technically sound, and avoids presenting us with Han. Few artists have survived careers of sad art, or angry art, or expressionist art that only expresses negative thoughts. Since that type of work may not be beautiful, the best such an artist can hope for is that their personal story plucks on the heartstrings of collectors and museums. The most admirable part of Oh Kyun Kyu’s career is that he sublimated his sadness by 180 degrees and makes beautiful, positive paintings that truly can set your mind at ease.

“As an artist it is the responsibility to society to make a clean and fragrant mind, so that fragrance spreads to the world. It is a continual process of relearning and cleaning the mind,” Oh says. Some subjects turn Oh to pen and ink. The power to help cleanse a society, especially in the spirit of democracy has been examined in his extensive journal writing.

“We can not touch sound but even though it doesn’t exist, it is there. Listen to the sounds of people’s touch or caring. The traditional Korean guitar has no sound, only the care of the human touch can bring it to life. There is no untouchable thing, and no truth in this world,” Oh says while smiling, knowing this philosophy could easily baffle some.
The simple picture of a man riding a bicycle down a thin country road, surrounded by rice, not in a hurry, on his way to a point past the limits of the painting, releases stress in the viewer. In 2011 one can not imagine a greater achievement made by art.

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