The root for painting in Korean is the same for longing and writing. Wonsook Kim has brought this very root alive in her works in all of its form as one. This collection of paintings allows us to recall yearnings and stories of our youth with such clarity and vibrancy as to rival any form of narrative. No wonder then the shoes of the narrator, who appears as a girl in her paintings, are always bigger than her feet. They are her father’s shoes.
Children who love to walk around in the shoes of grown-ups fill them with dreams of the future, but that dream, when childhood recedes into memory, will have turned into a space of longing. The feeling of absence characterizes this space whether it is longing for the future or for the past, and it is writing and stories that try to fill it. Stories can be heard from Kim’s paintings whether they emanate from a crescent moon or a figure with a tilted head, and we quietly listen.
Was it the ancient Greeks who believed that the opposite of truth is not falsehood but oblivion? People do not forget what is felt to be true. The truly beautiful can’t be forgotten even if one tries. Whether it is a longing or a story, Wonsook Kim’s painting is born on the edge of oblivion. To put it a little more precisely, she discovers a live coal in the ashes of oblivion. As Korean mothers have done in olden days, she kindles a flame with her own breath like a miracle.
As a child who holds a brush for the first time and paints unselfconsciously, we rediscover illuminations and events which we might have forgotten. These may come from the sheen of a simple object or the monochromatic black and grey where the false have been forgotten and only the true, the essentials, remain like white lined charcoal fire just before turning into ashes.
If one could transform a Wonsook Kim’s painting into a sentence, it would be one without punctuation as in e.e cummings poetic lines. The subjectivity in I in lower case is buried throughout, having dissolved the dividers of consciousness and offering a space where the real and the surreal sit together in harmony. A bird that sits on the tip of her finger does not fly away, and the moon hovers above her head.
Wonsook Kim the painter is neither separated from objects nor dominates them. The objects in her painting appear disparate and yet playfully linked, for they begin to play hide and seek in front of your eyes. Still perhaps because of the changed self in time, they appear a little sad without volume, in their flatness. Her writing has in the process become an oxymoronic poem.
Korean words for writing, painting, and longing are all derived from the word ‘to scratch’. To write a piece, to paint an object, or to long for something is to leave a meaningful mark on memory by scraping the hard surface of a wall. But this act of scraping or scratching is far from the Western notion of ‘inscription’, which is suggestive of an instrument somewhat like a beast’s canine tooth that tears the object apart analytically, so to speak. With a soft calligraphic brush that places her in a thousand year old tradition of writing, she paints figures which flow like flames.
When the genie, whose finger has turned a leaf of grass into a gold nugget, tells the woodcutter to return home now that his wishes are fulfilled, the woodcutter shakes his head, saying “I want your finger, not the gold nugget.”
Wonsook Kim’s painting evokes this finger, the spirit of stories we heard as children. It is not a thing painted but a thing being painted, not existing but constantly regenerating. We enjoy looking at her work and let out a sigh of recognition because we catch a passing glimpse of the finger flashing across her painting.
Lee O Young
Translated by Wolhee Choe