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Nak Beom KHO

Nak Beom KHO, Coreana Museum of Art, Space*C


1960, Seoul


Painting, Installation




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Color, the Power of Nak Beom KHO’s Painting

Let us imagine a world without color in order to grasp the impact of color in our lives. Without color how could we distinguish the sea, sky, sun, moon, and stars, and what would trees, plants, animals, and men look like? We would face an extremely simple world of only volume and form. The human body might develop superior sense organs other than sight, as some color-blind animals have highly developed senses of hearing and smell. Human civilization and evolution would take a completely different path. The reason we don’t consciously sense and recognize color is because it is as pervasive and common as water and air. If color was in shortage or nonexistent, it might be as precious as life. The definition of other elements of nature around us, and their function and meaning have been clarified with the evolution of science, philosophy, and human intelligence, but the definition of color remains vague and equivocal. Of course, many theorists, philosophers, and scientists have made efforts to define color and the many ways it affects our lives. Through their efforts, the theory, discourse, creation, and use of color has been widely and diversely explored. Nonetheless, absolute definition is impossible as it is definitely a plural phenomenon that must be defined within the historic contexts of each discipline. There may be scientific color, artistic color, industrial color, psychological color, medical color, symbolic color, and religious color. Color is classified according to region and history, having a function, role, definition, treatment, value, and usage within those classifications. And colors of differing disciplines are closely affiliated and mutually influential; the color research of one discipline necessitates the recognition of interdisciplinary color studies. In other words, the study of color aesthetics is bound to relate to definitions of color by philosophers and scientists, and the production and distribution of color.

A discussion of Koh’s use of color necessitates such a lengthy introduction. Color in and of itself does not speak. And thus its loss of gravitation and reference point has prompted numerous speculative discourses. And the endless discourse in turn adds even more mystique and thorny dimensions to color, distancing it from our grasp. However, color in the context of painting history at least has somewhat of a framework, and each artist has established his own coordinates within this history, and so if we locate these as our vantage points and guiding tools we may avoid getting lost in the labyrinth of ambiguous discourse.

The abstraction process of Kho’s color paintings derives from natural color. In this sense, his color bears a similarity with that of Kandinsky's, without resembling Kandinsky’s mystical and religious overtones. Kho most likely rejected that kind of color. If the painter had embraced an artificial system in applying color to his work, as Kandinsky had done, it would have been confined to an arbitrary, ridiculous system that only he knew of. Kho more probably would have wanted to let color stay in a liberated state rather than confining it to any rule or system. Whereas the colors in Kandinsky and Yves Klein are symbolic of peace and stability, Kho’s colors seem to imply uncertainty and ambiguity. This palette may include all or nothing, an indication or evocation of something completely different. He encapsulates all significance in a single morning glory flower. In that single blossom, the painter sees a synthesis of all shapes and all colors. He imagines the flower as nestling the origin of creative energy--that which is both object and color, figuration and abstraction, explicit sensuality and sublime spirituality. Kho seems to contain everything in his morning glory paintings as Cezanne did in his apples, Van Gogh in his sunflowers, and Kandinsky in his geometry.

As the morning glory is a pentagon, the shape of Kho’s palette appears as pentagonal. He discovers stability and also change in the pentagon. He presents the morning glory as evidence that the pentagonal shape is not derived merely from speculation, but borrowed from nature. As an entity, the morning glory is a pentagon, but this pentagonal form can be found in the margins of his early still life paintings, which later is made abstract. He seemed attracted to the pentagon as a form embodying stability and change simultaneously, rather than the stable yet acute triangle or Robert Delaunay’s routine circle with its cosmic symbolism. He confirms this, saying that “I began painting the morning glory as my interest shifted from a horizontal and vertical gaze to a diagonal one.” A pentagon expands more easily than other shapes, and in a continuum of pentagons it is hard to distinguish the inside from the outside. The inside of a pentagon is, at the same time, the outside of another one. The pentagon is the shape of a morning glory, the form of its colors, a sign of duplicity, and also the mechanism of its procreation. Kho discovers the distinction and non-distinction between interior and exterior, and the coexistence of movement and stillness, solid stability and smooth change. The colors of his morning glory or pentagon are Korea's traditional colors, Obangsaek (“Obang” stands for five directions and “saek” in Korean refers to the colors blue, white, red, black, and yellow, each symbolizing a direction.). If the colors were to move to the accompaniment of percussion instrument and piano rhythms, it would become a group dance of brilliant colors. Kho’s color is not an auxiliary element of an external object but a force with its own dynamism and rhythm. This force is visualized in a pentagonal frame. When this force is applied to a human figure, it becomes a portrait.

