In the beginning
“There is something beyond my painting,” Roe Kyung Jo asserts in his atelier in Yang Pyung, South Korea. He is responding to my interpretation of his minimalistic ceramics and polyptych paintings that display a duality through contradictions such as ‘light and dark’ and ‘stillness and movement’. They also have the authenticity of purity and simplicity that evokes an ineffable and timeless visual sense within. Regarding this, Roe describes his works as identifying with the concept of something matured over time that cannot be easily verbalized.
Roe’s extensive oeuvre includes oil paintings of his studio surroundings, mundane scenes from his garden, bedroom and forest, and yeollimun ceramics that create a sense of rhythm with the consolidation of the mind and body in a slow process. Sometimes the two genres of contemporary yeollimun ceramics and still life painting come together in their viewpoints of creation, as Roe's ceramics often pose as subjects for his paintings. This way of working allows him to convey the contrasting concept and representation between stoneware referred to as ‘East’ and oil painting as ‘West’. These two cultures seem to have a generational resonance that remains well established in Roe's family.
Roe’s atelier is located in Yang Pyung, a province that surrounds Seoul with beautiful mountains and lakes. The last time I visited was ten years ago. The creative energy that existed then still lives on in the studio today, and also flows through the limbs of the proudly grown birches in the tidy garden. In this tranquil studio, Roe is freely able to devote himself to making ceramics and painting without any constraints. Roe paints and produces ceramics with the idea of infusing his work with personal expression. “My pottery making keeps me grounded through the integrated unity of mental and physical qualities, but with oil painting, I paint as I feel and wherever my hand takes me. I believe there is something greater than me that guides my hand. I can’t stop painting; I apply the paint, in short, to convey the emotional intensity I am feeling.”
Roe Kyung Jo was born in 1951 into an international and cultivated family in Seoul. His grandparents were Tokyo University graduates; his grandmother was a pianist so he learned and listened to the piano from a young age. His great-uncle, who had earned a PhD, studied Philosophy at both Oxford University and the University of Nebraska, and was therefore amongst the first generations from Korea to experience Western culture and art.
Roe’s parents were Seoul University graduates. His father, in addition to working as the Head Pharmacist for the Scandinavian Medical Centre in Seoul, was one of the first Korean pharmacists to be sent to Sweden to learn about TB treatment at Uppsala University. His father sent numerous postcards and letters to his son while he was studying in Sweden, and brought back Swedish arts and crafts when he returned to Seoul. This ancestral legacy of international clans and art connoisseurs has remained a touchstone for Roe throughout his career. “I am the third generation to appreciate the international realm of arts and crafts, and I am really grateful for that. It’s nice to have that family history, and to have had a wonderful multicultural childhood.”
With easy access to art, he showed talent as a painter in his Kyung Dong High School. He was inquisitive and largely self-motivated to paint. Roe attended Kyunghee University College of Fine Arts where he studied ceramics, and thereafter attended Kanazawa College of Art and Craft. This exposure to both Korean and contemporary Japanese ceramics later served as the emblematic expression for his evolving artistic identity and studio procedures.
Roe is a rare artist of his generation who works with both ceramics and painting as his prime media. Roe has been engaged with art since the age of fifteen, which is when he first started teaching himself how to paint by creating portraits of his academic tutor and the surrounding landscape. In 2007, Galerie Besson in London invited Roe to his first solo exhibition in Europe, which was titled From Canvas to Ceramic and displayed his early paintings and yeollimum ceramics. This exhibition solidified Roe’s reputation as an artist of formidable talent. To this day, Roe remains greatly involved in both the physicality of his work and the media he uses.
At a time when many in the art world are pronouncing the art of painting ‘dead’, Roe continues to paint. Roe never wavers from his commitment to making expressive and highly personal paintings. He conveys the sense of what inspires him rather than an abstract illustration of places or things. His interest in nature stems from his fascination with the notions that, within nature, things repeatedly appear and disappear, while gradually leaving traces in one’s memories and emotions. Perhaps Roe’s paintings and ceramics are akin to diaries or journals recording his ideas, memories and emotions of his personal experiences with nature.
