Kate Oh’s Lucky Charm exhibition features a prismatic array of dancheong works.

Dancheong refers to a traditional Korean decorative kind of coloring usually constructed on wooden buildings and structures, such as royal palaces and temples, for ornamental purposes. While dancheong rose in popularity in Korea, China, and Japan, alike, in tandem with Buddhism and Confucianism growing widespread, Korean dancheong has qualities that are unique to it alone. Notably, Korean dancheong is extremely delicate, sundry, bright and elaborate, unlike the Chinese style, which features bolder lines and simpler color schemes. Additionally, Korean dancheong is painted onto the eaves of temple roofs, a ready example being the Naesosa Temple, populating them with fascinating, and at times otherworldly, patterns of animals (e.g., dragons, lions, cranes), flora, fauna, and geometric designs.

Like her Minhwa work, Oh’s approach to dancheong is one of recasting, revising and further developing the practice. Deracinated from temple eaves, the works are contracted (but not wilted) relics that serve as charms, so to speak. The emotive palette of Oh’s dancheong pieces, updated though they are, reflect traditional themes of longevity, health, prosperity, and familial love. This thematic core is precisely why Oh’s work is, more so than a “making-contemporary”, a continuation, remaining true to the beating core of the customary dancheong practice.

For western audiences unfamiliar with the tradition, the most readily available stylistic reference point may be the "hard-edge" style of abstraction that emerged in America during the 1960s, a branch of minimalism that was a stark reaction to the loose, gestural abstract painting that had followed from abstract expressionism. But where minimalism was so drastically reductive that it appeared nihilistic, Oh’s dancheong are, as per the aforementioned themes, quite the opposite. They are steeped in meaning.

There is, however, one parcel of notable overlap between Oh’s dancheong and American minimalism, which is an interest in empiricism anchored in the visual cue. Yet, contra homegrown American empiricism and its bulging cement boxes and architectural lattices, Oh’s is a natural—but not at all natural-ist, for it is galvanized by an interpretative spirit—empiricism. This means that it looks as nature. It is not object-hood that floats to the shore but bleeding-yet-crisp, hued-yet-flattened, floral patterns with distinctive, almost-carved formative features that Oh gives us, ranging from yeonhwa (lotus flower), moran (peony), nokhwa and soekohwa patterns that feature as unspooling, unravelling, central motifs. At times, these patterns suggest that they are floating atop a wading pool unblanched by human steps.

There is a remarkable precision and control to Oh's circular, winding works. In one particular personal favorite, a peach-salmon ringlet circumscribes cyan cresting waves, soon overtaken by pointed apricot peaks. Eight azure-cum-cerulean shields emerge, once again overtaken, this time by an almost-biomorphic ovular series of forms. Any one of these isolated bands could be its own painting but, layered as they are, we are privy to a cascade of whirling intricacies. Oh is also careful not recite this act of repetition: in another piece, seven lamp-like spheres are buoyed in Stygian darkness, the direction of the enclosure-formations now reversed. Directionality switches and so do the angles. In a monochromatic square piece that almost resembles a cut-out, Oh flouts orthodoxy, at moments reminding us that empiricist painting, even when it transmogrifies what it represents, is a kindred cousin to lithography and even the early daguerreotype—all of which, in their baptisms, turned not to manmade arcades, towers, or palazzos but the untouched crevices of nature. When dancheong then, having bathed in nature, pivoted to garnish temples and palaces, embellishing and bedecking their edges, it was nature that was returned to man.

Oh, too, gives us an act of turning, albeit one that is not a re-turn, but a dialectical movement: retaining and at once overcoming the traditional, to give us splashing motley kaleidoscopic works that are both technically impressive and wondrous beacons.

(Text by Ekin Erkan, PhD)