“Waterlilies Whirlpool” (2012) by Kyung Jeon
/ Courtesy the artist and Kukje Gallery
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Korean-American artist Kyung Jeon portrays her personal history through water lilies at a dual exhibition currently at Kukje Gallery in Sagan-dong, central Seoul. At first, Jeon’s works look sweet and bright with pastel hues. When examined closely, boys and girls on lily pads have many stories, some of them are dark or violent.
Jeon was born in New Jersey in 1975 and she explores her experience of growing up as a Korean-American in her works.
Her new series is inspired by Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” paintings and she portrayed her family history on water lilies.
“I use fantasy and fairy tales to bring dark, difficult themes to art so it can be easier to digest,” Jeon said. Even her business card bears one of her characters, shedding tears and wearing pink underwear and a hairpin.
“Another inspiration was the passing of my two grandfathers within a month of each other. My grandfather on my father’s side had one last wish to find his family in North Korea if Korea’s ever united,” she said. Her paternal grandparents married in North Korea and later moved to South Korea, leaving families there.
Growing up in a Caucasian-dominant community affected her life and art. “I was of a minority and found it hard to fit in. I used my artwork to get in,” she said. “This is my world and I feel safe and included here.”
She said that she felt like she had to express what it is like to be a Korean-American in her art. She previously worked in different styles, but something “clicked” when she finally drew the tiny characters with black hair.
Her parents did not tell her much about her family history and she had to fill it in with her imagination, making it her own. Instead, her parents bought her Korean folk tale books and it fueled her artistic creativity. Jeon picked “Sun and Moon,” in which a brother and sister become the sun and moon, and “Fairy and the Lumberjack,” in which a lumberjack conceals a fairy’s robe, as her favorites. “The image of the fairy stayed with me for a while,” she said.
The three big pieces in her “Water Lilies” series are connected to each other and show playful interaction between boys and girls as well as scenes of swimming, performing CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), spying on each other, and hugging one another on and around the lily pads.
Some of the lily pads have barbed wire on them because they symbolize the division between South and North Korea. A woman becomes tangled in barbed wire, while people from the South watch them. A huge column of water symbolizes the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and dragonflies above this evoke the B-29 bomber which dropped the atomic device on the Japanese city. Images from the movies “Titanic” and “Cast Away” can also be found in her “Water Lilies” paintings.
She read a lot of books on Pyongyang, watched documentaries on former sex slaves and war movies as a part of research for her paintings.
During her stay in Korea for this exhibition, Jeon had a chance to visit the DMZ. “When I was finally standing on the Freedom Bridge in the DMZ, there was a big pond of water lilies under the bridge and there were dragonflies everywhere. It was a really magical moment for me because everything was tied together like ‘There actually are water lilies here,’” she said.
The exhibition has a deeper meaning because the two artists explore the world in different ways. Kang Eem-yun is based in London, after graduating from the Royal Academy of Arts. The two artists have differences in style and technique, but are true to their own way of interpreting symbolism.
Kang’s works are on the verge of figurative and abstract painting, though she thinks of her art as landscapes, not abstract pieces. Inspired by British literature and legends of the Inuits, she draws mythical sceneries. She said myths stimulate her imagination on the interpretation of natural phenomenon.
British poet Fabian Peake wrote 12 poems “A year of thinking / thinking of a year” inspired by Kang’s works and Kang created new paintings based on the poems. It is a circle of inspiration. “Though Peake’s poems came from my art, it was refreshing for me to do new pieces influenced by his poems,” Kang said.
The exhibit runs through Sept. 23. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.kukjegallery.com or call (02) 735-8449.