There stands one figure in Dongwook Suh's painting. If there is a constant from many changes in his painting from the first solo show until now, it is that he has always placed one person in the canvas. Therefore, his paintings are always viewed as portraits despite the continous changes in forms, regardless of whom it be in them; an anonymous figure, someone nearby, or a fictional character in the movie.
His early works around his first solo show My Blue Baggage at ONE AND J. Gallery in 2009 are mostly full length portraits of figures, whose most information is omitted. Paintings hide information of people, time, and places, and so do people reluctant to reveal their feelings. Figures lit under flashlights in the paintings are looking straight ahead with vague yet pale expressions of uncertain emotions. Whether because the paintings are hiding all the information, or because of their pale faces, they only create an ambience of insecurity and precariousness. In the period, Suh worked on the yellow-lighted night scene paintings without figures and on film productions as well. They were in complementary relationship to exchange scenes with contents as supplements of each other's insufficient information.
Suh started to focus on painting in 2012, when he was preparing for another solo show, Art of Painting, distancing from producing films. His works during this period featured figures and backgrounds in narratives that seemed to have taken from scenes in movies onto canvases. The reason why these paintings resemble scenes from movies is not only because of the looks and movements of the characters and the elements that constitute the background, but most of all, his paintings inducing the audience to take a voyeur look at the persons who are alone. The figures act a scene immersed in their own time (like in movies) regardless of the obvious presence of a camera (or the artist's eyes): We sneak a peek at the lone actors (as if it was a movie). Suh has adopted the cinematic techniques and directions to painting, and titled the works with 'location-time-character' as they were describing the scenes in a movie scenario. Considering that cinematic development of a character's narrative has also appropriated to his painting, it would be natural that his paintings hover around the category of portraits, in which 'characters' are central. His works presented in his exhibition Art of Painting were studies of screen compositions and character depictions in paintings appropriating from cinematic mise-en-scene in a way: They were the results of the research on scenario compositions as the contents of paintings.
Whereas his paintings were previously separating cinema with paintings or portraits with landscape paintings, one of the most distinguishable changes in this exhibition The Taste of Painting is that his paintings are divided into two categories, 'traditional portraits' and 'narrative or cinematic figure paintings'. In other words, his paintings are categorised centrally not with genres, but with forms. In large paintings, Suh pursues traditional portrait forms, and in smaller paintings forms of cinematic directions. Firstly, in large-scale paintings, he arranges spaces, costumes and objects to describe characters, following the traditional full length portrait forms of figures sitting or standing. The noticeable are the facial expressions of the characters portrayed as subtle yet distinct in their desires than as before in his paintings, which were lethargic or dreamy. It is similar to past historical portraits produced to honour the achievements of certain figures to express authority and elegance through facial expressions. However, Suh wants to go further and reveal the contradictory and complex emotions of the characters, the multi-layered psychology of the living in a complex modern society. Through his body and brushstrokes, the artist's passion touches the objects surrounding the figures on the screens and the mysterious and sharp facial expressions of the characters: The paintings subtly sheds a section of deep desires, or an ambience of solitude that the persons would be enjoying alone.
Meanwhile, in cinematic portrait paintings on smaller canvases, the painter reconstructs scenes and figures from his favourite movies and leads them to painterliness. If the fine and multilayered portrayal of the characters in the previous work was crucial, the figures in the smaller works appear only as elements for the overall composition and colour scheme. However, as much to note as appreciating the artist's expression of pictorial aesthetics in these works, his reconstructed scenes still hold the mystery in one axis, inducing us to trace the narrative that we might share, similar to that of his earlier works. The methodology to incorporate cinematic expressions and directions into painting is still a valid research point for him, and Suh keeps these works reside at the boundary of portrait paintings through narrative directing centred on figures.
In this exhibition, it is worth noting that Suh, regardless of the categorical changes, continues to preserve several conditions into the realm of his portrait painting exploration and sustain. (The conditions are composing space and objects to describe characters, and revealing not only the outward similarities but also the inner spirits or emotions of them.) Therefore, technical progression in figure paintings with existing objects, can be measured with internal and external similarities with the objects. Objective and continuous technical improvement can also be obtained. In Suh's this exhibition, it is the most interesting that, as mentioned earlier, he is using traditional forms of portraits. Before modernity, portraits were often commissioned to record, commemorate or celebrate certain figures. As certain styles trended in each region and era, standardised portraits were made: Accordingly, aesthesised styles were preferred or expressions of inner spirits were considered more important than external similarities of the figures. It has not been so long or common in the history that uncommissioned portraits, which were produced by artists' own will, to become an axis of painting exploration. (Let's exclude nude drawings that explore the human body from portraits, because subject-figures cannot be the purpose of drawing themselves.) In short, it is hard to find portraits not as 'documents' to honour subject figures' authority and class, but as 'paintings' before modern times. Later, when paintings were painted by artists' free will, and were included in the realm of painting exploration to build up artists' oeuvre, the task of them, coincidentally, became reconsidering 'reality' as well as questioning the unseen essence and expressing them. In portraits, it becomes more important what artists are telling the audience in paintings than the question of who the persons in the painting are or how much they 'look alike' in the paintings. Figures paintings become not descriptions of particular personals, rather their depictions are exaggerated/abbreviated, to emphasise expressions of artists and the content. Paintings that represent the subject-figures in contemporary paintings are regarded as anachronistic paintings that lack the concept of modern art: An attitude to focus on excellent imitation is also considered to be lacking 'painterlyness.' The fact that there are not many portraits we can remember in modern art may be a testament to the fact that we are living in a time when portrait painting is out of fashion. Dongwook Suh's attitude of polishing the art of painting day by day in order to paint outdated portraits or what may never have been popular as pure paintings, is anarchronic: It is anarchronic thus contemporary.
The artist's desire for perfect skill is also the artist's desire for artistic beauty that is revealed when he draws the relationship of subject, himself, and painting to an elevated best condition. As such, through painting Suh seeks to set the relationship among the objects, himself and paintings to the best elevated conditions, from where he can extract artistic beauty. The eulogy of precarious youth, which had been glimpsed as the artist painted portraits of days of the young, is now matured through the figures' layered desires and their hidden or ruling pendulum movements, thus stealthily revealed among the original form, the final and the best. Suh reveals the fact that human emotions are not easily explained by a single modifier, and that a person's character cannot be lumped into a single sentence with his painting and the progression of the art he has constantly worked on. Even if his figure paintings share a narcissistic element that reflects him back, it should be regarded as a desire to look at and recall the objects he paints, once with his body, again with the skill the body has mastered as an expression of desire. They are based on faith and respect for the reality. At the very time and space, Dongwook Suh acquires contemporarity, originality and artistry with his own way of reading the world
Press release courtesy One And J. Gallery.