13 Nov 2008 — 20 Dec 2008

 Donghyun Son's page
Donghyun Son

Artist Donghyun Son has opened up a new chapter in Oriental painting through a special melding of traditional Korean portrait techniques and mass cultural popular icons. His art show takes place from November 13 through December 20. Son has presented representations of popular character images such as Batman, Robocop, and Shrek in a Korean portrait style, and the logo type series created from the union of traditional Chinese character painting (a pictorial representation of Chinese characters making up the Confusion code of ethics) and logo brands such as Nike, Burger King, and Starbucks.

He metaphorically represents the limits of Oriental painting as a genre in contemporary art - an area in which classification of mediums and styles have already been broken down - identifying it with the loss of Korean culture’s identity and the dominance of American culture. There are many similar paintings rendered by Oriental painting artists; Son’s work, however, is distinguished from others in that he has maintained an attitude that incessantly explores new subjects and makes tireless efforts to reflect upon the spirit of our times. In this show Son presents 24 new pieces of a symbolic figure who governed his childhood days as a musical icon. The show, titled KING, is filled with portrayals of Michael Jackson, done in portraiture. The artist says a turning point in Michael Jackson's career was the year 1989, when Elizabeth Taylor called him the ‘king of pop, rock and soul’ at the award ceremony for Artist of the Decade. It was then Jackson became a king, coronated by a queen of the entertainment world; this is poignant, considering that in 1989 kings of social rank no longer existed. Son explains this artistic choice as follows:

“Even when toddling, Michael Jackson was loved for his beautiful voice. Since then, he has ceaselessly changed himself, longing for more love from the public, and has changed his attitude toward music and the world. As such, his appearance has transformed also. He got lost in these excessive changes and eventually misled himself. On second thought, considering that he has pursued the public’s desire only, his transformed appearance is simply a mirror reflecting their twisted desire.”

Unlike his previous work addressing each character, these recent works unfold a longer narrative with only portraits of Michael Jackson. Son seems to consider Michael Jackson a sole figure who represents a half-century history of mass culture from 1960 to 2000. Jackson himself is a mirror reflecting an age and a living history, inspiring a new era. In KING series, the artist attempts a new change in many ways, employing new themes and subject matter. While in his previous work Son alluded to an irony in which the signifier clashes with the signified, in this series he highlights portraiture itself. Another eye-catching object in his work is the chair Jackson is seated on. Michael Jackson in his work sits on a chair in costumes and poses we probably saw on his music albums or in videos. Classified into two styles, the chairs stand for a turning point in which Jackson referred to himself as a king.

Since then, his stage action and costumes gradually became more authoritative, as if to show the dignity of a king. In Son’s portraits Michael Jackson before 1989 was seated on a chair with a tiger-skin cushion while his appearance after 1989 was seated on a red royal chair. Upon closer examination, Michael Jackson whose skin is still dark sits on a chair with stripes in a slanted position. He seems to sing a song over the microphone or sits in a dignified mien with his arms folded. After he became a king, Jackson whose skin completely changed into that of a white man sits on a king’s chair with golden details on a red background in a supremely confident attitude.

“The reason why we look back on Michael Jackson now is not because he is either a record breaker or a scandal maker but because his music shows how popular music has met fashion, video, attitude, and even science. Nowadays, Michael Jackson is regarded as a tragic star who shined the world for a while but soon falls down. A large number of youngsters, however, strive to take the ‘trail of becoming a king in mass culture’ Michael Jackson carved. As all history did, the history of Michael Jackson will repeat again and again in the history of mass culture.”

Entering the gallery, viewers may experience a time travel going back to Michael Jackson’s childhood days when he debuted as a black kid from his heyday as a king or an icon of mass culture. Through the images of Michael Jackson who was considered a great king of mass culture and discarded by the public, Donghyun Son provides viewers with an opportunity to think over once again a wide variety of issues and feelings we face in our times.

Portrait of the King
Ink and color on rice paper
194 x 130 cm