The Spirituality of the East Conceived by the Mother Earth

Chang Dong-Kwang 
Independent Curator 

Embedded in the recent works of Baik soon Shil, published this time after about 3 years of repose, are her utmost will to surmount the limit of fine arts. As for her work, the typical categorization of genre based on cultural or geological approach such as Korean painting vs Western painting is not that meaningful. Spirit, aesthetic senses of our times, sentiments of life, sound of Korea, etc. are more significant to this artist. Underpinning and the root of her paintings are all these artistic viewpoints, which are in their pure and recessed form.


Baik Soon Shil, for her career-long cherishment of the title ‘In praise of Eastern Tea(Dongdasong)’ has been known as ‘the artist singing the songs of tea’. It cannot be disputed that ‘teas’ have been the essential element of her daily and artistic life, and as such of central significance in interpreting her works. However, Baik’s recent works lead us to believe that such a view needs to be reconsidered.


That is, the paintings by Baik Soon Shil need to be viewed as ‘spiritualism’ engendered by the Mother Earth of Korea. ‘Spiritualism’, as dictionaries put it, means ‘a philosophical perspective believing in the fundamental predominance and providentially of spirit’. In this sense, Baik’ paintings need to be approached not from a simple superficial perspective that they are dedicated to aim at praising teas, but from a more profound perspective that they reflect the sentiments of Korea or the East and consciousness toward nature.


Viewing the recent works of Baik Soon Shil, we find some symptoms that indicate that she may be in a transitional phase in her artistic world, and this is a point of our special interest. First of all, preparing this exhibition, she used a variety of materials such as acrylic colors, mineral pigments, and adhesives for her large canvas works. Equally noticeable techniques are repeated coloring and scratching with sharp metals, applied so consistently and extensively from the initial stage of background painting to the final completion of a work. It appears to be imminent that behind all these attempts are the artist’s deliberate intention to show the physical traces of cordial and repulsive interactions between all painting materials/devices used, and to disclose the process and procedure of actual painting-making itself. As a result, from multi-layered colors and alluding symbols we are able to conceive a sustained stream of time.


Here we may transpose ‘a stream of time’ with the concept of ‘historicality’. The feeling of wild surface texture so distinct and ubiquitous in her recent works reminds us of real land or age-old claystone wall. It may appear that the background colors and forms, that are drawn in the earlier stage of paining, conflict with the later and final stage colors and forms that override them. But, we find eventually, they are two mutually distinct entities belonging to the same terrain. It is just like two brothers of the same parents could have different personalities.


We come to realize that for Baik Soon Shil, the Earth reflects not only the meaning of contemporary time, but also the life of mankind rooting from it, the principle of life, and historicality of individual experience related to the earth. It also appears that the end-point of a completed work taking all those extensive repeated painting process is a state of another  incompleteness, or of that kind, in which the Earth is in need of further respiration. Probably this impression is due to my memory of her water and ink paintings in late 1980s in which a rhythmic structure of dots, lines, and planes contrived to create a full sense of liveliness. Viewing that she has used both oriental and western materials freely and willfully in the past, deep texture and dual relation between the background and upfront colors that are so characteristic of all the medley of her works exhibited this time may not be that new, at least in this particular aspect. Nonetheless she still leaves a number of meaningful artistic qualifications and symptoms of change, which are highly noteworthy.


The first pertains to the symbolism of color and symbolic form. The cobalt blue that is spread on the canvas is the color Baik Soon Shil enjoys most. We often see this color flying horizontally over the brownish earth or sprouting out vertically in her works. We can also analogize that this cobalt blue symbolizes the beginning of man, heaven and life. In fact, the Earth that covers the screen in her works symbolizes the mother’s love. Because her earth represents mother’s love, the Earth cannot exist alone isolated, but it has to be full of love and life that understand the dispensation of nature and life. Thus, the radiation of cobalt light in the other sense, is the natural tendency to continue growing and living. It also represents the meditation on human as is seen through Baik’s life, and it is the group of people seen through this artist’s eyes. There are 500 pieces of large size work at this exhibition. We can see that the artist’s focus has turned to inner scenery rather than outer scenery of the mountains and lands which was the case in the past. In other words, there is an intention of searching for the origin of life from the symbolic shapes of the plant’s root or the living organs in a uterus. This reminds us of the introduction written by the art critic, Yong Woo Lee in her exhibition in 1993. He wrote: “… rather than the scent of the tea, her interest lies in the nature and the life that foster, and she is interested in the categories of social nature of the tea, tea and human, and life. The original intention of singing the tea song is changing to singing the life…”


Born in southern part of Korea, Baik Soon Shil is an artist who actually experienced real sentiment of tea and also the tough life. Baik possesses both the strong sense of artist and the sentimental emotion. All her work is done in her work studio and she maintains the life of a tea enthusiast and strives to seek for truth as she restrains herself from doing other things besides her work. One paradox about her is that studio is located in a busy, bustling area in Bangbae-dong, Seoul. But once you enter her studio, it seems like a quite temple in the mountain. This is the real and actual situation and environment that to Baik, the experience of the natural birth is liked the symbolic meaning of the earth in her work. Her focus on inner scenery must be the result of experiencing the birth and the growth of her child.


Secondly, there is an emphasis on conceptual and simplified shapes. Until now, her works had the tendency of painting all over the canvas and she was interested in compositional relationship between the colors and shapes. However, in her recent works, we can see the contrast of the achromatic colors and colored space, and the relationship between the symbolic shapes and the space. The achromatic colors in Baik’s works give the sense of space as in the blank space in th Oriental paintings of water and black ink. The achromatic colors also play the role of neutralizing the divergent western colors. When viewing from the artistic principles, Baik Soon Shil is an artist who brings the variation to the consistent artistic language. She is an artist who can go back and forth with comfort the divergent screens of strong primary colors to the calm and meditative mood. This is why it is difficult to understand her work since her expression cannot be generalized with one artistic mood, and yet paradoxically, these two moods are the energy of tension that maintains the nature of painting and her artistic senses. Nevertheless, this blank space of achromatic colors plays the role of mediator that combines the inner order and the outer tension among the forms. The forms that seem to be unfinished yet mysterious, are the symbolic signs that came out unconsciously from the artist. With more microscopic view, we can see the shapes of the cloud, the man, the cross, the leaves and stems of a plant, floating somewhere in the screen. Moreover, there are continuous symbols of red dots. These dots can be interpreted as a unit of the living creature or a conceptual picture of pulling in the physical living order into the mother earth. These conceptual paintings bring artistic order and equilibrium but as a whole, it is the manifestation of the artist’s artistic expression of pursuing the light of life. The new characteristics that appear in her recent works are the proof and sign that she is trying to obtain the spirituality of the East through the western artistic language.


Lastly, Baik Soon Shil seems to see her paintings not as a completed crystal, but as an incomplete mediator of emotion. In other words, she has stepped forward from reproducing the nature, and she now looks into the inner order of the natural phenomenon. If this is considered as the expression of eastern spiritualism, we could find the ‘blank space of the unfinished’ that springs out when a person is in the status of tranquility. The works in the present exhibition gives the notion that the artwork can reach the ultimate conclusion by the viewer’s aesthetic inspiration or emotion, like a new leaf sprouting out from the earth that gives artistic meditation on ‘beauty of incompleteness’.