View of “Kwon Jin Kyu and Mok Jungwook,” 2021. Photo: Choi Yong Joon.

View of “Kwon Jin Kyu and Mok Jungwook,” 2021. Photo: Choi Yong Joon.

Kwon Jin Kyu and Mok Jungwook

The serene heads and busts that Korean artist Kwon Jin Kyu (1922–1973) carved from wood, shaped with plaster, or molded in clay radiate so much presence—so much quiet dignity—that it feels improper to place any of them alongside other artworks. Potently lifelike, each demands space, even its own private gallery, lest it overpower its neighbors. “Images of Eternity: Kwon Jin Kyu × Mok Jungwook,” as this show was titled, took a very different approach, placing eight of Kwon’s works, including six self-portraits, atop mirrored plinths in two rooms that were lined with moody images of the same pieces, recently shot by Mok Jungwook, a fashion and portrait photographer. The effect was intense but not unpleasant, the mirrors lending a dash of a Miami club atmosphere to the white cube.

The sculptures all dated to the last five years of Kwon’s life, which he ended, at fifty-one, by suicide. The fact lent a particular charge to the self-portrait heads. In one masklike life-size white-plaster piece so rough-hewn that every move his hands made seemed to be visible, the artist gazed upward. In a smaller one in terra-cotta, two thin ridges, one vertical and one horizontal, met atop his nose. That these seams are evidence of his process does not mitigate the face’s vividness. In another terra-cotta piece, he made deep incisions for his eyes and pupils, conjuring a stare of pure determination. This is a person who was intent on being remembered.

Born in Hamheung in what is now North Korea, Kwon traveled to Japan in 1942 and the following year was conscripted as a forced laborer in an aircraft factory. He escaped in 1944, but a few years after the war ended and a partitioned Korea gained its independence in 1945, he returned to the former colonial ruler, this time going on to study art. After a decade, he settled back in Seoul to hone his bracing realism. He had three solo shows during his lifetime. Thanks to exhibitions in Japan and South Korea over the past couple of decades, his star has risen, and the Seoul Museum of Art will mount a retrospective of his work this year. (A permanent display will arrive at one of its branches in 2023, following a donation of 141 works from a foundation established by the artist’s family.)

Kwon’s wry animal sculptures were absent here, but a hint of his remarkable range could be ascertained through two religious pieces: an elegant 1971 Buddha of smooth black wood perched atop a lotus flower, and a four-foot-tall Christ on Cross, 1970, in scrappy lacquered hemp cloth. With a wheel atop his head, this appealingly weird Jesus is hunched over, arms stretched, almost shrugging, exhausted. In this show, he hung by wire from the ceiling, his feet touching the mirrored pedestal, a device that allowed chance peeks at crevices that might otherwise go unexamined.

Mok shot the Savior emerging from blackness in a series of images, as if floating in outer space and against a dark-yellow backdrop, the result faintly recalling Andres Serrano’s 1987 Piss Christ. In other pictures, Kwon’s self-portraits sat in similarly subdued atmospheres—shadows on parts of their faces, color smoldering behind them. They appeared to be stuck in a liminal zone, giving up some of their secrets while concealing others. A few shots were out of focus, blurred, as though the camera had accidentally moved, which was at first frustrating, then strangely affecting. They suggest a documentarian admitting the limits of his enterprise: Photos can never fully capture artworks, which themselves hold elusive identities. Kwon is, of course, never quite the same person in any of his self-portraits. And even within a single one, the moment you think you know him, another detail catches your eye, and he slips away.