Core Connections: Korean Ceramics

1 Kang Hyo Lee’s Buncheong Vessel, glazed ceramic, 2015.

“Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.”
For Once, Then, Something —Robert Frost

“Core Connections: Korean Ceramics” at Lacoste Gallery (www.lacostegallery.com), in Concord, Massachusetts, included works selected by ceramic artist Sunkoo Yuh. By selecting the work of his instructor, SooJong Ree, and five of Ree’s students (including himself), he created a narrow focus for the exhibition.

The focus allowed viewers to see how Ree’s teaching and philosophy influenced the work of his students. Ree states that the “unrestrictive naturalness” of the process intrigues him and motivates his work:

“My work happens through manual kneading of soil, showing its natural, raw aspects, and calling for viewers’ instant reflections on the work. Through the unification of soil and self, I intend to reach a primitive essence. The refreshing fascination with nature through soil provides an infinite sense of life force, and also a positive significance to my own life.”

It is an approach based on revealing, not denying, the essence of clay. Clay as earth. While it is possible to see this aesthetic permeating all of the work included in the exhibition, it is the nuances that develop among all of the artists that really intrigues. The most engaging works in the show display the deceptive simplicity of a Robert Frost poem.

2 Jung Do Lee’s Buncheong Ritual Bowl, stoneware, 2015.

3 Sung Jae Choi’s Landscape of the Lake, glazed ceramic, 2015.

Ree’s exhibited pieces come from two almost contradictory bodies of work. The exhibition included several large, clunky vessels decorated with jagged lines and splashes of glaze and stain. He also exhibited several small faceted bowls. The latter works are as refined as the former are garish.

His faceted bowls were some of the exhibition’s most arresting work. In Vessel #1, with a six-sided exterior and Vessel #2 with an eight-sided exterior, Ree cut the sides of a round bowl so that the exterior is made up of six or eight sides. At first, they appear simple and emphatic. As they are examined, the forms become more and more subtle and complex. The glaze evolves from a uniform white to layers of clouds and cream colors. The glaze breaks on the joints—revealing a subtle jagged line. The covert complexity of these works was reflected in many of the other artists’ works included in the exhibition.

Joining the two works is the naturalism he speaks of. If anything, this difference makes the naturalism more genuine. The same patch of sky can be clear and still one day, and a dense collection of clouds, rain, and lightning the next. The closest in both concept and form to those that Ree explores are Kang Hyo Lee’s pieces. These included round plates, rectangular slabs, and jars all titled The Sky. All the images on the pieces are constructed the same way. The artist layered a milky white glaze over dark brown clay. Each layer includes scrapes and slashes of paint. Iron seeped through the layers to various degrees, creating a sense of layering and interconnection. Some of the lines seemed to rage before the viewer, others were calm and serene.

 

4 SunKoo Yuh’s War of Souls, 33 in. (85 cm) in length, porcelain, 2015.

5 SooJong Ree’s iron-drawing Punchong (Buncheong) teabowl.

All of the artists play with how the viewer reads the work. Instinctively, people tend to categorize an object as one of two styles: geometric or organic. Works by all of the artists included in Core Connections blurred the line between the two.

Sung Jae Choi’s lyrical pieces, where two design elements interact with each other, epitomize this dynamic. He included a few pieces, such as Landscape of the Lake, that look organic, almost as if the shape was more eroded than hand made. Even in this form, Choi included a sharply articulated lip, asserting a geometric element on the form. He also included several squared jars that are highly geometric except for the slight wobble on each of the form’s edges that soften them considerably.

This use of irregularity to soften the character of a piece is also a feature of pieces by Jung Do Lee, whose image and pattern work necessitates using fairly controlled forms. An almost sublime delicacy marks his Buncheong Waterside Scenery Platter, which depicts reeds and leaves that float above a scratched-texture surface, mimicking the look of water. In Buncheong Vase, the images placed on a burnished, dark brown surface allude to a night scene. In both cases, the intricate images required a blank field. Jung Do Lee therefore restrains the organic elements of the shape to a slightly wonky lip or a hint of asymmetry. He also included two Buncheong teabowls painted with tiny pattern work. The geometry of these forms is restrained, and the organic quality manifests in how the patterns vibrate. Although tiny, each flower petal has its own character, and no two lines or shapes are repeated.

There are two outliers in the exhibition; Sunkoo Yuh and Inchin Lee. Yuh was the only artist who did not include vessels in the exhibition. All of his pieces were large flat slabs of clay decorated with illustrations. Inchin Lee was the only artist whose work did not include imagery of some kind. Like the theme of the exhibition, the works included by both are far more complicated than they seem.

At first glance, Yuh’s My Man, a painting done with cobalt blue washes on a 2244-inch clay slab, looks like a fairly carefree work. The other artists exhibited work that formally first appears simple, but gets more complex and intricate. Yuh does the same with narrative. The central, bearded figure wears a Superman T-shirt, a cape tied around his neck, and sunglasses. The eyes on all of the other figures are rendered in different ways; some are almost naturalistic, a few are highly stylized, and there is even one with eyes that reference Egyptian hieroglyphics. As these details surface, what initially appears to be a simple cartoon or illustration becomes much more subversive. Yuh catalogs stereotyping, and the Superman is the character whose eyes are covered.

Inchin Lee contributed two untitled faceted and rounded jars that are almost equally geometric and organic. The use of a soft glaze that modulates between orange and cream adds to this effect. Inchin Lee’s work illustrates that organic and geometric forms are not always distinct types, but also two interacting styles. A more accurate description of the way he approaches the two is to visualize the intersecting area on a Venn diagram. No matter how geometric, the artists include organic elements and vice versa.

Yuh’s selections for the exhibition presented a strongly unified collection of work. In addition to sharing and expanding on a similar aesthetic philosophy, all of the works use a fairly narrow palette. Grays, creams, oranges, and browns—with some noticeable splashes of cobalt blue—saturate the gallery. This uniformity serves to underpin the fact that the artists create  work with a great depth of thought that formally manifests as nuances of design.

the author Anthony Merino is a ceramic artist and writer living in Adams, Massachusetts.

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