For some, Roe’s work may appear abstract, unfinished and nostalgic, but the apparent simplicity of Roe’s works of ceramic is achieved by a paradoxically complex ceramic technique that renders his work inimitable. Additionally, his paintings represent a freedom of composition that defies any one single interpretation. They reveal the impulses and movements that are the embodiment of the artist’s own thoughts. His ceramics underpin his ideas and have, throughout time, taught him to be patient, as ceramics exemplify the phenomena of slowly processed fabrications. Together with his prompt brushstroke in his oil paintings, following long, careful observation of his chosen subject matter, Roe's approach to these two different genres of art breaks down the barriers that are otherwise strongly maintained in conventional interpretations.
For Roe, what matters the most is the creative act itself – the moment at which images and internal impulses come together as an expression of his subjectivity on canvas and in ceramic. His ceramics and paintings reflect the poetry of his inner world, with its mixture of ideas, memories of music from his youth such as Sibelius and Grieg. They are, above all, created with the notion of dialogue with the artist himself, encouraging him to express his intuitive and spiritual reaction to something with a subtle air of melancholy, all the while seeking an appropriately condensed and expressive artistic language.
Behind the window of the atelier
Roe believes that people are in many ways one of the greatest treasures and he devotes much of his time to teaching ceramics at a local university. However, he regards his atelier as a kind of cave to which he can escape when he lacks the desire for the mundane routine of everyday life and feels the need to recharge his energy. He reads widely and enjoys simple pleasures such as gardens, architecture and landscapes, as well as playing with his cat Junnie.
In Roe’s medium format multi-panel series from 2011 onwards, his paintings are symbols of his clear aesthetic voice, feelings and thoughts, and display combinations of two of his personal inspirations: his atelier and his garden. These favoured motifs reappear frequently in different forms and colours, amplifying the absence of a human presence in his work. “The fact is that I am interested in neither popularism nor pop art. I enjoy being myself and I therefore need to escape into my own world from time to time. I choose flowers, the forest and my studio for their reality, their beauty and the visual world that they represent as inspirations, expressions or metaphors.” Alongside using them as an inspirational basis for his ceramics and paintings, Roe sees these elements as a foundation for the self-awareness of the vacant state of mind.
Roe’s Yang Pyung studio normally sees lots of snow during the winter. White is the artist’s favourite colour and his bedroom in the studio therefore boasts white wallpaper stretching from floor to ceiling. The garden is filled with white barked birch trees, yeollimun ceramics, antique Korean budo stupas and traditional Korean onggi vases. I am somewhat reminded of Nordic artists like August Strindberg and Andreas Eriksson. The non-human nature and white paint in the arts and crafts are popular themes for many artists in Nordic countries, as demonstrated by their many references to Nordic winter landscapes, white night, white interior design and pale skies. This similarity also exposes another parallelism in which the underlying cultural colour of both Korea and Sweden is white.
Roe invests time in the process of creation, considering it as important as the actual product of his work. Time is pivotal for ceramics as they are carefully processed in response to each firing process. Time at the Yang Pyung studio is cherished, forcing the artist to slow down and be momentarily present in a dreamlike, solitary place.
A time of stillness, nature and simplicity
“Pottery is time-consuming art. It takes slow movements and is a time-processed evocation,” says Roe. The thing Roe enjoys the most about ceramics is the way they draw on nature in the shape of earth, fire and air, and the fact that the work demands physical strength. He is calmed and humbled by the evolution of a temporal and accidental phenomenology that is a still life of eternal forms. Roe’s epoch of natural, monochromatic ceramics and paintings reminds me somehow of my favourite minimalists such as Mark Rothko, Kazimir Malevich and Donald Judd.
