Suh Yongsun, People Waiting Subway at 14th Street Station, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 56 1/2 x 90 3/4".

Suh Yongsun, People Waiting Subway at 14th Street Station, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 56 1/2 x 90 3/4".

Suh Yongsun

Suh Yongsun, People Waiting Subway at 14th Street Station, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 56 1/2 x 90 3/4".

New York subway riders waiting at the Union Square station, café-goers in Melbourne, and the environs of the Brandenburg Gate appear as subjects among thirty-six paintings and six sculptures by Suh Yongsun at the Hakgojae Gallery. The style is a mix of Cubism, Fauvism, and Expressionism—a sort of synthesis of early- to midmodern manifestations. Suh’s stubborn insistence on such stylistic choices stands apart from the fundamentally Westernized mainstream trends in modern Korean art, which has been dominated by minimal abstraction from the 1960s through the ’80s, and since the ’90s by installations, media art, and other typical contemporary practices.

Arriving on the scene in the early ’80s, Suh has long been indifferent to current trends and thus has been able to focus on the basic issues of representation as a communicative and emotional maneuver. His interest in issues of minority, urbanization, and history has long been apparent in his painterly activities. Visa Project, 2002, concerns immigrants on the borders of nation-states, and Drawing and Thinking About Cheolam, 2001, is aimed at the resurrection of a deserted coal-mining region—both projects were undertaken after Suh joined the artist group halartec. In numerous paintings and drawings concerning the overthrow of the twelve-year-old King Danjong in the fifteenth century, Suh draws attention to the brutal deaths suffered by the loyal subjects who tried to defend the young king.

In Suh’s most recent exhibition, the gridded background from the tiled lining of the subway station and the strong vertical and horizontal lines in People Waiting Subway at 14th Street Station, 2010, seem almost too rational for the dark and ominous depiction of four men, seated or standing on the bottom edge of the canvas, haphazardly looking away from each other, yet well-balanced enough to remind one of Seurat’s La Parade de Cirque (Circus Sideshow), 1887–88. Subway—For Downtown, 2010, is characterized by the mostly gray-blue palette that vividly evokes the damp and metallic air of the underground and the frozen, seemingly archaic gestures of the riders on New York’s 6 train. The tense, almost abject expressions on the people in the subway series indicate the struggles of urban minorities. Suh uses the physical movement uptown and downtown as a metaphor for the movement up and down the capitalist class system, from the bourgeoisie of Manhattan to the working-class immigrants in the outer boroughs.

Painted during the artist’s stay in Berlin, Brandenburg Gate, 2006, shows the central image of the gate in a view from above, obstructed by the heroic statue of a Soviet soldier; set in the Tiergarten near the gate, the statue commemorates the sacrifice made in 1945 when the Red Army entered Berlin and Adolf Hitler committed suicide. Behind the statue and the gate, one sees a line sketch of the Reichstag. Amid these scenes, below the main group of images, is a depiction of a prisoner and guards at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, which Suh found in a newspaper while in Berlin. This juxtaposition of icons and associations from the artist’s time in the city maps a psychological topography of the artist’s inner life. Suh’s acute awareness of the anonymous other, especially those historically and socially victimized, is inscribed as a surging hopelessness in otherwise casual landscapes.

Shinyoung Chung