The term “abstract art” evolved as a Western idea as the outset of the twentieth century. As far as I know, there is no indigenous sign for this term in the Korean language. There is some dissension as to whether abstract art means the same thing in Korea as it does in Europe or America. This implies that because Korean art has retained a sense of its own history, the paintings by contemporary artists are not merely a product of Western thought. Rather they are indirectly tied to symbols and indigenous signs that originate as far back as the northern tomb culture in the Goguryeo Dynasty during the time of the Three Kingdoms beginning in 37 B.C.E.
I understand the paintings of Noh Wonhee from this point of view. The kind of energy (qi) that emanates from the surfaces of her paintings is of special interest. The inks, binders, and pigments used to create these densely articulated, blue light striations on hanji operate in a manner fundamentally Korean. Despite their optical allure, her paintings imply something that lives beyond the purely visual elements. Ms. Noh’s paintings are not merely works of “visual art,” but are paintings that contain traces of history derived from the indigenous conflation of Buddhist and Tao thinking that flourished in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty in the tenth century and the rewritten Confucian Analects that arrived with the Chosun Dynasty five centuries later.
In Korea, the color blue carries a variety of symbolic references. It is not just a primary color, compatible with red and yellow as seen on Western color charts. Rather it is a color that suggests other symbolic properties. In the Five Element Theory of Color, derived from the concept of the yin-yang in Taoism, the color blue represents the East. It is the harbinger of spring and the instigator of new life. Curiously, the color blue began as green in the Wu Hsing model of the Five Element Colors used in China. Later as the Chart was reconfigured, blue was assigned to the light of the dragon, its fiery eyes, fraught with change and optimism. Blue became the color of generosity, of exalted memory, and clear consciousness.
The mixed media application of various inks and acrylic paint through the use of textiles on hanji paper is truly exhilarating. It captures the force of the sea and the ever-changing, omniscient presence of azure skies that lift our awareness of space and time and our place as human beings living on the planet. One may discuss the varieties of material applications, as shown by the critic, Park Ki-Woong, but ultimately it is the affect engendered by these paintings that somehow reaches the viewer. Ms. Noh’s paintings exist as statements of faith in the omnipresence of nature and the renewal of energy that sustains human existence over time: the ultimate allegiance to which artists partake of life in all its contradictory and fleeting aspects.
(Professor Robert C. Morgan lives and works in New York City. He is the author of numerous books and essays on contemporary art, and currently teaches at the Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts. In 2005, he was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Korea where he lectured at Seoul National, Hong-Ik, and Chosen Universities. He is a member of the European Academy of Science and Arts in Salzburg and in 1999 was given the first Arcale award in Salamanca, Spain for his work as an International Art Critic)