Self-taught artist who tells about his work the history of modern Korea
It is rare these days to have an unexpected and unexpected encounter with a work of art. Much of what we see tends to be curated by advertising hype or social media mentions—that nasty stuff on top of the friendly reviews, ads, and tips that regulate modern consumption. I seldom experience, or allow myself to be tempted, to walk into a gallery or concert hall knowing nothing of what I shall find inside. But that’s what I did last fall, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Busan, South Korea. Most of the museum was taken up by the Busan Biennale, a rectangular building with a lush, vivid façade – a “vertical garden” of plant species native to Korea. The exhibition inside was impressively cosmopolitan: Artists from 25 countries were brought together under the theme “We, On the Rising Wave,” a nod to Busan’s history as an international port.
I started on the first floor, and made some impressive notes—about spare drawings and willows by Kavavu Manomi, an Inuit artist from Nunavut, Canada, and a melancholic environmental installation by Chung Sop Lim, a multidisciplinary artist who grew up south of Seoul. Then, in a gallery downstairs, my body was reacting in front of my mind. The room was all oil paintings by one artist—twenty of them arranged in order of production, across four mint-coloured walls. Busan’s scenes are rendered in strong horizontal lines, using exaggerated linear perspective that made them both representational and otherworldly. They seem to tell the entire history of modern Korea, from the colonial era, through the civil war, to the digital present. Dotted across each panel are small, inconspicuous figures—railroad drivers, mothers, fishermen, and passengers. People and settings recapitulated themselves with energetic variety. The color combinations blew me away: in one ensemble, mauve and taupe; In another, blues and navy greens that looked electric by comparison.
I haven’t heard of the artist with the unusual Korean name Oh Yoo Am. I had no reference point for his style. His paintings were at once guiltless and skillful. Show work in it. They took real slices of Korean history as their theme, yet seemed to exist within the timeless space of the symbol. I learn from the mural text that the painter is eighty-four years old. He was orphaned during the Korean War and spent three decades as a handyman at a nunnery in Busan. He was completely self-made.
who was that? Where was he living? I looked online and only found 2 pics and a few dated links. I reached out to Busan Biennial curator Kim Haejoo to find out more. Kim, who grew up in Busan and studied at the Sorbonne, explained that Oh did not paint seriously until his sixties. He had no recognizable peers or fit into an art school. “He’s a kind of weird artist,” she told me. “The style is rather naive – ill-conceived.” Oh wasn’t well known, even in Korea, but he had shown his work in Seoul many years earlier, at a now-defunct gallery called ArtForum Newgate. Kim explained the adventure it was of tracking down his pieces for the show, among Oh’s home, private collections, regional museums, and the former gallery owner’s apartment.
I went to Seoul to meet this exhibition maker, Yum Hejung. She told me how, around 2004, she obtained information from a prominent art critic about Oh’s work. I went to Busan to court him, and found a deplorable scene: he and his wife were living in a dilapidated rented apartment, and his paintings and drawings were scattered. She was determined to represent him and, after months of persuasion, persuaded him to sell her a painting. She supplied him with oils and paintings and lent his family money so they could move to a better apartment. In 2006 and 2010, Yum had solo exhibitions of Oh at ArtForum Newgate titled “The Way” and “The Sound of the Whistle” respectively. The paintings in those shows were bleak in palette and subject matter, and focused on Busan’s past. But the third show, in 2015, Life is Beautiful, presented paintings that were uncharacteristically upbeat and set in contemporary Busan. The people in these paintings took on a more rounded and unique cast. It was as if the sun had risen over Studio Oh.
Yim explained that what happened between the second and third performances was tantamount to entering history into the life of a historical painter. In 2010, Oh was informed by the Korean central government that his long-deceased father had been identified as an anti-colonial activist and would be publicly honored as a patriot. In the late periods, progressive President Roh Moo-hyun expanded a law granting official recognition and monetary benefits to members of the anti-colonial resistance and their descendants. Even then, many of these families, including the Oh family, had been red-stabbed by the Korean governors. Oh had always known that his father was a leftist and had disappeared into Japanese-occupied Manchuria, but he wasn’t sure whether he went there as an independence fighter or a forced laborer. The government’s discovery allowed Oh to revise his life text and family’s place in modern Korea. There was also a practical dimension: he would receive a small but steady cash subsidy each month.
In late November, after the Busan Biennale closed and Oh’s paintings returned to their disparate homes, I visited him and his daughter, Oh Soo-young, a retired commercial designer. Oh moved to an isolated area of Hamyang, in the mountainous interior of Korea, far west of Busan, in 2021, with his wife and Soo-young. Their son, a professional carpenter, built a single-story white house at the high end of a country road. Oh’s wife, who was suffering from severe depression, dies the day after the move, as if to condemn a family moving away from the sea.
On the day I visited, the sky was clear and a cool blue, accentuating the deep orange of the persimmon trees in their yard. So-young was welcoming and flirty in a traditional, tie-dye violet, and black bowler jacket and loose-fitting pants. She cooked us delicious specialties from South Jeolla Province — where her father was born — including unusual kimchi made from autumn soybean leaves. Two paintings I had seen at the Biennale hang in the doorway of the house: a large painting depicting a young boy, seen from behind, looking through a railyard fence; and a small painting of a large, angular factory worker, with a collage advertisement for whiskey. Oh I came out of his bedroom after lunch. He was of medium build and wore a denim shirt, baggy pants, and glasses. His hair was white, but his oblong, brown face was that of a man much younger than himself; His hands were big and tough. He spoke in short stream-of-consciousness bursts, despite his speech impediment, about his childhood in Busan, South Korean politics, and the meaning of individual artworks.