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Invisible, ever-changing life force 'qi' captured in Lee Kang-so's paintings

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Installation view of the three pieces from Lee Kang so's
Installation view of the three pieces from Lee Kang so's "From a River" series (1999) / Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai

By Park Han-sol

Contemporary master Lee Kang-so, whose artistic experimentation has traversed across genres of paintings, videos, photography and sculptures since the 1970s / Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai
Contemporary master Lee Kang-so, whose artistic experimentation has traversed across genres of paintings, videos, photography and sculptures since the 1970s / Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai
To the 78-year-old contemporary master Lee Kang-so, the world is not immutable and self-explanatory, but is rather ever-shifting and pulsating, with visible as well as invisible forces at work.

This alternative perspective of our surroundings is masterfully depicted in his free-spirited brushstrokes that the artist says is the visualization of "qi," or life force and flow of energy that makes up the entire world, according to Chinese philosophy.

"A painter's 'qi' is at work in each stroke drawn on canvas. Even a piece drawn 500 years ago still contains that energy and actively communicates with present-day viewers. It's because all persons and beings exist as invisible particles of the universe that are intertwined, ceaselessly influencing each other," Lee said at Gallery Hyundai, where 30 of his brushworks drawn over the last two decades are on display at the exhibition "From a Dream."

To the artist, the manifestation of "qi" is best achieved by using the brush of East Asia, which has longer hair than brushes used in the West. "With its history dating back more than a thousand years, East Asian brush is particularly sensitive to what has been transferred through the holder's body and mind," he explained.

Because of its length, each of the brush's stroke reacts more dramatically to the holder's gestures, reflecting their emotions, personality, and even character at that precise moment. Therefore, spontaneity and fluidity become key as Lee moves the brush on canvas, leaving everything to the natural rhythm of his breath and sensation of his hand without calculated motions.

The artist's dynamic and "ruthless" strokes fill his 1999 "From a River" series, which captures the emotions seared into his memory when he went on a five-day cruise trip on the Yangtze River in China. At certain angles, the dizzying array of black and grey slashes remind viewers of an abstract mountain-and-water landscape or the river roaring furiously downstream.

"The gallery actually suggested reenacting this experience for the exhibition, but when I tried, I just couldn't do it without the overwhelming feeling I had back then filling my body. I realized that me in 1999 is inevitably different from me today," he noted.

Lee's "Serenity ― 20063" (2020) / Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai

The unconstrained brushstrokes ― sometimes curt with harsh turns, and other times melodious and smooth ― continue to dominate the canvas in his ongoing "Serenity" series, which started in the mid-2010s.

Because each captures Lee's gesture and emotion that could only be felt in that instant, its presence is ever-changing and ephemeral. Whatever the viewers see ― whether they be letters, figurative images or even mathematical symbols ― one minute, they are gone the next. And that's precisely what Lee wants.

In other words, the element of spontaneity exists not only in the artist, but also in the audience's viewing experience. It's an open-ended book, up for any creative interpretation.

"They are all illusions that are perceived at one moment and then dissipate in the eyes of the beholder. I only try to have each person decide, feel, and experience their own version," he said. "So, I am most happy when the viewer comes up to me and says 'your work seems different every time I look at it.'"

Lee's "Serenity ― 20018" (2020) Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai

Throughout his decades-long path as a contemporary artist, Lee's experimental spirit has never ceased to exist, traversing across genres of paintings, videos, photography and sculptures. After devoting himself to a series of monochrome abstract brushworks since the mid-1980s, he, nearing age 80, found a new mode of expression ― colors.

The vibrant hues of red, yellow and blue become the river where the image vaguely reminiscent of rows of ducks or wooden boats ― which, in fact, are Lee's symbolic icon that frequently appear in his works ― freely roam around.

His incorporation of color was purely accidental. "I used to think that my fascination with the concept of 'qi' was best delivered through black-and-white paintings. But one day, I came across the acrylic paints that I bought 20 years ago, and they instantly mesmerized me. The colors seduced me."

He realized the colors in nature ― observed in flowers attracting bees and the spellbinding patterns of peacocks feathering ― existed for a reason, and that a person should not try to deliberately suppress its usage.

"From now on, I'll be on a continuous search for the colors that entice me and experiment with them," he said. "An artist needs to keep experimenting and changing himself, not afraid to reach the point of self-destruction (in a theoretical sense). Otherwise, he becomes an antique."

The exhibition runs through Aug. 1 at Gallery Hyundai.

Park Han-sol

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