The power of Kho’s painting comes from the exploration and revelation of expressive potential of color. The expressive power of color is not used to supplement the form’s power of expression but to express something independent from form. He proves this by analysis and recombination of the colors in the The Piper by Edouard Manet. The alignment and proportional use of color that mimic the original painting, and Kho’s colorful abstraction structured into abstract form, revives with surprising beauty the ambience of the original painting. He derives from the restrained mannerisms of geometric color abstraction a gentler sensibility that is novel and comprehensive, alien and yet familiar.

Kho seems to say to Manet, “If your painting methods were to be interpreted into contemporary terms, wouldn’t it look like this?” For Kho, ‘doing painting’ is a form of transgression, closely associated with new interpretation and transformation of originals. That is, he translates painting methods of the past into contemporary methods, and attempts to represent the same ambiance and empathy of the original, thereby creating a seemingly multiple and ongoing dialogue in color. Most of the palette in his portraits are appropriated and recomposed from the palette of master painter’s originals, thereby creating a dialogue between his discovered colors and the color vocabulary of the past. Likewise, when he is painting and analyzing nature, as in his morning glory paintings, he is engaged in a dialogue with nature.

Kho’s use of color, first and foremost, does not favor either figurative or abstract painting, but focuses on the power of expression associated with our sensibilities. The specific way of generating this power of expression is of no significance. It doesn’t matter whether this power comes from a delicate change in brightness and saturation of color, as seen in most of his portraits, or if it derives from a structural combination of the color vocabulary. His work rendered in a monochrome color is like a rhythm played with one instrument while his work delineated in a combination of colors is like a rhythm played by an orchestra. His portraits that look out at the viewers appear intense due to their deadpan faces. Their gaze shows a high density of color expression, symbolizing the power of his paintings and the aesthetics of ordinary things. Kho’s portraits add a dramatic emphasis on simplicity through depictions of figures in constant and fixed sites. Their expressionless faces, in a languid yet tense atmosphere, seem to pose persistent questions. Kho has a disregard for sophisticated or mundane things which he captures in a fair and simple manner, thereby eliminating hierarchy from his work. He produces an ordinary art of ordinary things rather than high art of ordinary things, and attempts to visualize what an ordinary exterior hides, what austerity denies. But, this is not an easy task, as it is like visualizing violence without representing it. Kho achieves this metaphorical work through an indescribable inner resonance of color. A strong symbol of expression to everyone, color has no fixed common meaning and therefore as a producer of meaning it acts as a signifier that is stronger than any other element. Each individual reacts to color in his or her own manner. Kho concentrates on triggering each individual’s inner sensibility towards color. This is the power of his aesthetics, generating confusion through the commonplace.

This power comes neither from the vociferous, intense colors of Van Gogh, Gauguin, or Delaunay nor from the abstract, stern intellectual colors of Kandinsky, Mondrian, or Klein. Kho’s color appears simple, common, and plain, with an intention to reveal the vanity and imprudence of colors that yield hegemony in the world and represent established power and culture. But the simplicity and purity, the fragility, does not come to lack of power to critique established values. It is like reacting with a faint smile in the face of loud and empty brawl, like a near forgotten bystander causing confusion with his smile when face to face.

It is neither intended to convey concrete, clear meaning, neither to unveil and chronicle something for commercial purposes, nor to stimulate others to a fanatically emotional state. It is color that arouses confusion through its ambiguity and unfamiliarity, stimulating a critique of established norms that are rigid and firm, color as symptoms triggering delicate shifts in meaning. Kho’s colors are parable to wings of time, dependent temporarily on feeble and fragile objects, rather than agents that claim eternity with powerful and prominent objects. Thereby Kho paints with colors that are uniquely his alone--he applies the aesthetics of simplicity and mundane in contemporary times to color.

Soukyoun LEE (Director of KAP, Art Critic)