Roe’s flat-surfaced rectangular yeollimun ceramics titled Birch Forest arguably have a visual connection to Donald Judd’s series of sculptures that consists of a vertical line of identical, machine-made metal boxes cantilevered from the wall. However, Roe’s hand-thrown vessels placed on the floor reveal a different notion of geometric and repetitive aesthetics. The hand-made stoneware vases reflect a desire to create a natural space with the primordial energy derived from Roe’s forest-living life that avoids all kinds of conceptual connotation and presents itself in an entirely pure form.
The painting Quadrilateral by another minimalist, Kazimir Malevich, also appears to display an interesting connection to Roe’s uncompromising vertical box-like yeollimun ceramics. Much of Roe’s vertical vessels are not only exhibited as ceramic objects attempting to find places, but also as a passage for dialogue with nature or architecture in a form similar to site-specific sculpture. Roe’s ceramics, with their several different glazes that appear to be symbolic of many different layers of epoch, display the subtle interplay between title and work. Alongside this, they invite the viewer to engage with the pieces on an imaginative terrain as well as on the basis of appreciation for the pure geometrical aesthetic pleasure that occupies much of Roe’s work.
Mark Rothko once said, “I'm not an abstractionist. I'm not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” I asked Roe, when I interviewed him after seeing his subtly expressive oil paintings, if he too was not an abstractionist. Roe declared that his work is simply homage to his daily observations and imagination, both collective and personal, with themes exploring the secret lives of nature and objects, histories of collecting and lineage along with others. Additionally, Roe added that “...My work is about allowing myself to express myself, without expecting that everyone will necessarily like it.”
Flower – Forest – Cave
Roe’s principal mediums in recent years, explorative still life drawings and expressive landscape paintings, typically depict birch trees, forests and white landscapes. He sees and uses nature in his work, as well as dwells on how to use these elements to better reflect his artistic discourse. In his endless search for novelty and his own integrity, Roe recently stated, “...My buncheong works try to show the forest changing from spring to autumn by using the Joseon buncheong technique. The birch forest where the trees come into leaf in spring and are later stripped bare in the autumn motivated me. Through the white-slip and overlapped glaze, my buncheong represents changes of clay, glaze and even fire. My work is part of my everyday surroundings as well as my life.”
Roe’s Spring Flower is his most recent large oil painting. The work eliminates the stereotype of the landscape but possesses the simplicity of a transient moment with a certain degree of natural movement. Roe claims that he dislikes large flowers like camellias and magnolias because they leave withered remains, but the small, yellow spring flowers like Cornelian cherries disappear effortlessly without a trace. Conceivably, Roe began to connect such works to the self-awareness of his artistic maturity, and seems now to project the characterization of himself as a matured yet confident artist. Roe recently expressed, “I feel I can paint better with bad eyesight because I see only the essence of things.”
A central theme in Roe’s art comes from the forest. For Roe, the forest embodies silence and life force. Both his Seoul home and Yang Pyung studio are located by the forest, and the overall simplicity and muted colour range of his panels reveal this source of inspiration as a clean shelter that serves also as a sacred place with no external distractions. Influence is drawn from classical notes of elegy such as Dong-Ju Yun’s well-known poems, especially a passage from The Prologue that Roe loves and that reflects upon the ultimate uncompromising morality and purity. Roe’s forest seems to denote the pure side of nature, which is then heightened by the simple composition of plain lines of trees and flowers, thus encouraging the viewer to follow the pathway and shadows as though entering a void or utopia.
Polyptych oil painting dominates Roe’s painting production, and intriguing multiple panel paintings beautifully convey Roe’s theme and style of art. At the same time, these allow Roe to combine a range of compositions and sceneries within single works as well as multiple works, while retaining separation, unification and visual symmetries. The subtlety of Roe’s handling of paint that achieves a consistent colour tone and a spatial setting for his multi-panelling can, at times, appear to converge into an infinite space. The white bedroom in Roe’s studio as a private ritual space and his atelier as a detached serene retreat creates the illusion of him disappearing into a cave within a grander cave. Roe is in his element in this foundational space allowing him to be both dualistic and free in his solitude in his search for open, communicative and alluring artistic language.
