Using culture for inspiration

Exhibit: Korean-American artists display a variety of approaches to express their heritage.

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Howard Live

Arts and entertainment in Howard County

September 09, 2005|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Two sets of metal gates stand in the center of Howard County Center for the Art's gallery, one adorned with copper peppers announcing the birth of a boy and one hung with metal pine needles to announce a girl.

Artist Komelia Hongja Okim said her installation - which also uses charcoal, real pine boughs and red peppers and silk flowers - "shows the Korean custom of putting symbolic things at the door when you have childbirth."

Korean heritage is the unifying theme of the exhibit In Search of Dreams Across the Pacific, which runs today through Oct. 21 and features 11 Korean-American artists.

An opening reception will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sept. 16, featuring comments by Sock Joong Yoon, minister of public affairs for the Embassy of the Republic of Korea. Another reception with an artist talk will take place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 14.

The works contain many references to Korean culture, but the artistic approaches are varied. For example:

Namu Cho of Bethesda has two metal- and wood-sculpted chairs that incorporate a flower, flames, bird heads, a gold "eye of heaven" and other symbols of Korean folk culture.

Painter Sumita Kim of Gaithersburg uses bright colors and surrealism to explore a Confucian legend about a daughter sacrificed to the sea to insure the safe passage of merchants.

Young Nam Cho, a popular singer in Korea who previously lived in the United States, sculpted three-dimensional depictions of Korean playing cards, called Hua-t'u, and used real cards in colorful, cubism-inspired collages.

Curator Ock-Kyung Lee, a professor emeritus at Towson University, said the artists "don't work in traditional Asian style. They all work in somewhat Western style. Yet they all have that Asian heritage."

Okim, who teaches art at Montgomery College, pitched the exhibit to the Howard County Arts Council and chose the artists.

She said this exhibit is an extension of a show she organized in 2003 at the Smithsonian Institution honoring 100 years since the first immigrant ship arrived in Hawaii with Korean workers for sugar plantations.

Okim's grandfather was one of those early immigrants to Hawaii, but she was raised in Korea and came to the United States in the 1960s, when she was a college senior. She returned to Korea later as a Fulbright Scholar and led seminars in Korea for American students.

"I always feel I need to bring some of Korean culture to introduce to America," she said.

Okim asked Lee to be curator for the exhibit. Lee came to the United States from Korea in 1954 to attend Bryn Mawr college as an undergraduate. She went on to earn a doctorate in art history at New York University and to teach Western and Eastern art history at Towson.

Lee noted that many Howard County residents know Koreans as business owners and neighbors but not necessarily as artists. "I want to make this art known to the Western community," she said.

Some works draw directly on the artists' experiences with U.S. culture.

Ik-Joong Kang's "Buddha Learning English" uses 3-inch squares covered in Korean and English writing as a background for a bold painting of flowers, flames, clouds and seed pods rendered in a Buddhist wall-painting style.

Kang, of New York, explores "very relevant themes of the immigrants learning English," Lee said, noting the connection between Buddhism in the work and the "enlightenment" of learning a new language.

Another wall in the gallery is dominated by a huge black-and-white oil-stick drawing by Y. David Chung of a fight scene at a car wash from the 1974 movie Black Belt Jones.

Lee said the artist, who grew up watching people of different cultures intermingle in New York City and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., was influenced by the film. In it, Asian characters teach martial arts to black characters and together they fight evil developers.

Three artists in the exhibit live in Hawaii. Jeeun Kim uses ordinary objects to explore issues of femininity and identity. Kloe Sookhee Kang's three paintings of rice bowls find meaning in household objects. And Jinja Kim creates mixed-media postcards that she mails home from her travels.

Rounding out the exhibit, paintings and sculptures by Wonsook Kim of Bloomington, Ind., use lines from Korean folk paintings, Japanese prints and European artists to explore literary and personal themes. And Taek Lee of Fairfax, Va., spent years experimenting with color and shapes in each of a series of 8-inch-square abstract paintings in order to find new ways of expressing himself.

"We don't want to just have a Korean group show," Okim said. "We want [the artists] to voice their cultural heritage and their feelings, dedication and passion."

Howard County Center for the Arts is at 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. Information: 410-313-2787, or www. hocoarts.org.

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