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North Korean Defector's U.S. Art Premiere
February 17, 2012
Seoul, South Korea

by Kayti Doolitle


About Kayti Doolitle

Fjords Reviews -  Kayti Doolitle Kayti Doolitle graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting and a minor in Creative Writing. She is the Art and Film Reviewer for Fjords Review. Kayti is writing an anthology of essays about the sex industry in countries around the world, while living in South Korea.

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Fjords Review - Song Byeok - Take Your Clothes Off Song Byeok was a propaganda artist who escaped from North Korea through China and arrived in South Korea in 2002.

Song Byeok believed in North Korea's messages until famine struck in the 1990s. As his loved ones starved to death, Byeok and his father resorted to crossing the flooded Tumen River to China in a desperate search for food. On their third trip across the river, a current snatched Byeok's father. When the artist appealed to the border guards for help, they had him beaten and imprisoned. That was the last time Byeok saw his father.

On February 17th, Song Byeok's Freedom Forever show opened at The Goat Farm Arts Center Atlanta. This landmark show is Byeok's first exhibition in the United States. The content of the work both satirizes Kim Jong-il and honors North Koreans. The show was filled with art collectors and Atlanta's art scene patrons. A scroll and two paintings were sold.

Take Off Your Clothes (14.7 X 28.5 in) is an acrylic painting on Jangil (Heavy Korean Paper) of Kim Jong-il dressed as Marilyn Monroe in the famous white dress from the 1955 film, The Seven Year Itch. In the $22,000 dollar painting Byeok placed Kim Jong-il in the center of the composition and surrounded it with stark white negative space. He then rendered the image in a realistic way coupled with the surrealistic image of the fish. Noma Bar, an Israeli illustrator, also creates images dependent upon the negative space of the canvas. Both artists employ a symbolic construction method that demands the viewer look closer to uncover the true narrative quality of the work. Byeok's work blends two international icons to expose the frivolity of the dictator's reign with the higher contrast browns and blacks of Kim Jong-il's head and the soft whites and pinks of Marilyn Monroe's dress.

In Take Off Your Clothes, a few fish hover towards the bottom of the canvas while others leap through an implied line of water. The free fish fly at Kim Jong-il's legs as he holds the famous white dress from exposing the secrets underneath. This painting's soft watercolor-like marks are full of whites, pinks, and deep brown madder reds. The painting's smooth brush strokes show the classical use of Byeok's training. Take Off Your Clothes creates a dialogue between what is acceptable and what is perceived.

In the show's twenty paintings, the subjects range from loyal soldiers shaped with layers of acrylic washes to rural scenes. Byeok painted the rural scenes of Around the Tumen River with black acrylic on paper scrolls, which are reminiscent of traditional eastern ink paintings. The purpose of traditional ink paintings is not to perfectly mimic a landscape or a flower but to capture the subject's soul.

Fjords Review - Song Byeok - Around the Tumen

Around the Tumen River (9.3 X 75.6 in) is a large-scale panoramic landscape. Byeok composed the works with a canopy of black acrylic washes, which illustrate a peaceful rural scene. He applied the brush strokes softly and carefully, including three to four layers of paint. The painting's fluidity is similar to the traditional ink paintings of Korean artists like Suh Se-Ok. It is active and with a closer look one can see the soldiers marching along the Tumen River. In the background, through the watery mountains, farmers trudge across an endless countryside back to the depths of starvation. The painting emphasizes the outlandishness of the hermit country that feeds their people propaganda such as, "We have nothing to envy in this world" (Barbara Demick).

Fjords Review - Song Byeok - Child Warrior The military is also a dominant theme in Song Byeok's work. Child Warrior (3.9 X 12.2 cm) is a series of 21 paintings on Jangil that he stacked and wove together, giving the two dimensional images a sculptural quality. The work consists of identical pieces of framed Jangil paper, which he fractured like the Neo-Expressionist Ida Applebroog's work. Each piece is a repetition of the same child soldier. The painting's perspective allows the viewer to witness a child dressed in his moss-green military garb. The child's hand is frozen by his hat. In a gesture of respect, he salutes an invisible man. Byeok positioned the child in the center of the framed paper so as to express the child's timelessness as the heart of the painting. A deep complementary crimson fills the negative space of the background.

The painting's process begins with a color blocking or an under-painting of light acrylic washes. This effect creates soft images. Yet Byeok still goes back through with a flat brush to create crisp lines around the focal points. Byeok puts a final layer of a matte glaze on the images, leaving a saturated painting full of a spectrum of reds and greens. Song Byeok's colors are rich and the composition is simple but powerful and effective, which stems from his training as a propaganda artist.

Song Byeok's work is thoughtful and provocative. His first show in the United States is well timed with Kim Jong-il's death. Song Byeok's next show opens April 15, 2012, in Washington D.C on the birthday of Kim Jong-il's father, Kim Il Sung.


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