Kate Oh Gallery’s Asia Week exhibition evinces an expanse of artists working in novel and traditional modes. Engaging this meeting point has, over the last decade or so, transpired as that which is distinct to Kate Oh Gallery’s curatorial ambit, each exhibition taking a distinct approach to the meeting of folk art with Modern-cum-Contemporary art (often outside of its Western relegation, speaking to the oft misunderstood tradition of Asian—and, in particular, Korean—Modernism). That is, Kate Oh Gallery illuminates the annals of Asian art history by approaching the contemporary plane obliquely, showing lines of appropriative flight that range from newfound compositions (e.g., the slight lessening of flattened perspective) to Pop Art persuasions in color and line.

On the one hand, the exhibition displays artists like Shin Mi-Kyung, whose command of the Minhwa style speaks to the long-standing tradition of Korean folk art practice handed down from the Joseon Dynasty. It is here incarnate in its most refined, detailed form. Her piece “About Hope” is a rendition of her “About What Was Lost”, the Grand Prize Recipient from the 2017 National Folk Painting Contest. “About Hope” contains the message of hope to overcome trials and to build a new world. If the work “About What Was Lost” expressed the trials and sorrows that the people and women of the court, who had been usurped by the Japanese during the 500-year history of the Joseon Dynasty, experienced, then “About Hope” represents a time for liberation and is a work that expresses a new Korea.

In the “Heavenly Train Field Map”, shown in the foreground of the painting, there is a daesu, which is a hairstyle worn by queens during their wedding ceremonies. This imagery portrays the proud and strong will of Korean ancestors who dreamt of this new hope. The work illustrates Korea through the depiction of the national seal on a red chiljang, which symbolizes the future of the nation. This work is based on the five colors of Korea and expresses the beautiful sadness that was prevalent among the royal family through the usage of a deep red wine color in tandem with gold and silver powders. The dark yet vibrant colors are utilized to convey beauty and hope amid sadness.

She has also submitted “Blue Dragon, 12 Months”—fitting, as 2024 is the year of the dragon. The 12 disparate works are bound such that, a fortiori, something of a narrative reveals itself—one spanning moon jars and beryl dragon tails, fogged by twirling clouds and coral erupting peonies. Without foregoing symbolism, the artist also demonstrates a veritable colorism, canvases shaking apricot backgrounds and ice-darted cloud vapor whites, threading through rain-spotted plant greens. The dragon’s tail is the binding agent as our eyes chart across the arrangement of canvases, three rows, and four columns, its scale-stippled mass warping and shrouding the folds of each canvas, protruding through pockets of miasma. The lattice of canvases is a formidable achievement, one percipient might spend a good hour viewing it.

Other artists, like, Hyun Joo Cho, also use traditional motifs like the fan and lotus-riven vertical background panels. Here, however, there is a slight ‘updating’ at play—a glimpse of the contemporary, in slight but not all-commanding. “Fan 1”, for instance, is scattered with illusionistic verism in its variegated butterflies and tree-lining birds. The artist evinces the crossroads of the show’s demonstrate ‘meeting- one, one foot in tradition, and another in neoteric composition. Her background in Minhwa is evinced by a decorated career of accois lades (notably, the decorated artist has, since 2017, been awarded a handful of prizes for her folk paintings and calligraphy). It is this background in Minhwa that is still most pronounced in her work, though the layering of motifs admits of the occasional wrapping spandrel, details prodded into dimensionality; it is not full-throated chiaroscuro, but the lifting of elements before and around one another that suggests the kind of movement unique to the Modernist project’s outside import and consequent folk art export.

Her other entry “Peony (Okdangbuguido)” symbolizes accumulating wealth in a home. Min Kim has submitted a piece in keeping with the zodiac, titled “Blue Dragon”. This piece delineates the rapprochement and artistic trade between Asian visual cultures. The work is visually enthralling, with snowflake-blue scales lining the whiskered face of the dragon, whose lotus-clouded roseate body curls across the canvas in spandrels of winding, tortuous design. The work is a perceptual collage of elements and motifs. Compositionally, it makes use of flattening as a layering practice, with various elements plotted atop one another in a curling fashion. The work would be cluttered were it not for the diversity in stylistic content, which proscribes visual overload.

Then there is Heather Lim, whose “Peony” is deeply appropriative in style but not content. This is a truly awe-inspiring work and a personal favorite. The piece contains two panels of peonies that are bisected by a vertical line that dispatches two fields of palette. The actions displayed, however, are in continuity throughout the breakages. On the left, azure peonies clang into mixed directions as trickles of deep, ink-black droplets jettison the background into a sea of shadows, the flowering buds directed by twisting jade- green vines. A cascade of animated gold-honey stars suggests the clanging movement of the plants in growth. Upon close inspection, the viewer notices the buds have been anthropomorphized, eyelashes and puckered lips dotting the bulbs.

The flattening effect in “Peony” and the cartoonish, thick outline is reminiscent of Lichtenstein’s Pop and one expects bursting letters reading to spout at any moment. But Lim’s even-handedness, a slight affect, does not admit of such pastiche. Kate Oh Trabulsi’s “In Air (Lotus)” is similarly flat and employs a dust-gray background allayed by vibrant daffodil yellows, deep blues, and ember-blood red lotus flowers. With this piece, the paneling is more traditional, speaking to Oh’s an homage to the folk art tradition—one in keeping with the decorative arts and Chaekgeori screens it. This work received the Special Recognition Award in the “Botanicals Art Exhibition” at the Light, Space, & Time online art gallery. In contiguity with Lim’s contribution, “In Air (Lotus)” shows that the use of paneling as such is being wielded not as a simple Pop Art prop or relic but handled in keeping with an internal history.

As part of the exhibition, the gallery will also be screening a documentary film, “Mama and Magga”, concerning a Buddhist monastic devotee who, after 40 years, reunites with his mother. The two trek to Korean temples across the countryside by foot and a “Migosa” camper van. The elderly mother and son travel throughout the seasons, passages captured by riveting cinematography of the changing seasons. The tender film shows the monk carrying his elderly mother on his back, scaling towers and plains, while she prepares for her final passage on various sites. The film will be screened in March at the inaugural Buddhism and Social-Spiritual Liberation Conference at Harvard’s Divinity School, which will underscore the documentary’s relationship to endogenous conceptions of liberation and freedom in Buddhism.

Monk Magga will also join audiences for a lecture during the Asia Week exhibition at Kate Oh. The choice to pair this reverent figure, marked by his unceasing resilience and anti-Modern thrust, with the aforementioned works, is apt. It speaks to the matching of the resilience of traditions in the face of modernism, which Kate Oh continues to plow with discernible sensitivity. In doing so, the gallery and Asia Week exhibition analyze a kind of dialectical history of folk art that descries modernity while being neither freighted by it nor rejecting it outright. Such is the valuable rapprochement that Kate Oh has brought to bear with this exhibition.

(Text by Erin Erkan)