Chang Ucchin: speaking to the people
The gallery was full for a weekday, a steady line of visitors taking their time to closely analyze and appreciate each of the decades-old artwork in front of them.
Celebrated painter Chang Ucchin’s (1918-1990) retrospective runs through Feb. 27 at Gallery Hyundai, Sagan-dong, held in cooperation with the Chang Ucchin Foundation. The large-scale exhibition of 60
Chang was known for his motifs taken from daily life, design simplicity and collapsed depth perception. The artist distinguished himself from the crowd by devoting the majority of his life to art, while shunning the various art movements and maintaining his own style.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition follows Chang through his artistic periods, as categorized by his studio location. His works develop from the earlier, color-infused pieces to the geometric, the symmetrical to the asymmetrical, oil paintings to ink drawings.
Though often compared to drawings of children, due to its polarizing simplicity, the art transcends the borders of complexities in order to speak in a universal language.
This lends a global appeal, and traces of renowned Western contemporaries can be seen in Chang’s work — although his unique designs were all formed in an isolated state. The simplified stick figures recall the future shapes of Keith Haring’s, while the style of encompassing perspective echoes that of Saint Exupery’s “Little Prince.”
Among the major works is the ironic “Self-Portrait” (1951), depicting a Western-suited Chang walking down a path among wheat fields. The small scale of the painting — another trait — emphasizes further the small scale of the man himself. While traditional portraits capture one’s profile, he is reduced to a small figure in the forefront, the birds above and dog behind him are more prominent.
“He was a modern artist who broke down the great wall of dualism convoluting Korean art,” wrote Chung Yooung-mok, a professor at Seoul National University, in a new catalogue on the artist published by Maronie Books.
“He was not obsessed with separation of the East and the West as many of his contemporaries were.”
But it is the later work of the exhibition that proves the most enlightening of the retrospective. The Suanbo Period sees a growing slant to his work, the perfect symmetry falling prey to a more emotional, less-rounded lean, before stabilizing in the peace of “Night and Old Man.” Created the year of his death, the work features the unusual figure of a man clothed in white, floating in the sky.
Also on display are the last artworks Chang created in December 1990, mere weeks before his passing. A view of the East Sea is captured in quick, perfectly-placed strokes, expressing boldly ideas of liberation and ease.
While Chang’s brilliance as an artist is undisputed, an obsessive passion for his work resulted in rocky family ties. An extreme drinking habit marked his artistic career, simultaneously enabling creation and ensuring isolation.
This also distanced him from fellow contemporaries such as Kim Whan-ki and Lee Joong-seop, as a gap grew between him and the New Realism Group.
“Chang quickly realized that his introverted personality was not suited for those types of social activities,” Chung said.
“While others in the (New Realism) group were outgoing and outspoken, Chang preferred to keep to himself. It was this serene temperament that shaped his artistic world.”
Yet as disparate his life became from others, Chang’s art ultimately reached out to his audience. Daily, rural life was a common subject among the painted magpies and houses, while the approachable scale of his work spoke to the people.
The diverse crowd of locals at the gallery attested to Chang’s legend. A group of hikers fully-decked in mountaineering clothing bustled along the chronological tape, while a middle-aged couple paused to take a photo in front of the exhibition banner. A young woman and her mother, traversing the aesthetic landscapes in slow grace, discussed each piece in turn.
Located near exit 1 of Anguk Station, subway line 3. General admission is 3,000 won. For more information, visit www.galleryhyundai.com or call (02) 519-0846.