An Elegant Endeavour
Every element of Youngseok Cha’s paintings—from the composition to the atmosphere to the selection of motifs—combines dramatic emotion with a calm demeanor. They represent a delicate, sophisticated gaze, wherein certain clues and senses manifest themselves, in the same way that memories permeate the present. The artist never fails to create the ideal atmosphere to coordinate the light that envelopes these scenes, maximizing the objects’ warmth and elegance, as well as the viewers’ affection. His works embody the total synthesis between objects and “I”—whether the artist or the viewer—which might be the ultimate pursuit of traditional literati painting in Korea.
Working with a pencil on hanji (i.e., Korean traditional mulberry paper), Youngseok Cha employs a unique method in which he steadily accumulates quick, rough pencil lines in order to generate various tones and shades, while also infusing the plane with a palpable rhythm. In the later works of the Well Still Life series, the stories and points of view become more diverse, thanks to denser compositions and a wider variety of featured objects. Classic motifs from traditional Korean ink-wash paintings (e.g., rocks, ceramics, bonsai and other plants, and antiquities) are joined by modern items, such as dolls, trophies, cars, ships, toys, balls, sneakers, and necklaces, shifting attention from the apparent time period to the artist’s choice of objects.
Youngseok Cha follows the general tradition of Korean ink-wash painting, especially in his still-life paintings. Most strikingly, the objects in these works are placed and depicted from a certain perspective with preset coordinates. In the early works of the Well Still Life series, for example, the point of view looks downward from an angle of approximately 45 degrees, allowing all of the objects to be clearly seen in their entirety with no overlapping. However, the point of view is also slightly displaced to one side by about 20 degrees, evincing a unique conceptual perspective in the tradition of Eastern ink-wash painting. Thus, despite the overall realism of the depictions, Cha’s still-life paintings also express a conceptual space.
In the mode of classical Korean ink-wash paintings, Cha makes ample use of light through blank areas that resonate with the subtle white or ivory color of the hanji. The delicate touch of the pencil even allows light to leak through the graphite particles, for a unique softness that infuses the entire pictorial plane. The rhythm of the haziness and the opaque black (or colors) melting in the background allocates unexpected focal points throughout the image, creating an interesting visual play. But when depicting a hawk against a black background in An Elegant Endeavour_163 (2019), Cha added a lighter, beige-toned plumage pattern over hazy gray pencil lines, for a more defined outline and overall description than in previous paintings. A similarly elaborate description can be seen in the hawks flying across a five-panel folding screen in An Elegant Endeavour_164. Here, however, for the first time, a lavish spectrum of colors has been added to express the hawks’ plumage.
While they might resemble suspicious landscapes of the everyday, filled with a mess of trivialities, Cha’s works approach the viewer as still-life paintings, suffused with an artistic gaze at the joy and health of existence, if only for a fleeting moment. This conception differentiates them from most still-life paintings, which typically seek to overcome ephemerality by returning objects to their eternal essence. Indeed, our own lonely struggles seem to thrive best within a worldly milieu. The resulting feeling is akin to the eager and affectionate aspirations of our neighbors (including Cha) for an aesthetic or sentimental life.
From review by Min Byung-jik (curator, critic)