2020  Mael BELLEC

(Curator of Cernuschi Museum)

                                                               Calm tensions

Interpreting a contemporary creation is a difficult art, all the more for a historian. Without the chronological distance, he finds himself deprived from one of his major analysis tools which allows him to underline, in one panoramic look, what is singular in a production, or what it has in common with other works or schools of thoughts. The creations of Yoo Hye-Sook (born in 1964) add a supplementary challenge to this one. They fall under intimacy, in a paradoxically rather mutic mode, less prone to historic contextualization than to the exploration of interactions between a hand and the owner’s soul. The issue is even stronger because all or nearly all in the works refuses the address, the delivery of a nonetheless omnipresent interiority, where the artist codes her momentum or her feelings in the form of signs, polysemous, yet desperately ambiguous.

Her works are therefore less accessible to the historian’s comprehension than to her close relations. This assessment is nevertheless not desperate. No artist can boast about totally escaping his cultural, social, sexual or generational determination. Yoo Hye-Sook is necessarily an artist of her times and her environment. In this way, even though she has never made the reasons that pushed her to leave Korea in 1987 publicly explicit, it is clear that this departure is part of a movement that goes largely beyond her personal situation. She is part of a generation of Korean creators strongly tempted by expatriation in the 1980s. France experienced two waves of arrival of Korean artists over that decade, one between 1980 and 1983, in the wake of the Gwandju Uprising, the other in 1989 and 1990, when it became easier to leave Korea. Between these two chronological markers, many artists, including Yoo Hye-Sook, arrived in a scattered order, in a country they consider a reference in culture and arts. 

This appetence for France can be a surprise in a region considered at the time linked in a very close way to the United States. It can easily be understood by the diffusion of French culture in artistic and intellectual circles of the peninsula, especially thanks to literature and cinema. Added to this, for painters, the appeal and prestige of a country that has seen the birth some of the most important occidental avant-garde of the first half of the 20th century. They however remain in some form very actual for artists educated following strong academic norms. We can guess some kind of personal incentives behind Yoo Hye-Sook’s departure, however, yet her arrival in France, straight after graduating from Ewha Womans University in Seoul and her studies at the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris (Paris School of Fine Arts) and Paris VIII University are first and foremost a way for her to open up to new artistic horizons. In some sort of paradox, they seem to be much more nourished by the history of American Art than by its French precedents; the two major occidental movements to which Yoo Hye-Sook’s works can be connected are sublime abstraction on one hand, and hyperrealism on the other hand. 

Paintings realized at the beginning of the 1990s consist indeed in the superposition and juxtaposition of colored plans, which remind those of Mark Rothko (1903-1970), both through their compositions and their chromatic range. This production appears short lived nonetheless for the Korean artist, although she already reveals her attraction to flat tints and simple compositions, dynamized by a discrete work at animating surfaces. However, the series initiated in parallel in 1991, on the representation of elements of everyday life, appears like the first link of a chain of successive evolutions, which will determine the artist’s journey from the 1990s to this day. Yoo Hye-Sook then initiates a search placing her mid-way between drawing and painting, between figuration and abstraction. She describes elements of everyday life in a variety of ways, food or anatomic pieces on a white background. This subject allows her to play different styles, from a detailed drawing to a simple spot which evokes a silhouette, but also to explore the way in which these representations can connect to a content which enriches the identification process of the real point of contact. The succession of sheets treating the same subject allows her in particular to implement rudimentary narrative patterns based on the evolution of figured objects or variations of compositions.

This work is pursued in a series called “reading the objects”, title that explicitly reminds the artist’s desire of exploring her environment with drawings, but also her capacity to give some meaning to what is scrutinized and transposed on paper, further than a formal play. This assembly of works essentially constitutes in the pursuit of research previously initiated, and now centered on the representation of peanuts or red beans. The major innovation resides in the choice of a monumental format which facilitates the interpretation of objects by the public and makes necessary for the artist a meticulous analysis and deconstruction process of the latter in order to convincingly operate the change of scale. This change relies on multiple plastic processes previously experimented, whether by reproducing the detail of textures and accidents of the observed subjects, or shed them into a simple silhouette, obtained with spots or flat tints more or less nuanced. 


The peanut’s shape allows the mutation of this pattern into a braid of hair, in the year 2000, following a mechanism characteristic of Yoo Hye-Sook’s work, more inclined to privilege formal and technical continuities than to conceptualize theoretical and aesthetical interruptions. If the heap of hair is painted with black acrylic, it is a patient work of graphite drawing which, like certain peanuts, restitutes its volume and texture. The hair pattern, particularly stunning because isolated on the white background, like detached from any human owner, is also declined following other forms that extend from the impressive representation of feminine heads from the back, to the description of the hair partings in a close up. This series, which allows the artist to gain a first critical acknowledgement, gave rise to numerous interpretations: psychological, cultural or gender studies. The hair’s pattern is also regularly understood like an obvious allusion to Korean womanliness, especially because the of types of hair represented. 

