Roe Kyung Jo is known as the ¡®Master of Yeollimun ceramics¡¯ in South Korea. He has succeeded in taking a one thousand-year-old ceramic technique and developing it into a distinctive style of contemporary ceramic art. His ceramics have been described as having ¡°a natural quality in their texture, colour and flavour, captivating the viewer with their expression of nostalgia,¡±i and the form as having ¡°a beauty of simplicity, created after a meticulous, regimented and well thought-out process of elimination.¡±ii These modern yeollimun ceramics are a result of Roe¡¯s artistic evolution over four decades.
Roe¡¯s earlier achievements, which include canvases and sketches on paper, are also significant, either as independent works of art or for their close relationships to his later ceramic work. The seven early paintings of landscapes and portraits and the twenty rectangular ceramics in this exhibition, dating from the early 1970s to 2006, display Roe¡¯s embrace of key traditional yet modernist concerns, and culminate with his contemporary yeollimun ceramics.
Yeollimun is a traditional Korean ceramic technique meaning marble-ware. Marble-ware seems to have originated in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Korean marble-ware had different designs from those used in China, it was less prolific and thus little has been written about it. Yeollimun ceramics appeared in the Koryo Dynasty (935-1392 AD) but owing to difficulties in making them, nearly disappeared in the 13th century.
Roe was born in an academic family in Seoul in 1951. His internationally well-connected family raised him to be open-minded and nurtured his early love of art. Apart from his art training in Seoul with Kim Young-Ki,iii a pupil of Qi Bai Shiiv from China, he gained his first appreciation of the art of the Korean Koryo and Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) from his surroundings at home, especially the antique furniture and ceramics. European artists such as Modigliani and Toulouse-Lautrec were also of profound importance to him, as was his interest in drama and his love of western classical music.
In the early seventies, Roe painted landscapes and portraits in oil, working outdoors in various places including the Buk-Han Mountain and around Kyung-Dong High School in Seoul, where he had spent his childhood. This period is exemplified here by five landscapes and two portraits, Kyung-Dong High School I & II, Buk-Han Mountain, Dawn, Passage to a Village, My Sister Yoon-Hwa and Self Portrait. The landscape painting shows his preference for subdued colours and the 1970¡¯s representative monochrome style. For example, Kyung-Dong High School I & II were created two years after Roe left this school in 1973, and display different compositions of the same buildings with subtle colouring shades, depicting diverse memories and experiences of his school time in a simple style. Although his ceramic works have been exhibited and collected by many major museums and galleries in the world including the British Museum and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, this is the first exhibition to include these early paintings.
Roe¡¯s signature yeollimun ceramics were created after his theoretical research and as the result of visiting old kiln sites and collecting old fragments of ceramics from various parts of Korea. Based on his research and his accumulation of old ceramic pieces, he mixed red, white and brown coloured clays in his creative manner. Roe revived the traditional Koyro period¡¯s yeollimun techniques: maturing these clays to achieve the right texture by controlling the temperature and humidity of the clay. Sometimes this complex process of maturing clay can take several years.
With his shift from canvas to ceramic, Roe brings a perception of ceramics as canvases. He is fascinated by working with a new element – fire. It finishes his subtly patterned clay surfaces by veiling them with glazes that become sheer paint drips. In his works, openness and solitude embrace the spectator. For instance, the lids of the lidded boxes, called hap in Korean, are not made to be practical to open. Roe¡¯s intention is to keep the hap closed once he has put the object in it. He patiently fires the lid and body separately due to the glazing of the top rim of the body of the hap. Thus the completion of the hap, may require many attempts before he succeeds in producing the perfectly fitted lid and body.
Given Roe¡¯s background, his prime concern appears to be to create his own art using ceramic as a medium. His approach to the yeollimun technique has enabled him to produce new, authentic ceramics whilst keeping traditional style and values. Roe¡¯s technical skills are considerable and he can produce traditional Korean ceramics like Full Moon Jars or Tea Bowls without difficulty, but his works with yeollimun allows him to use his painter¡¯s skills in his ceramics. He marks them with passionate energy, visible on the three-dimensional surfaces, without being impeded by the limits of two-dimensional perspective.
To experience Roe working in his studio is fascinating. Each individual ceramic work is carefully planned: resulting from his observations of traditional Korean furniture and ceramics, research into traditional ceramic techniques and practice, and the desire to achieve a high quality of craftsmanship. It is impossible not to rely on our intuitive aesthetic judgement when we encounter Roe¡¯s contemporary ceramic art. What is truly valued in Roe¡¯s work is not only his craftsmanship, but his determination to achieve authentic ceramic art that conveys both traditional values and contemporary thoughts. Roe¡¯s frequent trips to his Yang-Pyung studio from his home in Seoul indicate his willingness and dedication to continue creating his yeollimun ceramics.
i Chung-YangMo (Chairman of Cultural Properties Committee, Former Executive Director of National Museum of Korea) Sprit of Korea, Tong In Gallery, New York, 2003
ii Choi Gun (Director of Joseon Royal Kiln Museum, Korea), Ceramics Technical, No.20, 2005, pp.25-28 iii The artist Kim Young-Ki (b. 1911) is the son of the renowned artist and scholar Kim Gyu-Jin (1868-1933), an early pioneer of photography in Korea. Kim Young-Ki was a Professor at the Koryo University. Roe was taught by Kim before he started Ceramic Studies at Sejong University in Seoul in 1973. Kim Young-Ki is renowned for his achievement in changing the term Korean traditional fine art from Dong-Yang Hwa (Oriental Paintings) to Han-Kuk Hwa (Korean Painting).
iii. The artist Kim Young-Ki (b. 1911) is the son of the renowned artist and scholar Kim Gyu-Jin(1868-1933),an early pioneer of photography in Korea. Kim Young-Ki was a Professor at the Koryo University. Roe was taught by Kim before he started Ceramic Studies at Sejong University in Seoul in 1973. Kim Young-Ki is renowned for his achievement in changing the term Korean traditional fine art from Dong-Yang Hwa (Oriental Paintings) to Han-Kuk Hwa (Korean Painting).
iv. Chinese master painter Qi Bai Shi (1864-1957), one of China¡¯s most noted 20th century artists.