Beauty of Simplicity
Choi Kun discusses the physical and spiritual elements

of Roe Kyung Jo's contemporary ceramics

Choi Kun,
Director of Joseon Royal Kiln Museum

Ceramics TECHNICAL, No. 20 May 2005
(Printing Empire Printing, Sydney)

Through processes of the addition and subtraction on many clay pieces, big and small, Roe Kyung Jo creates a large and complex clay mass, and then he cuts away at it aggressively, removing unnecessary details. Numerous small details, which Roe Kyung Jo added to make an otherwise simple looking rectangular¡ýobject interesting, are erased one by one by the artist himself to create a totally different shape from that which existed when he began. This rectangular object we see here has a beauty of simplicity and was created after a meticulous, regimented and well thought-out process of elimination. Roe¡¯s works recall the spirit of Joseon potters, who valued simplicity as the essence of art.

Roe Kyung Jo is immersed in transforming an otherwise a dull looking clay body into a joyful and dynamic shape by adding elements of a vessel, such as a spout, a lid, and a handle, or by carving out wind holes to allow the rectangular body to breath, or cutting off acute angles to make gentle plane on some parts of the body.

As he is working on clay, Roe Kyung Jo¡¯s hands are like those of an old carpenter with his eyes looking at the field outside his studio where the wind is blowing, and his mind looking for a beauty of simplicity that is a natural aspect of simple life.

When discussing the characteristics of Roe Kyung Jo¡¯s works, it helps to understand him better if we categorize his works into bottles, cube vessels, and lidded bowls. Such categorisation is, of course, not based on the types or shapes of his works called bottles, vessels or lidded bowls, but based on¡ýdifferences in physical elements that make up each piece that depicts his method of expression. The typical style of Roe Kyung Jo is bottles. They remind us of vessels in the shape of a rectangular cube to which functional elements such as a spout and a handle are added. Roe¡¯s bottles are decorated with a planar inlaid design (myeon sanggam) on the spacious surface. His inlaid design is based on lines and volume of a Joseon porcelain bottle. He makes a minimum and barely noticeable alteration on a part in order to give slight variation. This tells us that his works are recreated to allow viewers of modern times feel comfortable by easing the strict tradition of Joseon porcelain, while preserving the aesthetic values contained in Joseon white porcelain.

Roe Kyung Jo applies the planar inlay technique, or myeon sanggam, using clays of various colors and textures on the basic form. His vessels are like Goryeo celadon decorated with yeollimun designs, which required three different kinds of clay (natural, white, and red clay). The yellow-brownish clay surface, light and dark, are divided into several parts by wide or narrow free-hand drawn lines on the surface of a rectangular cube. Transparent or translucent glaze is applied on this surface, exposing the colour and texture inherent to clay. These planes look as if they are divided unconsciously, but if we look closely, we can see that they are created with careful attention and the elaborate plan of the artist, which makes perfect harmony with the shape and proportion of the vessel.

Rectangular cube-shaped vessels by Roe Kyung Jo are of simple form with no unnecessary decorations being added. To this simple cube-shaped vessel, Roe added a symbolic decoration, made a wind hole on the bottom or made alterations to the surface texture to transform otherwise meaningless or dull-looking shapes into special-looking vessels. Small triangular or square dots attached on the wide four sides of a vessel are similar to those on low-quality Joseon porcelain that were produced at local kilns some hundreds years ago, which reflected the emotions of ordinary people. These dots are placed on simple planes to give liveliness to the entire shape, rather than to serve any specific function. The triangle or square-shaped hole made through the bottom functions like a wind hole in a small piece of wooden furniture from the Joseon period. These elements make an otherwise dull, heavy looking rectangular cube-shaped vessel seem joyfully light. This is in the same context as balance and harmony that is sought by contemporary artists.

What impresses viewers most is that Roe made alterations only to the edges, where the planes join, by lining the form with different colored clays, while leaving the four sides of the planes as they are. On the simple and flat planes are traces of beating and carving, which imbue the piece with liveliness and a gentle resonance.

Lidded bowls by Roe Kyung Jo are unique. This kind of specially constructed structure is rare in ceramics. It is as if Roe worked on all the square bottles and cubes to reach this lidded bowl, and expresses the characteristics of his bottles and cubes implicity. Roe re-interpreted the elements of shape such as angles, planes and curving lines and integrated them to create a completely new rectangular-shaped vessel, unlike the bottles or cubes he previously made. Planar inlaid yeollimun¡ýdesigns are reduced and moved to the borders, and the impressions created by different inlaid designs and surface textures are minimized. Instead, several decoration techniques used hundreds years ago, but which seem contemporary, are used for lidded bowls. Roe used a coarse brush to apply white slip, thus making alterations depending on the shade or thickness of the white clay slip, or created a unique texture by cutting the sides gently with a knife.

The physical elements of the shapes of Roe Kyung Jo¡¯s vessels may be considered relatively simple. However, the meaning of ¡®simple¡¯is merely an expression of language that does not have the same meaning in the spiritual dimension. In a group of society with a common culture and knowledge, symbolic messages such as signs and letters are expressed in a simplified and abbreviated way, and can be explained by making contents inside as abundant and expression as simple as possible. The simplicity or conciseness of Roe Kyung Jo¡¯s works is the result of condensation of contents, which is possible after only years of hard work. It is an expression only he can produce.

What Roe Kyung Jo considers most important in his works is diversity of experience and focus on uniquely Korean beauty. For this reason, he values and cares about traditional Korean houses, vessels and everything Korean. His works are products of love for things Korean and Korean tradition.