On the heels of Rutgers University’s Korean Folk Traditions Spring semester course, taught by Korean folk and contemporary visual artist Kate Oh Trabulsi, comes New York Minhwa. The show is an exhibition of 35 artists, 21 of whom are Rutgers students, 4 of whom are New York-based artists, and 10 of whom are renowned Korean artists.

The artists include: Hyunjoo Cho, Kyung Hee Jang, Agnes Kim, Chae Won Kim, Eun Ju Kim, Min Kim, Nam Kyoung Kim, Hyo Jung Lee, Su Young Lim, Ji Eun Moon, Hee Sun Park, Yu Yeong Son, Kyoung Ea Roh, Kate Oh Trabulsi; the Rutgers students include: Heather Barr, Nicholas Carroll, David Chiu, Edward Chung, Angel Fabian, Zachary Hui, Joseph Hwang, Mrigank Jain, Noelle Johnson, Saleem Khan, Rachel Lee, Raine Li, Sana Majid, Jayme Mckinney, Thanvi Nimmala, Mehek Palrecha, Vanessa Vu T Vu, Hannah Yoon, Yilong Yu, David Zhang, and Geneva Lawson. During the night of the reception, May 7 th , 2023, from 3:00 – 5:00 PM there will be a traditional dance performance by Song Hee Lee where the dancers will don Tal masks crafted by students from the class.

The Tal masks, designed by the students, is a helpful entry into this exhibition’s. Tal masks—often featuring caricaturized facial features, like bulbous noses and almond-shaped eyes alongside splatches of bright colors panning the faces—were often worn by soldiers and their horses during war. This already illuminates the historically instrumental facet of Korean visual culture, which similarly informs Minhwa painting. Tal masks were also used for shamanistic ceremonies during burial rites, heralding the masks’ spiritual utility for remembrance or warding off nefarious entities. In addition to ushering the afterlife process, they have also been used for ritual dances, courts, and the theater; today, Tal masks are often bifurcated into two categories: the spiritual and artistic. Reading the masks along a psychological interpretive register, their expressive designs express the inner desires and subconscious wishes of the bearer, the free movements of the dancer and exaggerated facial expressions of the mask mapping on to those intentions and wishes that the wearer may not be consciously aware of. The ritual thus comes to the fore.

The Tal mask is a helpful entry into the purview of this show precisely because of its traditional genealogy and symbology—where myriad Minhwa artists and exhibitions have veered towards the making-contemporary of a traditional artistic pursuit, plucking novel media and iconography into traditional arrangements, this show is anchored in a deep-rooted erudition of the storied symbolism that is the beating heart of Minhwa.

There is less appropriation here than there is a concerted study of the origins of Minhwa. As a Korean folk painting genre from the 19th century, Minhwa is of a piece with the purposive nature of the decorative arts within a uniquely Korean mythos. Before observing the paintings, however, one ought to come armed with a taxonomical understanding of Minhwa’s subdivisions and what the visual elements of each painting mean.

Minhwa is divided into the following system of categorization: Morando (paintings of peony flowers); Chaekgeori (paintings of books and stationery items); Hwajodo (painting of flowers and birds); Sipjangsaengdo (paintings of the ten symbols of longevity—the sun, clouds, mountains, water, pine trees, turtles, deer, cranes, peaches, and the herb of eternal youth); Munjado (screen-based paintings that layer lyrical depictions of animals, birds, fish, plants upon Chinese ideographs); Hojakdo (paintings displayed at homes in the beginning of the New Year that are understood to protect families from evil, featuring pine trees, tigers, and magpies); Chochungdo (painting of flowers and insects); Hopeedo (paintings of tiger stripes); and Yongsudo (paintings of divine animals).

The sub-genres of Minhwa are quite critical to understand as the depicted elements in a painting are context-dependent: for instance, in Morando paintings, the peony (moran)—a commonly used motif from paintings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910)—symbolizes wealth, honor, and high social status. This further elaborates the decorative use of the peony on the much-coveted screens that they adorn; wealthy families were able to afford these screens while “common” families borrowed them from village authorities for weddings and special occasions. Trekking through this exhibition, one has to first understand the historical use of the paintings as instrumental objects of ceremony before contemplating the context-dependent featured elements. These go hand in hand and, without such preliminary understanding, the observer is relegated to merely appreciate the paintings as aesthetic object of fanciful and dexterous assembly. While there is much to appreciate in the way of mere decoration, this is barely half the story of Minhwa.

The works on display in this show, each ever-so-intricately painted, speak to the some of the most honed living/contemporary artists working with Minhwa tout court. This alone is reason enough to see the exhibition, as there are very few artists—let alone group exhibitions—that are dedicated to the more traditional pursuit of Minhwa. It seems that the making-contemporary of Minhwa has engulfed the domain of Minhwa exhibitions, a rather unfortunate occurrence for those of us interested in the great chain of art historical developments. For while the making-contemporary of genres like Minhwa (vis-à-vis appropriation) undoubtedly ushers in interest from those viewers more at-home with Western sensibilities and formal approaches, it also all-too-easily excuses historical examination, unmooring the complex and interesting record of Korean art history. I am personally astounded by the sheer detail in works like Chae Won Kim's Scholars' Bookshelves and Stationary: the lapis lazuli-like blue background overtaken by flaxen gold shelves.

But this arrangement-first approach foregoes the deep symbolism that Kim—and each exhibiting artist—is keenly aware of and working with. Each painting also elicits a particular mood in keeping with the general symbology of the work—the phenomenological reception of the piece can in turn be a window into the symbology, but this latter element must be attended to. This exhibition is, amongst other matters, a fantastic entry for both the Minhwa-initiated and those who have not been exposed to this historical genre to take up such erudition.

(Text by Ekin Erkan)