Suh Se Ok (b. 1929) is a seminal figure not only an artist, but professor and leader who continues his important artistic practice. As an artist and person coming of age in tumultuous times in Korean history, the artist strives to give the viewer the power to give meaning to his messages through their own active participation and engagement. As a scholar and philosopher, Suh’s works are imbued with an inheritance of literati painting, that is, derived from poetry, calligraphy and scholarly texts, yet with novel adaptations into a new language that straddles the line between the abstract and the figurative
With a practice that began in earnest in the 1940s and continues to this day, Suh enjoys an illustrious history despite having grown up in turbulent times in Korea’s history. At the age of twenty he won top prize in the inaugural Kukjon state run art exhibition in 1949. Soon thereafter the country would be engaged in a devastating war and this, of course, had its effects on the art in Korea. While art as a political tool is not a new thing, Suh refused to enter into the world of abstract expressionism to express freedom but rather stayed true to the medium of ink. It is this singular focus that expanded the notion of what ink painting would be all while seemingly independent of the contemporary art world machine and its inherent trappings. He formed the influential Ink Forest Society (“Mungnimhoe”) which sought to question preordained systems of art while also remaining committed to the medium. Their efforts also came of age with the younger generation’s desire to celebrate the individual and the expression of freedom for a generation having just lived through not only a brutal and destructive war but also under colonial occupation.
The power of his work is the totality of the composition with its deliberations on the void with the series of dots and lines providing an interplay between positive and negative space for his philosophical endeavors. Suh has explained that in the beginning the universe had no boundaries just limitless energy when some person created the monumental act of creating a single mark – a dot. He believes this creation of the dot was of singular importance when it appeared in the untouched universe. The dot eventually evolved into another dot into another until it developed into a line which also left its trace in the universe. He explains the line is an evolving thing shifting and making turns to form a giant circle that no start or end to create a giant circle to form a single dot again which is how notions of form began in time and why the negative space is critical. Suh’s beautiful and important oeuvre of works are an important statement on art that not only embodied the Korean traditional but used this tradition to create a universal contemporary language.
Suh has held exhibitions at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea (2015, 2005); Museum of Fine Arts Houston, TX (2008); Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Busan Biennale, Gyeonggi Museum of Art, Sao Paulo Biennial, and Maison Hermes, Tokyo, Japan (2007). His work are in the public collections of the British Museum, the Museum of Fine Art Houston, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea, Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Sonje Musum Gyeogju Korea, Rhode Island School of Design, Fukuoka Art Museum.
Accolades include the Order of Culture Merit Silver Medal (2012), The 52nd National Academy of Arts Award, Korea (2007), The Artistic and Culture Prize of 13th Federation of Artistic and Culture, Korea (1999), Ilmin Art Prize, Seoul, Korea (1994) and the Prime Minister Prize at the 1st National Art Exhibition (1949).