ARTIST Criticism
Landscape of Positivity and Delights of Life-Sung-hui Lee

Landscape of Positivity and Delights of Life

Gu-hwan Park’s Woodblock Prints

Reviewed by Sung-hui Lee (Dr. Philosophy)

When viewing block prints, we think of the artists who created them, and the long painstaking process, which requires absolute concentration of the mind and body. It is a feeling quite different from what is created by paintings. Woodblock prints, in particular, make us think of the tension of muscles – the muscles of the artist who engraved the woodblocks, and the resistance of the wood that is being carved off by the artist’s blades. We might call it the sensation of cutting.

However, the woodblock prints by Gu-hwan Park are slightly different. In his prints, the sensation of sharp blades is surrounded by gentle curves and soft colors. It is a very unusual experience to get such delicate and gentle feelings from woodblock prints. But that doesn’t mean his process of woodblock printing is gentler, and thereby easier, than others. As one critic has pointed out, his prints are made with the Reduction Printing Method, which uses only one block to print the desired image in multiple colors. That requires the artist to cut away the surface little by little, until all desired parts are printed in different desired colors. So his is a method that requires longer and more painstaking stages than most other woodblock print methods. The numerous worlds and universes are born and then reduced, until he gets one final print of a landscape. It is remarkable that his landscape prints – which look so peaceful and bountiful – are the result of such a rigorous process.

In spite of the arduous work, his prints of landscapes are always heart-touchingly cheerful, and pleasant. We see no emotional disturbances, or signs of the violent force of nature that threatens life. His prints are permeated with the positivity and delightfulness of life – on trees full of spring blossoms, and in villages so peaceful along the coasts of southern islands. Perhaps, the landscape in his prints is our home that is now lost, or the deepest part of our heart that has been buried under the thick layers of time we have lived through in this busy modern society. Whatever it might be, we are not to mistake the pleasant colors and gentle curves – and the serene peace that comes from them – as unsophisticated simplicity, or decorations of vanity.

An old scripture from India preaches that the human conscience consists of three levels: the top level called ‘the self made of food,’ the second level called ‘the self made of breathing,’ and the bottom level called ‘the self made of delights.’ The joy and pleasure we find in Park’s prints are perhaps what belongs to the bottom level of delights. Take his Sea of Sound series, for example. In this series that he has been producing for ten years, the sea of sound is more than just about the sound of the ocean; it is about the symphony of inner sounds that come from all that exists in nature, while at the same time about the ocean of waves that come from the depths of life. It is in this sea of sound that we experience serene delight.

The sounds in Park’s prints are not the same as the numerous alarms that we have grown accustomed to in urbanized life. To hear the Sea of Sound, we have to regain the peripheral senses that we had to give up for the sake of becoming assimilated into the city of noise. We regain our peripheral senses when we find tranquility in ourselves. When we are tranquil, our disabled sensibility comes alive, and we can hear all the delicate frequencies coming from the depths of all that is living. Sea of Sound invites us to the waves of life, the origin of all sounds; the waves of sunbeams shattering over the ocean, the quivering boughs, whispers of grass, waves of the soil, dances of the trees, the gesture of one landscape beckoning to others, and the trembling of all simple shapes. It invites us to experience synesthesia with all things of nature when they tremble between sounds and colors. This is the phenomenology, and the ontology of sounds that we find in the state of tranquility.

The landscapes of these diverse sounds are in fact diverse variations of the wave. The hidden wave that permeates them all is none other than the positivity and the delights of life. The positivity and delights of life shine most brilliantly in the spring blossoms that we see in his In Full Bloom, a print that will be on display during the exhibition. Nothing can demonstrate the positivity and delights of life better than fully-opened blossoms.

However, his In Full Bloom shows a different kind of formative approach. Unlike his other works, where the prints are full of vivid colors and figures, In Full Bloom shows a landscape that reminds us of the cherry blossoms that we often see in traditional black and white ink paintings. A new world of formation is unfolding in this print, where the tree branches are dividing the space with a vivacious energy that we find in traditional black and white ink paintings, creating empty spaces that are just as bountiful as the lines that divide them. Flowers are in full bloom between the lines and empty spaces, and between the colors black and white.

While traditional ink paintings use the Split Technique that allows a soft brush to wield the power of a sword, the sharp blades of the artist embrace the softness of the brush. What we see here, in his prints, is the new formative space that opens up when the sword-like brush is matched with the brush-like sword. Of course, In Full Bloom is not intended to be an imitation of a traditional ink painting. He has shadowy silhouettes behind the tree branches, creating the depths and echoes in space, which is rare to find in traditional landscapes. This is what makes us anticipate a new possibility of expanded depths in the spaces created by the artist.

An encounter with Gu-hwan Park’s prints is a blissful experience at a time when the home and nature is being destroyed or lost, and the changed climate is threatening our lives. Martin Heidegger declared that the mission of a poet is to come home, and that, for him, writing a poem is his first home-coming. Home is the origin of life. In this sense, Gu-hwan Park is a poet who is taking us home, the land where the delights of life flow. We all wish to be engraved in his prints, and tremble to the sounds and colors in them, so that we can reclaim the positivity and delights of life that we have lost.