Review: 'ZIGZAG: Ecriture 1983 - 1992' at White Cube, Mason's Yard

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Ready to bathe in the Korean Avant-garde, I was as early as possible to attend the private view of contemporary Korean artist Park Seo-Bo’s exhibition at the White Cube. Alas, ‘private views' are not what they say on the tin. In fact quite the opposite: there’s nothing ‘private’ about them. They’re always rammed (particularly at the more socially conscious galleries) with art industry vultures, who never actually stop at one artwork, choosing instead to nonchalantly roll from painting to painting before they wheel themselves off to the next show. Heelys could make a fortune off these guys with the correct marketing campaign - think of the energy they could save!

But hey, it’s January and White Cube has launched into the New Year with their second exhibition displaying the work of Park Seo-Bo. I was lucky enough to visit their first show of his works at the beginning of 2016 – one of the few brilliant things to come out of year full of tragedy and travesty. It wasn’t up there with Leicester winning the league, but it came close. Personally, abstract art always leads to me to a number of reoccurring questions: why does it need to exist, why am I being shown this and often how on earth did they do that?  A little iPhone research reminds me that I spent a good portion of time looking at Ecriture (描法) No. 6-67’ that January evening. Completed in 1967, the pencil and oil canvas combination takes you on a visual journey, the eye rhythmically bouncing around the surface in awe of the subtlety and delicacy with which this work has been constructed – well worth a google if you have a moment. Consequently, I was very excited about this show – Ecriture No. 931204 (see below) had dominated White Cube’s website for a number of weeks now. Once through the door and press release in hand, I centred myself in front of Ecriture NO.870907, and waited.

ZIGZAG: Ecriture 1983-1992 is dominated by Seo-Bo’ use of Hanji, a traditional Korean hand paper, adhered to the canvas over which he allures to the tradition of Korean calligraphy with repetitive diagonal lines. In many of his works he has layered blacks, whites and greys on top of bright and boldly coloured canvases. The faintest speck peers through and drastically alters the work, as if reaching out of the composition, beckoning to its viewer. Consequently, a technical challenge ensues: what else is there to find on the surface of this work? The exploration is never ending but falls short of captivating. Too often my mind wandered, only to return by moving a few steps to the right, pressing my mental reset button and hoping for a new burst of energy.

The curation compliments the gallery space. Katherine Kostyál has done a good job catering for visual intrigue and inspection with the ground and lower-ground floor dominated by the larger, darker works. I felt the exhibition met its climax in the last room. Slightly hidden, and beneath the stairs, we were given a taste of the Seo-Bo’s experimentation with lighter hues. I found these to be far superior to his heavier, darker works. His style and methods of abstraction should lend themselves to open space and large walls, but here, in this subtly lit crevice of the gallery, I found reminiscences of the 2016 exhibition I remember so fondly. The textural complexities are heightened with the use of lighter colour, the effect of which is an intoxicating and playful dynamism.

I understand that this is not an exhibition of new contemporary works -  the most recent painting on display is dated 1992 – but unlike the previous retrospective of Park Seo-Bo’s works at the beginning of 2016 – and despite these paintings having been made at a later stage in his career – this collection felt considerably older and almost out of character for the White Cube. The gallery felt oddly empty when it wasn’t. There was no singular commanding presence, no sense of real awe. Expectation can be a cruel mistress and while this show is a decent snapshot of how one of Korea’s foremost contemporary artists developed and explored the use and effects of colour, it was not the snapshot I wanted to see.

The exhibition continues until 11 March 2017.