Ecriture: The Sacred Gesture
A vast monochromatic expanse of rhythmic, tightly packed soft textural inflections, Ecriture 38-75 is an arresting masterpiece that embodies both the meditative aura and the expressionistic splendor that defines Park Seobo’s iconic Ecriture (‘writing’) series. Created in 1975, the same year that the defining exhibition Five Korean Artists: Five Kinds of White was held at Tokyo Gallery, the present lot epitomizes the key aesthetic tenets of not just Park Seobo’s internationally acclaimed oeuvre but also what was retrospectively labelled by critics as Dansaekwha, which translates simply as ‘monochrome painting’. Rustic yet celestial, the painting exhibits masterful calligraphic spirals that leap and curl with a penetrating intensity and authoritative density, possible only via extraordinary technical dexterity and mental and spiritual focus. Park first applies white paint on the canvas and then incises spiral helixes on its still wet surface; afterwards he re-paints the surface and repeats the process of scoring and effacing. The recurrent action is executed with a deeply meditative, hyper-disciplined and relentlessly ruthless rhythm, evidencing a rigorous engagement with paint and canvas on both a spiritual and physical level.
The result is an exalted spectacle of elegance and labour: one that establishes a consummate balance between writing and painting, the abstract and calligraphic, and the conceptual and aesthetic. Park Seobo roots his intensely introspective methodology in the meditative practices of Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. As the artist has noted: “I want to reduce the idea and emotion in my work, to express my interest in space from the view of nature. Then I want to reduce that – to pure emptiness. This has been an old value that still exists in oriental philosophy where nature and men are one” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, White Cube, Park Seo-Bo, 2016, n.p.). The Ecriture paintings most notably also draw from the Korean tradition of calligraphy. As the highest form of art, the calligraphic tradition holds the aesthetic integrity of legible linguistic signs as paramount to the creation of an ocular experience that is based on both visual pleasure and intellectual nourishment: an expression of the universal life force or qi. With mesmeric effect, Park Seobo weaves an entrancing tapestry that alludes to the symbolic gesture and appearance of text, the minimalistic regularity of man-made pattern, as well as the cosmic oneness of the universe, without ever settling within any of these illusions.
Embracing such a free association between painting and language, Park Seobo’s monochromatic abstraction recalls the vital scrawls of Cy Twombly as well as the white-on-white minimalist works of Robert Ryman. However, Park Seobo’s works constitute an entirely non-derivative aesthetic realm defined by restraint, focus, control and devoted repetition. As writer Soon Chun Cho ascertains, “By moving beyond image and expression, and focusing on the gesture, he learned to control himself and his surroundings. More important, he learned how to extend himself onto his canvas and become one with his work" (Soon Chun Cho, “L'art Informel and Park Seo-Bo's Early Career" in, Soon Chun Cho and Barbara Bloemink, Empty the Mind: The Art of Park Seo-Bo, New York 2009, p. 20). Park Seobo’s Ecriture works accordingly reflect decades of exploring the role of artist as a channel through which energy (qi) can manifest, through the canvas – Park himself writes: “I feel and reciprocate the resistance of the bouncy canvas […]. It is similar to cultivating the religious spirit […]. I started from where there was no form, or no image; where it was impossible to express” (Kate Lim, Park Seo-Bo: from Avant-Garde to Ecriture, Books Actually, Singapore, 2014, p. 159).
Park’s Ecriture works also forge a sublime universal middle ground between East and West: by utilising oil, a traditionally Western medium, to create works reminiscent of Hanji (traditional Korean paper), Park’s paintings evoke porcelain from the Choson dynasty (1392 - 1910), which was an off-white colour (hi kumuri) favoured by Dansaekwa artists. Such a unique brand of minimalist abstraction is the product of both national and personal history. In the shadows of the Korean Civil War, Park Seobo’s introduction to painting involved a struggle against adversity while studying at Hong-Ik University in the early 1950s. Nevertheless, under the tutelage of Kim Whanki in an environment that remained ever engaged with international art news, the young artist found himself amidst the nascent foundations of the Korean avant-garde. By the late 1960s Park Seo-Bo had developed his definitive Ecriture series that would form the core of his practice going forward. In 1975, Park Seobo was one of five artists featured in the seminal Five Korean Artists: Five Kinds of White exhibition at Tokyo Gallery, placing him at the genesis of the crucial movement. Hailed as the vanguard of Dansaekhwa in the 1970s, he was Vice Chairman (1970-1977) and Chairman (1977-1980) of the International Division of the Korea Fine Art Association and oversaw the presentation of Korean artists in overseas exhibitions. Park Seobo was instrumental in launching Dansaekhwa into the global limelight, instituting numerous large-scale experimental exhibitions that set the stage for Dansaekhwa artists to participate in prominent international art festivals.
Today, Dansaekhwa is rightly regarded as one of the most important movements of the Korean avant-garde, and Park Seobo as one of its most significant and influential leaders. Indeed, paintings by the artist take pride of place in international public collections including the Fukuoka Museum of Art, the Seoul Museum of Art and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. As further testament to the relevance of his work, the artist’s prolific exhibition portfolio continues to expand, having shown at landmark institutions such as the Musée d'Art Moderne in France, the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York and the Singapore Art Museum, as well as the Biennale in Säo Paulo, and the Venice Biennale.