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Fine art, practical use

By Natsu Oyobe

The artists featured in Life in Ceramics: Five Contemporary Korean Artists interpret their heritage from one of the world’s great ceramics traditions with a modern sensibility nurtured through their diverse training and artistic contexts. The exhibit runs through June 26 in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery I inside the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Kim Yikyung (born 1935), one of Korea’s leading ceramicists, combines the white porcelain ware of Korea’s Joseon period (1392–1910) with a strong sense of formsdeveloped through her interest in and study of African art and the iconic sculptures of Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957). The faceted and angular-shaped works in the exhibition are both functional objects and contemporary sculpture. Yoon Kwang-cho (born 1946) is attracted to the dynamism and spontaneity of historical buncheong ware, grayish stoneware with surface decoration of dilute white clay (slip) made in the early Joseon period. Traditional techniques merge with a personal and contemporary approach, as the artist creates large, powerful vessels reflecting his Buddhist beliefs and deep appreciation for nature. Similarly, Lee Kang Hyo (born 1961) also takes the buncheong tradition as his inspiration in order to create groups of objects with playful and subtle effects. The series of plates called The Sky (2009) is a fascinating study of the manipulation of clay, glaze, and fire designed to reach their maximum expressive potential.

(Kim Yikyung’s ceramic work, photo right)

Two artists whose careers and practices bridge Korea and the West, Lee Young-Jae (born 1951) and Lee In Chin (born 1957), make large-scale installation work. Lee Young-Jae’s installation of 111 bowls, all placed on the floor, was born out of her experience of making communion cups for a church in her adopted country of Germany. However, the delicate hues and design of her bowls—each slightly different—ties it to Goryeo period (918–1392) celadons. Lee In Chin’s stacked pots, on the other hand, share the simple and gregarious nature of Korean folk pottery known as onggi ware. Having grown up in the United States and later moved to Korea, Lee has been fascinated by onggi ware—used for fermenting cooking sauce and vegetables, and often stored outside—visible in the Korean countryside. Yet his exhibition strategy, with its dynamic use of space, aligns well with international contemporary art practice.

While working in the arena of fine art aimed for gallery and museum presentations, these artists also produce wares for everyday use. Selections from this tableware are also on view in the exhibition. In Korea, as well as in Japan, the line between art and craft is not as definitive as in the West; in other words, the art of clay is a fixture of everyday life. Moving between folk and contemporary art practice, between sculpture and functional objects, the work of these five artists testify to this fluid state of ceramics.

In addition to representing the first exhibition at UMMA of contemporary Korean ceramics, Life in Ceramics illuminates the Museum’s own outstanding collection of historic Korean ceramics. Thanks to the generosity of collectors Bruce and Inta Hasenkamp, with foundational support from UM alumnus Elder Sang-Yong Nam and his wife Moon-Sook, in 2004 UMMA acquired an outstanding collection of historic ceramics, which spans the gray stoneware of the Three Kingdoms period (1st to 7th century), the delicate celadons of the Goryeo dynasty, and porcelains and buncheong stonewares of the Joseon period. Visitors to Life in Ceramics can explore the inspirations for the exhibition’s contemporary works in UMMA’s Woon-Hyung Lee and Korea Foundation Gallery of Korean Art in the Maxine and Stuart Frankel and the Frankel Family Wing.

Natsu Oyobe is research curator of Asian Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Life in Ceramics: Five Contemporary Korean Artists was organized and produced by the Fowler Museum at UCLA. It was made possible by a major grant from the Korea Foundation. Additional support was provided by Korean Airlines. UMMA’s installation is made possible in part by the University of Michigan Health System, Office of the President, and Nam Center for Korean Studies, and by the Friends of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts.