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(Yonhap Interview) Hip and thought-provoking: Korean artist Kim Hyun-jung challenges old notions

All Headlines 17:25 April 06, 2016

By Woo Jae-yeon

SEOUL, April 6 (Yonhap) -- A young woman in the Korean traditional attire of hanbok sits crossed-legged on the floor, a box of pizza balanced on her bare legs, devouring a slice and holding a spoonful of ice cream. The floor around her is littered with cookie crumbs, chips and half-opened instant noodle cups.

It is not exactly the typical portrayal of a Korean woman in the refined, elegant garment.

Artist Kim Hyun-jung, the spitting image of the girl in her own painting "New Year's Resolution (feat. starting tomorrow)," explained to Yonhap News Agency on Wednesday that it was indeed a portrayal of herself, and by extension, many Korean girls.

"Everything around me gives me inspiration. It is like air or family that is always around you but you seldom recognize and appreciate," the 27-year-old painter said.

One of the most promising young Korean artists, she is widely credited for pushing the boundary of Korean art by presenting thought-provoking themes with prickly yet humorous wit, and experimenting with new artistic techniques in her paintings. To express the crisp texture and three-dimensional effect of hanbok, she uses a collage of "hanji," Korean traditional paper made of mulberry trees, in her paintings.

Last September, she was the youngest painter invited to a special exhibition of Korean art at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. In January, she held a solo exhibition at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In a painting that she said is one of her favorites, a solemn-faced girl in translucent hanbok rides on a bull as if in rodeo, around her neck hanging what appears to be an identification card from Samsung, the country's most sought-after firm among college graduates. Thrown up in the air behind her are a box of popcorn, a baby bottle and a pair of birds that traditionally symbolize a happily married couple.

The underlying connotation of the painting reveals the harsh reality facing "the young generation who is forced to give up three things" -- romance, marriage and children -- as the aptly titled "Sampo Generation, Miss Kim" shows, with the sluggish economy putting a strain on the lives of many young Koreans. "Sampo" is a newly coined term that means "giving up three things."

"Some people doubt that I am, too, part of this 'sampo' generation, suggesting I am young and already have a stable job, but in reality, I paint all day long from nine in the morning till, sometimes well past midnight, seven days a week," Kim said.

Running a 10-staff design company by herself, she said, "I am constantly worried about having to pay for rent and staff."

Her current exhibition, which runs until April 11 at the Gallery Is in Insa-dong, popular for traditional antique shops and art galleries in downtown Seoul, is full of delightful and eye-catching paintings that give visitors, young Korean girls in particular, a sense of liberation and empathy.

More than 50,000 people have so far visited the amusing exhibition "Naesoong Amusement Park," which opened on March 16. It has set a record of 5,026 daily visitors, the highest for a solo exhibition in Korea. "Naesoong," or playing innocent in Korean, is usually used for describing a woman who behaves with false modesty or is being coy.

"I hated people with inconsistent personality. Initially, I painted that type of people out of disapproval, but I realized later that I was not much better," Kim said, coyly clasping her hand over her mouth and laughing self-consciously at her own honesty.

"Naesoong is not necessarily bad. It could be out of true modesty and could be cute."

Acting her age, she is constantly online, communicating with her fans -- more than 100,000 followers on Facebook alone -- via social media sites.

"I often stay up all night talking to people... Connecting with my supporters is really comforting and gives me energy to keep going," she said.

Going forward, she envisions a society where people feel at ease visiting a gallery and enjoying art.

"I want people to feel as if they were on the beginner's course on the ski slope when they enjoy my paintings. You shouldn't force a beginner to slide down the advanced course."

jaeyeon.woo@yna.co.kr
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