Yeo-Hyun Kwon's art, since he first expressed his self-awareness in his debut in 1980, has resembled a quiet soliloquy in its form and content. Unlike many zealous contemporary artists who lose themselves in long-winded rhetoric, Kwon is slow, subtle, and deliberate in revealing his long-accumulated secrets, more a storyteller than a lecturer.
These confessions reveal his conscious mode of viewing the world. For example:
I look at myself in two ways. One is in the reflections in the mirrors that surround me and the other is by retracing my history by entering my body as might a small insect. If my personal time is regarded as the vertical axis "y" the memories attached to it are of such experiences as kicking cans, rubber shoes, certain girls, rubber bands, the river running through my home town, sledding, catching minnows from the riverbank, having my head patted by adults for being "good", elections for class president, and the medicinal smell of hospitals. The elements that belong on the horizontal axis, "x", are the ones that make up my personal space. They include my southern accent, the stadium at Seoul National University, my church in Kyongsangnam-do, my studio in Apkujong-dong, my apartment on Ttukseom, my quiet workroom, the room by the front gate of the house of the sister who looked after me for ten years, the driver's seat of my Pride car, and the like. These memories are the results of my choices. The other way of looking at myself is through the mosaic of mirror reflections that surround me. The numerous teachers who educated me, books, social phenomena that taught me how to live, laborers, the sound of church sermons, my parents' fingers thickened by work, and the sounds that emphasize the legend of Tangun are components of these mirror images. (from the artist's notes)
Some clues that are helpful in interpreting Kwon's labyrinthine paintings entangled in complex codes and silhouettes are "mirrors" and "insects". Mirrors are narcissistic representations of the artist himself, while insects are references to the artist's genius for transformation. With these metaphors in the foreground, the "x" and "y" axes signifying space and time form the background. In the end, interpreting these two factors reveals that the content of his paintings is simply complex alterations of these metaphors.
Another way to understand his paintings is to examine his seemingly tumultuous psychological mechanisms. In his paintings, sometimes it is the psychological elements amalgamating and refracting with the images of metamorphosis and mirror metaphors that create the sense of mystery. The content of his works around 1988, when he had his first solo exhibition at To Gallery, divulges the artist's character and the psychological mechanisms which constitute the foundation of his creativity. They contained images that disclosed the complex innermost motives of his heart, such as a closed room, a shrine, the sinewy body of a male dancer, and a figure of dual sexuality, with a female dancer's body and the artist's male face. While the shrine represents melancholy and silence, both dancers insinuate a craving for force and escape. They make one wonder what the true visage of this extreme narcissist is. What is it that causes him to reiterate his self-despairing discourse on melancholy, solitude, insecurity, and meditation, as if playing a solo game of billiards (Form and Content)? What is the true nature of the secret behind the splendid ornaments that reflect his aesthetic taste? To find the answers to these questions, we must examine the "viscous elements" of life that he has "secreted" in his pictorial discourse.
Although it is not very apparent in his recent works, the reciprocal relationship between the self and reality is the theme of his early works. This relationship is revealed in the endless confrontations and adjustments between self and reality in which he seeks to crawl back into self-consciousness to the extent of closing himself off from the world. The only way for the frail and sickly protagonist to act in facing the immense force of the infinite and immediate greed of reality, where the principles of survival of the fittest and the law of the jungle dominate, is to attempt escape through resistance (Be Thrown series) or to immerse himself in a dream of merry-making. (Form and Content series)
Problems of human existence such as limits, alienation, and corruption which Kwon brings up for discussion must be understood in the context of the times. Korean society during the 1980's was enveloped in a political upheaval and this environment was reflected in the introduction of "participatory art." Kwon completed his undergraduate and graduate studies during these years. If the moderate traces of distress and agony about problems of existence can be detected in his initial works, they must be understood as the residue of the inevitable anguish that the artist felt as an intellectual. However, due to his naturally delicate, feminine, and sensitive temperament, he assumed the attitude of an onlooker, distancing himself from the centcr of turbulent activities. The observations of classmates that he enjoyed looking at himself in mirrors and that he was a quiet model student provide answers to why he confined himself, as an artist of perfect and princely appearance, to the "castle" of his self-consciousness:
About two years later, I heard about your college years. A model student who was always quiet and closed up because of a complex about your hair. You worked so hard on your assignments in that corner of the workshop that you hardly knew your classmates' faces. True, you were more familiar with the indoors, and the comer of a room was probably more comfortable for you. True, your paintings were the products of a psychological closure caused more by your self-isolation than by the general alienation of modern man. The wall surfaces in your paintings, in fact, signify this complex. (Byung-Wook Oh, "Your Thoughts and My Thoughts", from the catalogue of his first solo exhibition.)
