Old and new Korean portraits reveal shifts in culture

On the second floor of the Asian Art Museum, near ancient artifacts from China and Japan, there is something new: “Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture,” a collection of austere paintings of military officials from the 1700s juxtaposed with photographs and mixed media works by contemporary Korean artists. The exhibition, which opened over the weekend, is on view through Nov. 29.

Throughout Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) and its many wars, “Bunmu,” or distinguished military officers, were treasured by kings whose rule they protected. They were rewarded for their service with portraits created by famous artists, with one copy of the painting kept at the court, and others sent to their families. The works often were a focal point of royal ceremonies or Confucian ancestor worship rituals.

“What makes ‘Likeness and Legacy’ unique is that we move beyond a specific moment in time to pair the traditional draft paintings with a selection of finished portraits on silk as well as contemporary approaches to portraiture by Korean and Korean American artists,” said Hyonjeong Kim Han, associate curator of Korean art at the museum.

“This allows visitors to understand how the role of portraiture has evolved in establishing identity and legacy, and to see how portraits navigate the shifting boundaries between the individual and the collective, especially in the larger context of Korean culture and recent history,” she said.

The exhibition’s contemporary approaches to portraiture include photo-based, mixed-media and video by Korean artists Do Ho Suh and Yun Suknam, as well as Korean Americans Ahree Lee and Young June Lew, who deal with issues of conformity, group identity and gender.

Self-taught painter Yun Suknam has been prominent in Korea’s art scene since the 1980s, advocating women’s rights in her work.

Photographic prints from Do Ho Suh deal with the pressures of conformity in “High School Uni-Face: Boy and High School Uni-Face: Girl,” a work of layered composites of student portraits taken from yearbooks in the decade before strict dress codes were relaxed.

In his sculpture “Uni-Form/s: Self-Portraits/s: My 39 Years,” Suh moves beyond the conventional emphasis on the face in portraiture, arranging replicas of his own uniforms worn from kindergarten to his mandatory military service.

Bridging the Joseon-era and modern Korea, a matching set of full-length portraits from 1925 by Chae Yongsin depicts a patriarch and matriarch from the Japanese colonial period (1910–1945).

Jay Xu, director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum, connects the exhibit with the museum’s ongoing emphasis on Korea: “In 1989, we were the first in the U.S. to appoint a curator dedicated to studying and presenting Korean art and culture. ‘Likeness and Legacy’ continues our path-breaking in this area, offering visitors a glimpse into the rich artistic patrimony of the Korean Peninsula, while also opening up room for a highly critical conversation about self and society, about who is valued and why — questions that are more relevant now than ever.”


Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture

Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larking St., S.F.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays-Mondays; 1 to 8 p.m. Thursdays; closes Nov. 29

Admission: $20-$25 general; $15-$20 seniors and students; free for ages 12 and younger (includes admission to teamLab special exhibition)

Contact: (415) 581-3500, asianart.org

Museums and GalleriesVisual Arts

Angelia S. Rico

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