Critic's Note: Play of Abstract Landscape
Kim Ik Mo recently painted a picture with freely splashed paint across the surface and called it, New Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land. A large sized canvas measuring 162cm in height and 392cm in width, it is part of the series Pleasant Landscapes started a few years ago. The interesting aspect of this painting is to imagine the artist’s dramatic and wild gestures in executing this work, and also the artist’s witty approach to his act of painting. As is well known, the Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land is a masterpiece in ink painted by Ahn Gyeon during the reign of King Sejong. The painting captures the dreamscapes as narrated to the artist by Prince Ahnpyong in which the prince walked along the scenic views of Arcadia. Unfortunately, this painting is in a collection overseas and although it is difficult to witness the original, it is the most exemplary painting representing the scholarly elite's adoration of utopia.
The naming of Kim Ik Mo’s work as New Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land is no mere coincidence. His paintings are reminiscent of the landscape paintings popular in southern Korea with impressions of cherry blossoms and pear blossoms from nearby orchards. The expressive brushwork or the images of heart, balloons, numbers, and symbols are signs of popular mass culture, and have no easy resemblance to Ahn Gyeon’s school of painting. Kim’s series seemingly do not reflect special narrative meaning in their subject matter. The canvas to the artist is a mere tool chosen to embody the fun act of painting. His close acquaintances note that his painting is an act of freedom to valiantly shed the technical limitations and formal conventions of 20 years practice as a printmaker.
The New Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land is a painting that best exemplifies the artist’s intentions in his Pleasant Landscape series. Also this painting has the potential to provide an aesthetic standard in the artist’s pursuit of pictorial language. Not only in terms of the artist, but also from the viewer’s perspective, the painting entails elements that enhance the pleasures of viewing. The grounds for this assumption can be summarized by the following points in terms of intentions, composition, and interpretation.
Firstly, in terms of the artist’s intentions as reflected in his painting, the New Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land acts as a mechanism to enjoy a dual fantasy. It reflects the artist’s interests in the interstices between abstract and figurative painting, and also between reality and idealism. The artist envelops Ahn Gyeon’s landscape with his imagination, with his sprawl of abstract imagery. Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land translates Kim Ik Mo’s painting crowded with pigment and signs into a playground for experiencing non-reality and fantasy. The artist escapes the language of painting and thereby, paradoxically, jumpstarts his work into the annals of Korean art history
Secondly, in terms of the formal composition of the painting, Kim Ik Mo’s New Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land consists of three layerings; the red pictorial ground, the thick coarse layer of paint, and the top layer of sign-like iconography. The overlapping of these three elements creates an immense sense of space as they also indicate the temporal element of the processes of painting. Such spatial and temporal aspects produce issues that counteract the formality of the original painting of arcadia. Ahn Gyeon’s Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land is composed of three sections with the left right portion void indicating the sky, the frontal view of the plains, and the birds-eye-view of the highlands. Due to this sectioning, the painting creates a sense of vast open spaces. Furthermore, the vertically cascading rock cliffs create an effect comparable to the verticality of the thick paint strips pushed away with a squeegee in Kim Ik Mo’s work. The effect of dripping paint, or the mixed palette are also not different from the formal renderings of Ahn Gyeon’s expression of fantasy by his renderings of clouds, trees, and light.
Thirdly concerns the viewer’s interpretation. The artist’s intended meaning for the work does not easily communicate to the viewer. Especially Kim Ik Mo’s painting which corresponds to the modernist convention of the autonomous painting surface is distant from subject matter or narrative representation. In order to escape the limitations of the Abstract Expressionists, Kim uses such iconographic signs as heart, balloon, numbers or houses. Through these signs, his pictures produce not narrative meaning but signifying meaning, and also a Pop quality that embodies everyday reality. And the inference to Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land masterpiece was yet an additional alternative to further escape conventional limitations.
Kim Ik Mo’s recent work from the Pleasant Landscape series reflects the artist’s free will. But we witness that freedom does not negate regulations, but are like two sides of a coin that coexist within a system. Kim Ik Mo has distanced himself from the formality and technique of conventional printmaking and his newfound autonomy is akin to the vivid color juxtapositions and coarse brushwork of the Abstract Expressionists, the discovery of the material properties of paint through splashing, pushing and scratching paint, and the overlay of pop-like signs. Now the artist needs to be equipped with aesthetic principles that will support his artistic liberty, and his New Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land is one scheme that satisfies this requirement. (May, 2009)