The artist, on her side, insists on the equivalence between hair and pilosity, in order to underline the animality that emerges from such a topic. Starting in 2006, this leads her to opt for a representation of fur, while continuing to occasionally treat the motive of hair. The multiple variations of this theme in various arrangements witness the same evolutions in the framing as previously observed. In this way, while pieces of fur or clothing are isolated on a white background, like the hair braids, other canvasses favor a surface totally covered by fur, in the way of the hair partings, grazing abstraction. Yoo Hye-Sook adds to these proven processes the will to extend, as of 2011, the field covered by this topic. A series continued until 2013 introduces a scenic dimension in her paintings, the top of them painted in blue acting as a sky under which orographies materialized by pleats of fur spread out. In 2015, the last avatar of this research destined to renew an iconography used for over ten years sees skins layered on geometrical volumes on a table.  

The progressive dissolution of the subject, devoid of its meaning by the focalization of the audience’s attention on the treatment of light, at the expense of a quasi-academic staging of the fabric folds, allows Yoo Hye-Sook to abandon the theme. The series of lakes realized in 2016 in a residence in the Domaine de Kerguéhennec, in Brittany (France), plays a major role in this transition. The representation of an assembled vision of aquatic surfaces, illuminated by a few glares on ripples, pursues the work of capturing the light effects to which were reduced more and more he previous works. It nonetheless allows the artist to abandon the meticulousness of line by line drawing, in aid of flat tints destined to represent the radiance of light. The treatment of this light with plans allies itself with the severity of her 2015 compositions, distinguished by strong horizontals, to give birth to new type of work. The black background remains, yet tables become beds, where sheets are treated following processes experimented in Kerguéhennec. This treatment of light in wide stretches is in total adequation with the explicit pictural reference to Edward Hopper (1882-1967) that constitutes the bed facing a window. Yoo Hye-Sook however evacuates the characters, substituting the melancholy they were once carrying with a feeling of frightening strangeness. It persists for a while in the interiors series, progressively pared down of all objects to solely become silent spaces constructed by the nuances of twilight which become her major subject to his day.

This relatively linear evolution, which leads to the representation of food with empty architectures in the 1990s that occupies the artist today, is built on mechanisms of transposition of forms and gestures from a series to another. Each step is thus linked to the previous and next ones with this game of visual equivalence, whether technical or semantic. Only two types of production appear apart in this chronology. The first is the Splinters series, collection of drawings and volumes realized between 2003 and 2010, the other is Constellations, which extends from 2009 to 2014. Their technical and thematical originality, except for a few experimental installations around the theme of hair and a punctual use of photography, gives them a particular status among a work with a very affirmed coherence. This singularity sheds light to certain aspects of Yoo Hye-Sook’s work, usually partially obstructed by its positioning in a technical continum.

Effectively, while the animality and the savagery perceived by the artist in the hair and fur is softened by the long and careful technique employed, the Splinters constitute an expression of aggressivity with no disguise. In the drawings and in the volumes, pink colored stripes are bristled on the exterior side of multiple peaks. The coiling on themselves of these stripes of irregular contours introduces these spines inside of what can’t not remind flesh. The choice of such a subject, halfway into surrealism, in all it can include of extrovert violence and symbolized expression of an intimate perception, encourages the integration of Yoo Hye-Sook within an unexpected movement. Through her subjects and her technique, he works can be put in touch with those of many Koreans who choose drawing as a privileged mean of personal expression. In this perspective, it is all of Yoo Hye-Sook’s work that becomes introspective, despite her will to confront the audience to an ostensibly impersonal treatment of objects of concrete spaces. 


Constellations express this aggressivity in a different form, technical this time. On a black sheet of paper, directly on the floor, Yoo Hye-Sook violently knocks her pencil down, feeling the hardness of the screed in every limb of her body, while spangling the material with spots and lines. The manner in which she tests the material’s physical limits, sometimes transpierced by the graphite, and on which she imprints the trace of her gestures is obviously part of a trend shared by numerous players of the Korean artistic scene since the rise of dansaekhwa. The brutality of the process is however specific to Yoo Hye-Sook. If it remains difficult to imagine that she does not give an answer also to psychic necessities, she seems to accept a plastic role, allowing the artist to break up the subjects and the meticulous fracture that were hers since the beginning of the years 2000. In fact, this production ceases shortly before the transition to a series of lakes and abandonment of line by line drawing. 

The explicit expression of a form of aggressivity during more than a decade, as well as a claimed animality of some topics, invite to reconsider to entirety of Yoo Hye-Sook’s work and regularly discern a tension between the contents inhabited by violent urges and technical control, a domestication of the latter through a slow work full of constraints. A recent evolution seems to allow one to confirm this interpretation. The interiors realized between 2016 and 2018 are usually characterized by arrangements in which the off screens keep a threatening presence, doorsills and lateral hallways seem to lead to impenetrable obscurity. For nearly two years, however, the use of closeups allows the observer’s eye to focus on a light that slowly spouts to twilight. Obstructing the light source generates an anxiety in the same vein as the previous spaces, only softer. It would be tempting to link this settling down to a stronger serenity the artist mentions having found. At the end of a long progress which led her to create her very own vocabulary mixing introspection and refusal of personal anecdotes, hyperrealism and sublime attraction, paint and drawing, Yoo Hye-Sook will maybe end up being pacified. It is however improbable she will clear her creations from a disciplinary dimension which generates, as a signature, calm tensions.