This statement interprets and describes accurately the vital psychological elements of his creative mechanism. It speaks about his tendency toward closed introversion from feeling helplessness in the face of harsh reality. The images that frequently appear in his earlier works such as front self-portrait and transfiguration into a woman and the decorative nature of the vibrant and plays colors are products of the excessive self-consciousness that comes from introspection. While Kwon's art from the 1980's is related to personal memories that have branched radially from the self as the center, what is fascinating to him in the 1990's are the "motives" which pertain to a wider horizon. His most noticeable change is displayed in the gradual disappearance in the 1990's of the surface separation on the canvas and the depth perspective he formerly used.
The Kebab series that he has been working on of late displays the propensity of a post-modern artist to view time as linear. His frank and open method of communicating which presumes the possibility of a union of the West and the East at a given place is represented as a complicated labyrinth interfused with codes, symbols, illustrations, diagrams, and images of traditional figures. The illustrations are derivations of imagination that have transcended time and space. Harmonious relationships between Friedrich Willhelm Nietzsche and Chuangtzu, Bach and the artist, Sigmund Freud and Laotzu, and the womanly features of Gustav Mahler and Yoon-Bok Shin are parodied in the illustrations without any awkwardness.
Lines have a particular significance in Kwon's works, as many of his works, including his earliest, are linear in nature. While incorporating the Western method of perspective drawing and shading, he also employs the Eastern method of capturing the distinct characteristics of his subjects with outline drawing. This style is related to the fact that he includes in his paintings portraits of famous people from both the Orient and the Occident. His linear drawings that allude to the "out-of-body" phenomenon articulate the continuance and motion of time. His interest in time is disclosed in his Kebab series as he paints together Nietzsche and Hong-Do Kim and his mother and himself.
Near the end of 1991, Kwon experience a six-month stay in the United States. Beginning around this time, a quiet transformation begins to take place in his work which is marked by the introduction of water wheels. This funnel-shaped household item, originally devised to supply water to the millstone, is hung from the ceiling with a specially knotted string. For reasons unknown, the artist begins to adopt this instrument commonly used in China and Northeast Asia as his principal motif. A noteworthy aspect of this new activity, which involves sticking objects on the canvas and erecting installations, is its inherently linear nature.
Just as in Jaracheff Christo's wrapped works, so also in Kwon's works methods of tying and knotting comes to play a significant role. The origin and significance of these knots were revealed at his 10th solo exhibition at Kumho Gallery. He displayed an installation work <Son of Father 1> composed of four photos, two of them greatly enlarged, with two portraits and military items such as backpacks and field chairs. By combining photos of his father from his years in the military and his personal objects with childhood photos of himself he vividly exposes the intimacy between father and son. Most significantly, the knots in his father's backpack resemble those of the artist. This resemblance is certainly related to the fact that the poses of the two figures in separate
photos are also very similar, to an extent that could not be coincidental. He represents the thirty years by skewering them like a kebab to bring them into present reality. This figuration appears on the surface as an externalization of the Oedipus complex, as the youthful portrait of his mother by an anonymous artist maintains a tense anxiety juxtaposed, as it is, to the portraits of the artist and his father. This placement is related to the fact that his father cannot be found in many of his works such as <Mother's
World>, in which there are numerous images of his mother. Kwon places his own image next to his father's, thereby emasculating his father. Putting a photo of himself sporting a phallic trilby side by side with his mother's photo as a symbolization of strength, he tries to push his father out. His particular attachment to his hat may be a sign of psychological indemnification for his femininity. Such soft and introspective femininity united with the hat which symbolizes manliness (according to Sigmund Freud, hats signify sexual intercourse) enables him to attain male sexuality psychologically.
An attempt to understand the veiled and private space of the secretive and subtle artist -- a world that is as arduous as a labyrinth to understand and as onerous as a secret code to interpret -- withholds much potential because of the possibility of various interpretations. What is certain is that Kwon's world of painting is shaped by the
interchange of dual elements such as man and woman, strength and weakness, darkness and light, life and death, and East and West and possesses the possibilities of perpetual re-creation.