The Mountain of Yoo Youngkuk: ‘Metaphysical Landscape’
Chung Young Mok, Art Critic
1. The Mountains
The Mountainscapes by Yoo Youngkuk is non-figurative, yet it was not done in haste nor is it over imposing. It is rather a ‘metaphysical landscape’ that embodies the values of truth(眞), goodness(善), and beauty(美). Hence, mountain signifies more than just a constant subject in his work, an assumption made based on the artist’s manifesto in the following:
“I chose mountains as a core subject of my paintings after I finished my art education and returned from Japan …… Kim Whanki (1913~1974) was keen on “Koreanness” and Lee Kyusang(1918~1964) was influenced by Joan Miró(1893~1983)…… After my thoughts long-dwelled on what the core subject of my works should be, I had decided to take the path of painting the mountains.” (1989)
Yoo’s expression “to take the path of painting the mountains” reflects his implicative and metaphysical undertone. It is as if the artist would make a solemn approach to paint the mountain in the way of finding the truth that lies within. He further described his strong desire: “Even without having to physically enter the mountain, I will pursue where my thoughts and imagination will take me—the boundless forms and interactions of colors are what I would like to pay my life-long devotion to.”
The artist’s determination to enter the way of mountains and devote his entire artistic career speaks for philosophical and even religious credo of Koreans with regards to the mountains. As many of the mountains’ names contain the Korean character “baek(白)”, meaning white, Korean mythology, tale of shamanistic sacredness, and sages seeking wisdom, in other words, the story of Korean way of life could not be defined without talking about the mountains.
Kim Whanki sought to capture ‘Korean-ness’ in the silhouettes of the ceramics in Joseon Dynasty. Just as Kim had his inspiration, Yoo found his inspiration in the mountains. Hence, the following relationship could be achieved: Mountains=Koreanness=Originality.
In order to come to this line of thought, Yoo chose to work with the ‘abstract’. He did not choose per se, but simply did what he had done in the past, paint in abstraction. Yoo’s abstract language was not the mere byproduct of the logical models of the West and Japan. To the artist, abstraction was the only way of painting that allowed him to balance his artistic credo and life. The following statement by the artist solidifies this idea:
“A painting is an expression made on canvas with lines, planes, and colors. Rhythm, harmony, and balance should top it off. A two dimensional painting cannot free itself from these. This is not some sort of a methodology but rather a basic theory realized based on experience.” (1996)
2. Color Field Abstraction
Yoo’s tendency toward color field painting was readily visible in his two works from 1940, especially in Work, which was made well before he began to paint mountains. When compared with the styles he studied and used in Japan, his color field paintings marked a shift in his styles away from structural obligations. These works were created in a more painterly manner with less
focus on structural application and techniques As if a precursor to Barnett Newman(1905~1970) or other Hard-edge paintings, two bold horizontal lines and vast fields of color were prominent with the freshness of their colors and boldness of the shapes. The elongated white surface on the right of the painting, which appears to be a space designated for the artist’s signature, utterly breaks the balance and harmony of the painting-an act of painterly subtleties. Instead of following a set of rules, Yoo’s inclination for Color Field Abstraction was a result of his direct interaction with the medium, which itself had conceptually settled in:
“The basis of a painting is structure and in that sense, an artist explores various formations as he composes. According to where one places a subject, new planes and lines are formulated. Every object consists of line, plane, and color, and painting also accords with this. Therefore, simplification is to condense, and in the end, geometrical shape becomes the basis of everything.”(1979)
The important components of Yoo’s paintings are mountains and other natural elements. The combination and arrangement of these components are what create harmony of various lines, planes, and colors; this is what the artist regards as the structural essence of a painting. The keys to this fundamental idea center on two ideas: 1) balance and harmony, 2) geometric shapes as the most basic and condensed form. If one were allowed to add an additional idea to this, it would be the ‘application of color’.
Yoo is primarily known as a ‘colorist’. This aspect of his approach to painting takes precedence over the abstraction of his methods. If abstraction was a methodology he followed, color was the basic theory he realized based on experience, and thus, color takes precedence over abstraction in his works.
Abstraction was a dish in which the artist wanted to serve the colors. Although abstraction and color form an inseparable relationship, I state so in order to press the importance of color in Yoo’s oeuvre. Through all of modern Korean painting, Yoo is continuously recognized among all artists for his brilliant use of color. How could one deny that we have long neglected the importance of color under the influence of a conceptually fraught mode of abstract art?
The artist’s approach to color is fundamental. Yoo attempted to convey nature through ‘rhythm, harmony, and balance’ with Korean sentiments and experience as his basis. He accepted this rather musical combination as the essence of nature. Mountains, especially, were what he regarded as the soul of a Korean heritage, and his faith had always laid in creating a ‘harmonious whole.’ As the artist’s ideal approach was to pursue a wholly harmonious balance in life, art, and nature, rather than merely pursuing the harmony of color in his work, it must have occurred to him that the essence of color speaks of the value of his harmony itself. This is why Yoo’s paintings of mountains are regarded as a “moral landscape.”
 Translator’s note: the Korean character for “road” or “do” also means “the way of”, hence his expression can be roughly translated as “to enter the way of mountains in order to find the truths that lie within.”