Se Yeol Yoon
The title of the exhibition, Retrotopia, joins the prefix “retro-,” meaning a recollection of the past, with the root “topos,” indicating a place. In accordance, the artist’s works overlap recollections of the past with the landscape of the present. This strategy is immediately evident in Yoon’s use of traditional materials (i.e., ink and silk) to portray current motifs, but it also extends to the gaze within the overlapping landscape, which reveals the essential relationship between nature and humanity. Se Yeol Yoon’s paintings seem to show what contemporary society is losing by trying to juxtapose the typical urban landscape, embodying the frenzied rush toward industrialization, development, polarization, and population density, with the romantic world of nature, characterized by ample space, composure, and refinement. But is that really so? The artist depicts the city in extreme detail, almost to the level of a savant. These meticulous brushstrokes convey not only a critical perspective on contemporary society, but also a deep affection and attachment to the world where he lives.
In Yoon’s paintings, the overlap between the past and present appears as a compressed scene within the protracted symbolic time of landscape painting. Given that the landscapes in Korean traditional ink-wash paintings generally represent a conceptual space, rather than an actual location, they can be read as signs of their mutual relations. Yoon’s dense combinations of lines almost resemble a type of writing, rather than painting, evincing antiquity by recalling historical documents and relics recorded on silk.
In Landscape-River Wave, a literatus looks to be reciting a poem while traveling through time on a ferryboat. For him, the construction site in the background, where another new apartment complex is going up, is just another example of the ephemeral hustle and bustle of an era passing by. The artist’s definitive statement about the temporal scale might be Life Is a Merry-Go-Round, a painting that functions directly as a sign. On the endlessly circulating plateau of “now,” landscapes bloom in beautiful futility, as here and there merge and the past, present, and future become one.
In 2020, Se Yeol Yoon’s art underwent some major changes. His most recent works show a more prominent use of color, especially with hues of red, and a greater conceptualization of traditional brushstrokes, with different methods used to show varying degrees of mass, dimension, light, and shadow. Through these changes, Yoon is transitioning from his previous hyper-realistic descriptions to a more liberal pictorial interpretation. A wide spatial and temporal range of narrative elements are juxtaposed on a single pictorial plane, depicting contemporary motifs with a combination of techniques from Joseon landscapes and ancient murals, emphasizing outlines and simplicity. Yoon’s adoption of images from ancient murals can be seen in Festival. Some works are expressed like pictograms, such as Movement in the Pause, wherein five passenger planes are grounded by COVID-19. Yet even as Se Yeol Yoon’s ongoing dialogue between the past and present takes on more dramatic aspects, the characters remain fully immersed in their own time, as they always have.
Se Yeol Yoon’s paintings continuously raise questions. Exploring his art from a deeper perspective, what if the brushstroke representing the border between the Han River and the Han River Park is not just a line of ink, but an uncomfortable boundary within our contemporary society? No one knows the right answer, or what is true, or which direction to go. It is all just a “simulacre,” as foretold by Jean Baudrillard. But we can still find hope and meaning in Se Yeol Yoon’s works, in his warmth towards humanity and love for society and reality. Those who see his works can replace their feelings of emptiness with poignancy and contemplation, enabling them to hold firm to the thread of hope for humanity, just like the artist himself.
from “Laozi Appeared to Heal Seoul” by Sanghwan Park (Professor of the Department of Eastern Philosophy at Sungkyunkwan University)