In Roe’s art and taste, sensibility and reason and his notion of beauty and freedom are brought together by means of imagination. Given the fact that Roe’s concepts of nature and freedom are separated, his aesthetic experience enables his ceramics and paintings to have no bound rules but instead a subjective nature based on feelings. The emotional subtlety embedded in Roe’s work eloquently conveys his concept of beauty, but his art speaks mostly of his aesthetical judgement that taste is not a conclusion but rather a hypothesis of individual choice. Roe’s ceramics and paintings make me question the psychological theory of beauty. As Kant puts it, “...What will happen when you spend time with this object? The promise of happiness is not a particular concept but rather a guess about what will happen. The promise doesn’t need to be kept or can be worse when it can be kept but disappointing. Or the promise can be bad but you wouldn’t know it.”
The question of duality that is explored in Roe’s ceramics and paintings could be defined as the artist’s growing conviction that a work of art need not remain fixed and unchanging, but should rather be a genuine response to the ever-changing nature of his surroundings. Roe’s attention to this dimension of ‘duality’ and ‘one’ provides a sense of unity that remains central to his concept of art while exposing him to new ideas and methods such as the mix of a ‘personal’ and ‘non-personal’ emphasis in his works. These intriguing combinations raise questions of whether the portrayal of the actual surroundings of the artist – such as the flower, forest, object and interior of his studio – reveals the emphasis of ‘self’, or indicates an expression of ‘self and origin’ through a bloodline that comes to life from one moment to the next.
Perhaps Roe Kyung Jo’s journey through ‘flower – forest – cave’ in his Yang Pyung studio speaks of his own poetics with the anticipation of creating the stillness and timelessness he loves, and the simple reflection of entering the void of his world to be a beholder, and to be one.
VON PLATEN Miyoung (장미영) M.A. is an independent curator based in London and Stockholm. She was born in Seoul in 1966 and moved to England to study Styles in Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London in 1992. Miyoung von Platen obtained an M.A. degree in Museum and Gallery Management from City University in London in 2004. She specializes in the field of international contemporary art and is responsible for the development, fundraising, organization and curating of international exhibitions. Roe Kyung Jo’s From Canvas to Ceramic at Galerie Besson in London was her first independently curated exhibition. Since then, she has curated many exhibitions such as 38 Snow South: Korean Contemporary Art at Gallerie Charlotte Lund in Stockholm, A Glocal View at Uppsala Art Museum in Sweden, and Young In Hong, This is Not Graffiti at the Cecilia Hillström Gallery in Stockholm. She has contributed a number of articles to local and international art magazines, and has been published in an international museum publication.
Polyptych is a work of art involving two or more panels, most frequently more than three panels, since diptych (two panels) and triptych (three panels) are more commonly used.
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). However, Korean marble ware differed in terms of design; it was less prolific and thus little has been written about it. Yeollimun ceramics appeared in the form of Koryo Dynasty (935-1392 AD) celadon but owing to difficulties in making them, they practically disappeared in the 13th century.
Galerie Besson in London is one of the most avant-garde ceramic galleries of its era, having launched the careers of many well-known ceramic artists including Lucie Rie (1902 – 1995).
In Korea, Buddhist relics are known as ’Shari’ and are often stored in ’Budo’ (Stupa, relic hall, reliquary).
BAAL-TESHUVA, Jacob. Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: Pictures as Drama, New York: Taschen, 2003
ROE Kyung Jo, Dual Natures in Ceramics: Eight Contemporary Artists from Korea, SFO May 17, 2014 – February 22, 2015
HEWITT Dan, Aesthetics Philosophy of the Arts, Standard YouTube License, August 6 2013