A talk on “The Gathering; Bystanders” exhibition at Gallery BK, Seoul
“When I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it,
head down and heels up,
and I’m even pleased that I’m falling,
and for me I find it beautiful.
And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov
On Han Jaeyeol’s work
There’s something I will never get tired of stressing, which is: you fall in love with the art you resonate with. Han Jaeyeol’s art represents another confirmation of my belief in this incredible connection that exists between art and spectator, but even more between art and artist. History of art teaches us repeatedly how art is intrinsic with a process of catharsis, of forgiveness, of liberation, leading almost to an experience that some may call thaumaturgic (from θαυματουργία, which literally in ancient Greek means “working miracles”).
Han Jaeyeol starts his artistic journey in reaction to tragedy: in 2010 he works in the response to the disastrous earthquake in Haiti as part of his military service. From this defining moment of his life, the artist takes an interest not only in people, but also in what is behind and beyond people’s appearance: beyond the face, gender, race, and color, in the quest for an insightful gaze on humanity in its deepest meaning. Liberated from their physical features, the abstract expressionist faces of Han Jaeyeol tell a story of emotions and psychology, with a study on color that derives both from Goethe’s infamous theory and from the artist’s abilities in creating his own pigments. This study on portrait is presented in the full “Passersby” series, whose name alludes to his passion for people-sketching born during this time in Ireland.
The evolution of his research resides then on the second series presented at the gallery, which is The Gatherings, where the portraits assume a body and a contextualisation in the re-interpretation and re-imagination of sites of disasters: the political meets the personal, embodied in large-scale paintings that sparkle through their vibrant choice of color. It’s a powerful, impactful, and intimate dialogue at the same time: whereas the Passersby series invites the viewer to look closer and closer, within their own macrocosms of human’s unique existentiality explored through thick textural brushes, The Gathering series is an élance from the painting to the viewer, violent in claiming its own space and attention through the vibrant pigmentation of his colors.
Han Jaeyeol’ exhibition reminds me of the concept of Nostos (νόστος) of the Odyssey: a constant journey on the search of himself through others, on a consequent cycle of events, people, cities, travels, and inspirations that enrich each stroke of oil painting on the canvas. It’s a capture of the ephemeral and the impermanent, a search for something that is beyond everything that the artist encounters.
I had the pleasure of discussing all of this with the artist himself, through an in-depth conversation at Gallery BK, surrounded by the exhibition. It was a very interesting and enriching journey, and it clearly highlighted how much thoughts and research there is behind the artist’ work, as well as a deep curiosity and sensibility for the world he lives in and for the disciplines that try to make sense of it and – ultimately – us, humans.
In Conversation with Han Jaeyeol
VB: Reading the curatorial text of your exhibition at Gallery BK, I learn that your art started in a very peculiar part of your life, which is related to your military service in 2010 in Haiti, in response to the disastrous heart quake. I would love to elaborate on that and how you link the discovery of art practice in relation to such an impactful experience. A long time ago, Aristotle taught us that art can be cathartic, modernists also thought us that is not necessarily a pursuit of beauty, yet others show how beauty can emerge from ruins (physical or metaphoric). What is, then, art for you?
JH: When I was in Haiti, it was just after the huge earthquake had taken place. There were only ruins and people left after a crisis I couldn’t have imagined having experienced or foreseen in my own life. All I could do was look in, from the outside. People are often defined by what is apparent and what we see. But, when you close your eyes, it is not what is shown or apparent that defines who we feel that we are. It is not the color of our skin, nor the muscles that we are built from. We are not what we appear to be, nor what we are made of, but what we think and feel that we are. There began my interest in people.
VB: I am particularly fascinated by your textural work on canvas, the layering that emerges from the brushes, this sort of textural expressionism which becomes powerful in the way the materiality of it reaches out to the viewer. I believe that the technique one chooses is an intrinsic part of the story they want to tell. How did you mature your style? How does it relate to the universe of your stories?
JH: For the Passersby series on the ground floor, I collect symbols as an anthropologist would do – focusing on the face, the head, the body… Then, I remove all their social features through which one may become recognizable. For example, ethnicity, gender, and age are all put aside. What I focus on is the material aspect, the collision of formative elements that confront each other to paradoxically emphasize their presence in their antagonistic characteristics – the curves and the straight linear strokes, the wide and the narrow, the dynamic collision between the fast and the slow, the flat and the thick… And in this process, the abstract and expressive texture naturally reveals itself. The drawings I made to prepare for my paintings also had a lot of influence over my style. In addition to that, I started to make my own pigment bars, which deepened my understanding of materials, and this led to an expansive evolution of my overall expressive style.
VB: In your exhibition at Gallery BK you present two series of your paintings, The Gathering and Passersby. I would love to start with exploring what we can see at the first floor of the gallery, which is the Passersby series. Could you tell me how it connects to your experience in Ireland and Europe and to people-sketching? But also, to the concept of “faces without face”, which is so peculiar in your practice and – from my own sensitivity – opens the door to a macro-cosmos of unveiled feelings and human psychology, which we have access thanks to the absence of the face’s physical features (and personas, perhaps)?
