The Burning Gaze by Hyung Koo Kang

Hyung Koo Kang: The Burning Gaze

The human face appears to be the obsession of Korean artist Hyung Koo Kang, whose exhibited paintings are mostly portraits depicting this particular body part. Each canvas is a close-up of a face rendered in a photorealistic manner, and the faces painted include those of Hyung himself, and of well-known figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Princess Diana and Mao Zedong, just to name a few.

One of Hyung’s quotes printed on the wall of the museum reveals Hyung’s opinions of the human face, seeing it “… As the single body part that most effectively represents a human being, the face is unique, without a double and serves as the primary means to identify a person’s identity apart from another” (extract from wall text). What is the identity of a person then? Is it merely how he or she looks, or something more? Does it include his or her experiences and life stories? Hyung’s portraits are perhaps an exploration of this idea of identity, that of famous personalities, common people and himself.

Many of us may know bits and pieces of the lives of well-known people we so often see and hear about, whether through conversations with others, the media, or in books. Viewing Hyung’s portraits of those familiar faces, it is inevitable that various facts or stories concerning the subject matter come to mind. In Vincent van Gogh in Blue (2006), for example, Van Gogh’s mutilated ear portion is stitched back, a detail that prompts one to think of Van Gogh’s life. Van Gogh resembles a brooding movie character captured under a blue filter in the painting, and his cold, steely gaze, intensified by the dominant use of blue, is reminiscent of the piercing gaze of van Gogh in his own self portraits.

Several portraits, such as Old Woman (2003) and man (2004), depicts unnamed people, probably a representation of the common man and woman, who are outside the realm of fame. Confronted with the portrait of a stranger, with knowledge of only how he or she looks like, several questions may surface in one’s mind. Who are these people and are they real, or simply a figment of the artist’s imagination? What kind of life do they lead, what stories do they have?

​Hyung’s self portraits depict the artist in various states of emotion, with each painting bathed in a different colour. The composition of the paintings is tightly cropped, isolating the face from the rest of the body. One can imagine how the artist has probably spent much time observing the details of his face, perhaps staring into the mirror or taking photographs to familiarize himself with every inch of his face, while translating what he has observed onto the canvas. In Self Portrait (2010), an enormous painting made up of 3 canvases with Hyung depicted in bright red against a yellow background, the words ‘only one’ are faintly visible above Hyung’s signature at the bottom of the painting. Perhaps, his self portraits are painted to establish his own unique identity, a reminder that there is only one of every single human on earth, each with his or her own features and stories.

​Hyung’s refreshing use of a dominant, monochromatic colour render the faces in several paintings like photographs captured with coloured cellophane stuck over camera lens. One is invited to think about the possible meanings of the colours chosen, and how it relates to the subject matter being portrayed. For instance, is purple a reference to royalty and nobility or a certain deprivation in Diana (2010)?

The use of aluminium as the painting surface for several paintings is something I have never seen before, since canvases or wood seem to be more conventional, so this is an eye-opener for me. The material allows each strand of hair to come to life with its silvery quality, as can be seen in Monroe in the night sky (2010), where the wind-blown hair complements Monroe’s playful expression in the painting.

The Burning Gaze, while prompting one to think about what the human face can represent, is also a feast for the eyes. The photorealism of the paintings are impressive, inviting one to take in the details of each painting slowly and admire its beauty. The large size of the paintings commands one’s attention, and the imposing presence increases the impact the paintings have on the viewer. Both qualities contribute to the beautiful paintings that are worth several visits and are hard to forget.

Singapore Art Museum
14 October to 25 December 2011

Review by Ngiam Li Yi

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