Seundja Rhee 이성자 : Towards the Antipodes

20 Apr 2024 – 24 Nov 2024

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10:00 – 18:00
10:00 – 18:00
10:00 – 18:00
10:00 – 18:00
10:00 – 18:00
10:00 – 18:00

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KoRICA (Korean Research Institute of Contemporary Art), with the support of the Seundja Rhee Foundation and Gallery Hyundai, is pleased to present Seundja Rhee: Towards the Antipodes, a solo exhibition of Seundja Rhee (1918–2009). This exhibition is a Collateral Event of the Biennale Arte 2024, taking place at ArteNova (Castello 5063) from April 20 through November 24, 2024. Rhee is widely recognized as the only woman artist of her generation who has spearheaded Korean abstract art, alongside her contemporaries Kim Whanki and Yoo Youngkuk. Across six decades of her prolific practice, Rhee took to the East Asian theory of yin and yang and the five elements that make up the universe (Eumyangohaeng) as her conceptual bedrock. Such influences are demonstrated through her amalgamation of Eastern and Western artistic and cultural contexts after emigrating to France in 1951, which became her second home where she learned the canons of Western painting, while simultaneously fusing her academic studies with her unique philosophical sensibilities. 

Seundja Rhee: Towards the Antipodes marks the first occasion after Rhee’s passing in 2009 that the artist’s solo exhibition is held in a country that is neither her Korean motherland nor her second home of France. Approximately twenty paintings spanning five decades of her career—from 1959 through 2008—are on view, providing a platform to reexamine Rhee’s continued formal experimentation and aesthetic evolution throughout the years, while at the same time steadfastly embracing the milieu of her time. Curated by Bartomeu Marí, an independent curator and writer, who was formerly Director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA), Seoul, this presentation densely encapsulates Rhee’s lifetime career more than a centennial after her birth, introducing to the global audience of the Biennale Arte 2024 her intercontinental practice transcending the binaries of the East and West as far as seven decades ago. On the upcoming exhibition, Marí has stated: “The global art audience will discover an artist concerned with interpreting the world, the cosmos, in its relation to individuals and humans in general. As women artists have been traditionally ignored or undervalued, it is an occasion to rediscover how painting belongs to the great narratives of expression and sharing. The history of modern art in Korea is richer when Seundja Rhee’s work reaches a new level of global relevance.” Having constructed a singular creative language unrestricted to the prevailing modern and contemporary art movements in Korea and France, the latter of which she spent more than half of her life, Rhee’s biography epitomizes a life spent as the “other” and highlights the inextricable connection to the theme of this year’s Biennale Arte: Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere

In 1951, amidst the Korean War, Seundja Rhee left for Paris, one of the main international art hubs and the capital of a country where Rhee would spend the following sixty years as a professional artist. In an attempt to overcome her tragic personal experience of becoming estranged from her three beloved sons, she enrolled in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris in 1953 with little to no prior experience in art, when she was already in her mid-thirties. Having encountered the language of visual art for the first time, Rhee quickly absorbed modern European influences. Unbound by the mission to convey the contemporary social milieu and ideologies that weighed on many other artists at the time, she focused instead on developing her unique artistic perspective and trajectory. Graced with strong determination and abounding ingenuity, she created not only paintings but also woodcut prints, sculptures, ceramics, tapestries, mosaics, and illustrated poetry books, and placed many notable works in public institutions. 

