Art: Hye-Young Go brings Minhwa to the Midwest

When Korean painter Hye-Young Go came to the United States, she was disappointed with the state of Korean art in America. “(In American art museums), the Korean exhibition halls are very small, and collections are very limited compared to Japanese or Chinese art,” she says. “Korean art is still not well-known internationally.” Armed with considerable skill in Minhwa, a traditional Korean painting style, Go set out to become a one-women ambassadorial detachment for classical Korean folk art. Her show at the Crane House, her first in the United States, features 22 small-scale paintings, showing a deep respect for customary forms, combined with a playful spirit of innovation.

The paintings may be small in scale, but they pack a considerable visual punch. Their vibrant colors sear with energy and intensity, contrasting with the stillness of the formal compositions and shapes. Minhwa is executed by the layering and repetition of careful strokes of ink, chalk and glue on handmade traditional dak-ji, mulberry bark paper.

Go’s paintings illustrate several symbolic subjects foreign to most Americans — representations of romance by insects and flowers, fecundity and family harmony by the lotus. Dating back to the 17th century, Minhwa is a style of popular folk art suppressed in the colonial era that often pulls ancient and mythical subject matters. “A child doesn’t exist without parents. Without understanding tradition, there will be no creation of new culture,” Go writes in her artist statement. She sees her work not only benefiting Korea, but the world by upholding and promoting Korea’s rich cultural heritage for future generations. As dedicated as she is to education, it comes as no surprise that before leaving Korea, Go worked as a secondary school art teacher.

Her “Tiger and Magpie” pieces display an ability to successfully interpret those traditional themes, and her playful style and light hand as a Minhwa painter are further on display in her more contemporary paintings. In the “Bird and Tree” paintings, perfectly round birds sit on perfectly round trees. While I look forward to how Go may further innovate on the traditional genre — like contemporary Pakistani miniature painter and 2006 MacArthur Fellowship Foundation “Genius Award” grantee Shahzia Sikander — she excels in her ability to represent the fundamental character of the genre.

Because this style of art is meant to be displayed in the Korean home, the Crane House is a fitting venue for the Louisville transplant to share her considerable talent. As someone who did not know much about this style of Korean popular folk painting, I left the exhibition with recognition of its beauty and understanding of how and why it has persisted through the ages. Ambassador Go has succeeded in her mission to raise awareness and the status of Minhwa painting.

‘Korean Folk Paintings by Hye-Young Go’
Through Jan. 6
Crane House, The Asia Institute
1244 S. Third St. • 635-2240