The Layers of Memory
On the paintings by Oh Se-yeol
The image is either monochrome, the entire frame filled with one color, or is sometimes split into two. It is extremely monotonous, and yet covered with figures of abundant implication. Exuding a tranquil energy engaged in the constant act of creation, the image has the power to comfort. Figures flicker along the filaments, aligned and spaced regularly like a rice seedbed in early summer. The dense rows of seedlings await the coming summer heat, followed by the autumn cool when the paddies are full of rice ready for harvest. A sparrow sweeps through like the wind, swirling the filaments here and there into a whirlwind. Of course, this is no ordinary seedbed, as a wild flower, a window frame, an automobile often rises to the surface as if playing hide-and-seek. None of these figures could have been painted for a specific purpose. It is difficult to identify any sense of inevitability in the figures chosen or any sense of context between the figures. And yet, they are sure to arouse within us a faint sense of longing.
The traces of figures erased or lightly sketched look as if they could disappear at any moment, making it hard not to feel pity or sympathy. The figures are so ordinary, but together they look precious as if they should be treasured for a long time. A small flower, an unfinished sketch of a bird—such figures remain afloat in our memories, constantly paddling near the surface, their traces impossible to erase.
Like this, the images by Oh Se-yeol carefully unfold in front of us the pages of a memory that had been skimmed or skipped through. They are bundles of memory that could belong to anyone. Those pages of memory drift back and forth between existence and absence, keeping us from ignoring the fact that they, as Go Chung-hwan put it, “enrich our lives with meaning.” Where does this alchemy of the mind originate? Memories exist in even layers, accumulated like rows of rice in the passing of time. Just like an underground spring that supplies water, the source of our memories exists deep down at an invisible depth and from there enriches and refreshes our lives.
The paintings by Oh Se-yeol are dominated by one color, and the more it is, the more accentuated is their two-dimensionality. The figures or their traces that surface to visibility obey such orders of a two-dimensional world, barely managing to keep their balance. While the images are conspicuously flat, each image consists not of a single plane but of multiple layers of matter, adding a sense of dignity to the notion of flatness. They are not merely flat images with a wide surface, but beneath the surface they also become structures with depth. This characteristic is what distinguishes them from what is commonly referred to as a monochrome painting, as well as from other monochromatic paintings in Korea that emerged as a trend.
Here is a child. Standing bashfully against a monochrome background, she somehow makes us pity her, but also feel proud. She does not shout for attention, but rather manifests herself as a figure of monumental status. Quiet but dignified. This is how the world of Oh Se-yeol unfolds before us.
Oh Gwang-su (art critic)