From the mid-1950s, the artist began to identify nine distinct themes that would chronologically interlink her expansive body of work. The first three consist of: Figurative (1954–1956), which depicts solid compositions that reflect Rhee’s extensive training at Académie de la Grande Chaumière; Abstract (1957–1960), following an eye-opening trip to Amsterdam in 1956 that served as an impetus to overcome, or unlearn, the conventions of academic training by replacing representational objects with point, line, and plane; and Woman and Earth (1961–1968), featuring a pictorial plane invigorated with multiple layers of short, thick lines of vivid oil colors reminiscent of pointillism, or evoking the historical Korean craft of Hwamunseok (patterned woven sedge mats) or the tilling of soil. Quickly becoming the subject of widespread critical acclaim in Paris at the time, Woman and Earth bears Rhee’s self-studied medium of woodcut prints in the form of oil brushstrokes, resulting in an intense organic materiality rarely seen in pointillist paintings of Post-Impressionism. Woman and Earth serves as an iconic example of Rhee’s early formal language and is intensely redolent of her personal narrative—the longing for homeland, her three sons, and her mother. Such aching sentiments are reflected in titles of individual works such as A Mother I Remember (1962), Sweet Sunrays (1963), and Ojak-kio (1965) which, as poetic condensations, expand beyond their rudimentary function as titles into extensions of the works themselves. 

As one of her key artistic concepts, “the Earth as Mother” would remain an axis that consistently informs Rhee’s later works. In the late 1960s, the artist began to actively travel between Korea, France, and the United States. Her visits to major cosmopolitan cities such as New York City and Washington D.C. led to the creation of the Superimposition (1969–1971) and City (1972–1974) series, which portrayed cities built upon the earth as sites gestating manmade energy. From the 1970s, she began to split her recurrent circular motifs, which first appeared in the Abstract series, into convex and concave semicircles, utilizing them as symbols of yin and yang, bridging paradoxical elements such as nature and machinery, death and life, the East and West, Korea and France. The artist continued to diligently employ this motif throughout the remainder of her career including the Yin and Yang, Timelessness (1975–1976) and Nature (1977–1979) series, where she appears to momentarily gaze into a transcendent time where she can reflect on her past, away from the Earth and cities of the present reality. Rhee’s awe of nature, as well as her merging of the yin and yang motif that constructs Korea’s taegeuk symbol, forges her continued path of abstraction informed by the methods and forms of Western painting she adopted during her time in France. 

As a witness to, and at times a victim of, the discrimination amidst the tumult of both Korean and European 20th-century modern history and the still male-dominant art scene, transcendence of time and space became Rhee’s fuel to not only merge binaries but also to envision a utopian world. Road to the Antipodes (1980–1994) serves as a kind of memoir and diary of her travels between two countries at opposite antipodes that were equally important in the artist’s life, a fond yet sentimental record of the Alaskan landscape looked upon from a plane while flying between France and Korea. After settling in Tourrettes in Southern France in her later years, the artist’s gaze trailed upwards as she spent nights searching for constellations in the starry night skies, dreaming of a transcendent, infinite cosmos liberated from the territorial restrictions between Korea and France and of social constraints placed on her as a woman artist through her final works in the Cosmos (1995–2008) series. 

Within the history of Korean modern and contemporary art, Seundja Rhee is considered the first generation of women abstract artists. Her precision, subtlety, determination, and innate aptitude in communication skills enabled the artist’s active engagement with the Parisian art community and supplemented critical elements that were often overlooked in the heretofore male-dominated history of art. At a time when Dansaekhwa and Minjung art prevailed in Korea, as did abstraction in the West, Rhee embraced influences from both Western and Eastern modern and contemporary art, achieving a unique formal language that amalgamated and unified these distinctive binaries. Furthermore, before the age of widespread internet, the artist had already begun to disseminate the East Asian theory of yin and yang to wider audiences. As such, she endeavored for a synthesis between the yin and yang, the East and West, the earth and the skies, and other dichotomies, amounting to the harmonious union between mankind and nature, along with the incorporation of cosmic landscapes into a transcendent, abstract pictorial plane. Even as Rhee experienced the traumas of the Japanese Occupation and the Korean War, as well as the inequalities of patriarchal social norms, throughout her life she remained dedicated to her aesthetic vision as both a mother and an artist, realizing a complete harmony between her life and art.  

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