By Woo Jae-yeon
SEOUL, April 16 (Yonhap) -- Chun Kwang-young's growth as an artist came through continual challenges, self-doubt and soul-searching. He started to gain recognition, if slowly, after he stopped following mainstream art trends and pursued a unique form of art.
Chun, 73, builds totally new landscapes in what he calls "aggregation" by using thousands of triangle-shaped pieces of Styrofoam wrapped in Korean mulberry paper, or "hanji," taken from books more than 100 years old. There are Korean spirits, traces of history and time and epic narratives that are aggregated in ancient books, he believes.
Born in 1944 as an only son for two generations in a deeply Confucian family, he was sent to Seoul to attend a middle school that offered a better education than those in his hometown of Hongcheon, Gangwon Province.
To his stern father's indignation, however, the young Chun wasn't interested in studying to become a doctor or a lawyer at all. He liked painting, instead. In high school, his furious father set ablaze his painting materials after he found out about it.
"When I got a test result, I was always nervous to go home. My heart pounded. I felt like going into hell," Chun said of the strong family opposition to him painting in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency at PKM Gallery.
He is holding a solo exhibition at the gallery from April 6-June 5, with 18 pieces of his work dating from 1975.
After he went to Seoul's Hongik University to study art, he had to support himself as his self-made father cut financial assistance to him. The more his father disapproved of him doing art, the harder he tried to become successful.
His leaving for America in 1969 was part of such efforts to prove that he could make it without his father's help. But experiencing a wider art world abundant with unique artists was a cold wake-up call to him.
"I felt so small in front of so much excellent art in American museums. I even regretted having started art in the first place. I felt like trying to hunt a tiger with a hoe, while others were chasing it with a spear," he said.
He was in deep despair to realize that his abstract paintings were only "one of many." They weren't appealing to him anymore. He thought what he was doing was like "ditching the traditional Korean attire 'hanbok' and wearing a tuxedo."
"It wasn't about good or bad, but about doing my own thing."
Returning home in 1977, he set out to look for art of unique individualism. With his wife, Chun traveled around the country for years to visit folklore museums where he traced his roots. He was also inspired by his childhood memory about an oriental herbal medicine wrapped in paper and hung from the ceiling at the hospital run by a brother of his grandfather.
Since 1996, when he made a successful exhibition in Soho with his "aggregation" series, his career has been smooth sailing.
In 2001, the Korean National Museum of Modern and Contemporary art (MMCA) chose him as the "Artist of the Year." He has held many solo exhibitions in global art institutions and museums such as the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus and the Boghossian Foundation and Museum De Reede, both in Belgium. The Brooklyn Museum is set to open one in October.
"I've come a long way. At this stage in life, how others evaluate and perceive my art doesn't really matter," the artist said. "Now is the time for me to ruminate on how I am going to leave my legacy as an artist."
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