Faces of New China: An Important Private Collection

(Korean, B. 1929)
Waterdrops No. 10, 1977
signed 'T. Kim' in English; dated '77' (lower right); signed 'TSCHANG YEUL KIM' in English; numbered and inscribed 'No. 5. 10 19' (side of the canvas)
oil on canvas
92 x 72.5 cm. (36 x 28 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1977
Christie's Hong Kong, 30 November 2008, Lot 526
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Felix Yip
Felix Yip

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Lot Essay

Water is a nearly universally recognized symbol, embodying ideas of purity and spiritual cleansing, emptiness and the infinite. These symbolic properties can be found not only visually but in the extended, deliberately meditative practice of Kim Tschang Yeul. After World War II and the subsequent Korean War, many artists throughout Korea and Japan turned away from figurative expression and moved instead towards expressive forms that, superficially at least, bear some resemblance to Minimialism in the West. At the same time, the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of these creations had distinct roots in East philosophy and aesthetics. Not unlike the Tian'anmen Square Tragedy for the Chinese avant-garde, the wars of the mid-20th Century had dramatic cultural and social repercussions that would work their way into the consciousness of contemporary artists, who might spend the next several decades defining and refining their aesthetic worldview. Post-War Japan gave rise to the Mono-Ha movement; artist like Lee U-fan, Noburo Takayama, Nobuo Sekine and others sought to reveal the visual and spiritual beauty in objects and natural materials "as they are", the raw power of materials as a radical way of reoriented the viewer's relationship to the world around them, especially after decades of violence, war, and destruction.
A similar trend could be found among Korean artists who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Artists like Chun Kwan Young and Kim Tschang Yeul sought to deconstruct conventional, "Western" notions of the canvas and of representation, and instead infused the craft of oil painting with the aesthetics and philosophical praxis of Buddhist meditation. For him, the image of water became the central elemental motif in his unique, mesmerizing canvas paintings. In the exquisite Waterdrops No. 10, 1977 (Lot 1038) featured here from 1977, we see Kim working at the height of his powers. Across a flat, monochromatic canvas, lightly treated in earthen tones, he paints a serious of exquisite water drops. It is a simple and elegant visual metaphor, one that seduces the viewer with its unexpected variety and paradox.
The flatness of the canvas is enlivened by the seemingly random scattering of drops; they are perfectly rendered, each with its distinct shape, size, and gravitational destiny. Some appear to dissipate, on the brink of evaporating; others lean into their shape, as if about to relinquish their attachment to the canvas and descend towards the earth. As such, Kim also offers the viewer a temporal paradox: this seemingly ephemeral moment, so brief that it is hardly noticed or captured in nature, is crystallized here for eternity, the clarity of the water drops tromp l'oiel monuments to the transience of time in Kim's deft handling of the viscous oil paint.
"I see repetition in terms of Buddhist prayer. You repeat and repeat until it blocks out all other thoughts, and you pass into an empty state. I have thought a great deal about my experiences during the way, and the water drops have become a requiem for the dead. For me, painting can be compared to an act of consolation towards the spirits of the dead, in the same way that one sprinkles water to protect the dead from evil spirits during a Buddhist purification ritual." - Kim Tschang Yeul
Kim's praxis then is explicitly tied to Buddhist notions of ritual, spiritual protection, and purification. His works represent a material manifestation of a monk-like devotion to enlightenment, each a unique prayer that must be understood in the larger context of Kim's ongoing quest. As such, they also ask of the viewer to enter into a meditative state, they become like a visualized koan, wherein meaning cannot be attained through rational thought but instead through the intuitive contemplation of oppositions. In Kim's extraordinary, humble canvases, we discover the miniscule and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, the material and the spiritual. As the viewer grasps at these concepts like fistfuls of sand, he gains a new appreciation for Kim's sensitivity of technical and philosophical expression, and the powerful way he has tapped a deep cultural tradition to enlighten and enliven contemporary art practice.

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