The art of leaving things undone

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Viewing an abstract painting by Park Doo is like experiencing a virgin scenery at first light of day. On pure canvases, white as fields of snow, widely-spaced brushstrokes part the landscape like breezes of wind. Leaves are turning with gentle rhythms. The colors are earthy yet never boring; forms swerve in myriad directions without appearing chaotic. And yet the viewer, ambling through a gallery transformed into a field of grass, taking in the curious space shining through the canvas, encounters both the certainty of abstract forms and the unexpected joys of being spontaneous. At once wandering and still, the mind is brought by the compositions into a different natural world, one where the forms and shapes of external reality are reshaped into the inner mind of the artist. Here, far away from the hustle and bustle of contemporary society, the world is lost in ever deepening contemplation, a never-ending process that takes as its end goal the journey itself.

It is a journey that requires patient study, for at first glance, the viewer will feel that the wild and raucous brushstrokes render the paintings unfinished. The artist himself used to describe his work in a witty, humorous, almost self-deprecatory manner: “What could this be?”, he wondered. “Why would something that wouldn’t even go on a small canvas be put on such a large one. Somehow this ‘art’ looks like it should not be on such a large canvas.” In his paintings, indeed, the artist aims for more than surface appearance. The appearance of imperfection is the key feature of the artist’s aesthetics; in achieving imperfection, the artist is striving for the perfect way of leaving things undone.

Having studied at Musashino Art University in Tokyo and worked at Kyungwoon University for 17 years, Korean-born painter Park Doo is a dedicated disciple of East Asian art theory. He has professed a passion for the teachings Dong Qichang, a Ming Dynasty painter and art theorist who advocated for personal expression over formal skills and emphasized self-cultivation of the artists’ character – Dong claimed that an artist should read ten thousand books and travel four thousand miles. Park has followed this intellectual guide with such obsession that he prefers to have shows outside of his native country, Korea, so that he can travel four thousand miles many times over (he cheekily notes that the distance between Seoul and Europe is roughly four thousand miles). More importantly, Park understands the true meaning of Dong’s philosophy, the essence that lies beneath the surface: the experiencing of the journey is more essential than the destination.

For Park, this journey is all about imperfection through perfect spontaneity. Dong argued that art is more than representing reality and imitating nature; its highest expression is only reached when skill and all formal aspects become subservient to bringing out the true character of the artist, which can only be attained in moments of sudden inspiration and spiritual enlightenment. Imitating nature is only scratching the outward appearance of the world, itself inadequate to contain the inner universe of the artist’s mind. The task of the artist in honing their skills, Dong insisted, is to cultivate their character; only a worthy character is worthy of artistic activity. Dong created landscapes with intentionally distorted spatial features, which today would be recognized as elements of abstraction; through these unorthodox works, as well as his calligraphy, he expressed his own unique mind.

Taking Dong’s teachings to heart, Park is very keen about not imitating or representing nature in his paintings. But these are not merely works of abstraction; defining them as such would be a limiting exercise and a severe misreading of the artist’s philosophical tradition. Instead, the viewer will find it much more enlightening if they approach his art through the lens of his intellectual teachers: in following the exquisitely spontaneous outpouring of the brushstrokes, in pondering their imperfection and incompleteness, we can appreciate that the journey always comes before the destination.

About the Critic

Benji Su Alexander, PhD is an art historian and curator. He has contributed essays and/or curatorial advice for Jenny Holzer, Frieze New York, The Armory Show, and Skira Editore. He holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and is a published poet.

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