JH: There is a word in Spanish, “imago”, which refers to the molted skin of a larva. This word is also the etymology of the word “image”. During ancient Roman times, imago was the tradition of molding a dead person’s face with wax to reproduce a mask to remember him/her by. Through this procedure, the wax mask hung on the wall of the family of the dead person would represent his/her relationship with the family, thus a symbol of the person to replace his/her existence. The mask would become the face, replacing it, and thus the identity of the dead person. I take inspiration from this in my painting- process.
I don’t have any special or personal ties to Ireland, but my time there was meaningful in what I could experiment as an artist, as I was experimenting to see if I could live as a painter. And so, the Passersby series was born during that time, where I was also distant from family and friends, I was completely alone there, and painting/sketching became my comfort.
Every day, we pass by many unknown people, and we hardly remember any of them properly. But they are each one of them, protagonists at the center of their own lives. I started to document them with my eyes, the countless unknown people passing by. I looked at one person for about 30 seconds and made a quick sketch based on what I had seen. Then, back at the studio, based on what I could remember and what I had sketched, I painted portraits of the people I had seen during the day. In the process, it was interesting for me to see how by not remembering every single detail, I could paradoxically focus on the strong characteristics of the faces and bring out the impression I had taken a glimpse of, beyond the actual apparent features.
VB: The second series that is presented in the Gallery space is The Gathering: in the text it is explained that you take sources from the image archives of disasters, and you modify them, rearranging them. Could you tell us about the reasoning behind the birth of this series?
JH: The second floor shows The Gathering series, which is basically a witness to the age of overflowing images that we live in. It is an attempt to see images, not only as they are, but to see beyond them. To see past what is apparent. As I gradually turned from painting portraits of individuals to depicting people or even groups of people, I started to explore different ways to experiment how I could vary my method of expression within the boundaries of “painterly painting”. One such experiment would be making my own paint and pigments and exploring different types of material. Another would be to assemble and juxtapose random images in the fashion of a “montage” so that the narrative of each image can collide with that of another and create new narratives. As I did for the “Passersby” series, I, as a person living in the 21st century and as a witness to my own historical timeline, drew inspiration from historical footage but tried to conceal as much as possible the exact source of my inspiration. It is through this ambiguity that viewers can take the space they need to imagine their own narratives and let the images converse with one another. I place images side by side the way directors like Goddard, Eisenstein, and Harun Farocki would, as a montage.
VB: I feel like there are a lot of layers that take part into this series: there is, for instance, a political and historical realm, yet there is also the vibrancy and sensuality – almost aggressive in taking their place in the space – of these bright colors. Could you tell us more about the choice of colors and how it relates to what you want to convey through the series?
JH: I was very much influenced by Goethe’s theory of colors. Of course, it is nothing near scientific today and it’s a quite personal and intuitive analysis of colors, but this really helped with my painterly imagination. So, with Goethe in mind, I based my work on the three basic colors, red, yellow and blue, and made variations based on these. At the same time, I was always thinking about the collision of textural elements that paradoxically emphasized their presence on the canvas. My idea of colors is ultimately linked to balancing out the brightness of each color, rather than focusing on the hues.
VB: Is there anything else you would like to add related to the two series presented which we haven’t touched yet?
JH: I worked on the Passersby series for over 10 years, and this exhibition is, in a way, the closing of the series. With the exhibition at Gallery BK, I began my new series, The Gathering. What I found most interesting during this experience was that at one point, each face of the Passersby series started to demand a body, a more global/holistic narrative. It’s interesting how there is such a duality in which on one side the artist commands with the technique of his brush, but one the other side it’s often the paintings that demand the artist to evolve in style [which could lead to the reflection that Lacan does about the painting/portrait gaze and how it has agency in the relationship with the spectator, ndr.]
VB: You currently live and work in Berlin, which is such a peculiar city, both from the historical and cultural side. As an art historian, I can’t help connecting your series “The Gathering” with the work of German expressionism but correct me if I’m wrong. Has living in Berlin shaped your practice? How are you negotiating your experience there?
JH: You are right to point out the influence of German expressionism in my style, but then again, I must admit I was influenced by pretty much every artist in the long lineage of history of art that I had the chance to come across. I believe each artist endeavours to give an answer to the question of what art is, on a canvas. And these answers, accumulated in the course of time, make up the History of Art as we know it today. During this evolution in time, materials change, techniques are improved, information and data can change, and technology evolves one way or another. I think my paintings are also influenced by all these evolving factors and still changing and evolving in time. And definitely, I chose to live in Berlin because I think it’s a city where one can find the right balance between the commercial art scene and the experimental attempts in art, and the range/scope of cultural benefits is considerably larger compared to any other place I’ve been to.