BUSAN, South Korea - The first thing that strikes you when meeting celebrated Korean artist Im Gook is his stature, which can best be described as diminutive. After spending time with him however, one quickly realizes that his small frame contains a talent verging on the gargantuan. Painter, sculptor, filmmaker and businessman, Im is truly a man for all seasons.
Born in 1965 in Seoul, Im spent his early childhood in Germany with his family before returning to Korea in 1979. After graduating from the Seoul High School of Art and Music in 1986, he moved back to Germany to study graphic design at a time when layouts were still done by hand. Four years later, he entered the Saarbrucken Academy of Fine Art, earning a Diploma of Fine Art in 1996.
A resident of Busan since 1997, the artist is wilfully obtuse about his work and perhaps dissembles slightly when he says, ‘no artist can define his own work perfectly.’
Resisting easy categorisation, Im prefers to provide an image often with no intrinsic meaning, with which the viewer must form his own opinions and conclusions.
A study in contradiction, in Im Gook’s world, things are what they seem and are not what they seem, things are what the eyes see and not what the eyes see. A contradiction by every meaning (or lack of meaning) of the word.
Although fiercely socialist and a passionate advocate of former President Noh Moo Hyun, Im resists including any political agenda in his work saying, ‘the world is bad enough without portraying it in art.’
If there is a thread which connects his oeuvre, it is humor. To Im, humor is an essential ingredient in all his work. It comes as no surprise then to learn his actors of choice include comedians Benny Hill and Leslie Nielsen, and that Chou Seung Chi’s ridiculously surreal Kung Fu Hustle is amongst his favorite films.
From the lyrical whimsy of his more narrative early works to the scatological Dog Debate (oil on canvas) humor is the tie that binds. In life as in art however, humor often has a darker side, and works such as We are different (oil on canvas), Melancholy Nuclear Submarine (oil on canvas), City Version Submarine (oil on canvas) and Bow Wow (oil on canvas) have a lynchian quality to them, whereby the mundane is imbued with something more than slightly sinister. It is perhaps fitting then that Park Chan-wook, the lauded director of the internationally acclaimed ‘Oldboy’, recently named Im Gook as his favorite painter in a New York Times interview.
With the acquisition of studio space near Busan National University, Im’s canvases have become larger and more graphic. Refreshingly unpretentious in his approach, Im treats his studio as a playground, where artworks are never planned but happen by happy accident. Im feels that ‘daily life is completely planned, so art shouldn’t be.’
The accidental artist can spend up to an hour mixing the oils, a process akin to meditation where he clears his mind before taking brush in hand. In his art as in his music, Im’s mantra whilst working is ‘improvise, improvise, improvise’–a freedom afforded to him by the use of slow-drying oils.
In his most recent pieces, the texture and feel of the canvas take precedence over any narrative meaning. The resulting works, although often deconstructed to basic graphic forms of trucks, tanks and legs, have an immediate visual impact and a sense of movement often absent from his earlier works. The artist states that ‘if my earlier paintings were sweet little cakes,my present works are steaks….raw steaks.’
Although the images are, as often as not, purely decorative, this in no way takes away from the art. According to Im, ‘I would be most happiest if they were hung in a salaryman’s kitchen so that he can be happy when he eats.’
Im has dubbed his latest works âEco-paintings’–a nomenclature derived from his method of cleaning brushes on a secondary canvas, thus obviating the need for washing out the oils and adding pollutants to the ecosystem, a hidden benefit from a medium he loves. Im states that working in oils is more organic than the acrylics he used in earlier works. Sometimes laying aside brushes, he uses his fingers to paint, the feel and the smell of the media lending itself to an altogether more physical experience.
Im will often paint and repaint a canvas, creating a layer cake in oils before finally settling on a final image plucked from his subconscious. What is hidden becomes as important as what is revealed, and as art imitates life, in the impromptu world of Im Gook, what you see is not always what you get.
Park Chan Wook speaking of his admiration for Im Guk in the New York Times.