oh Sang Woo has a taste for controversy. His images may look beautiful, but the stories beneath needle away at the unspoken do’s and don’ts that tie us up in social and cultural obligations. His last exhibition in his hometown of Seoul, South Korea, was almost pulled at the last moment due to a call from KBS, the Korean equivalent of the BBC. It featured one of their presenters, with her husband, in a state of undress and, more importantly, without their permission. Another show picturing a mixed race couple was simply avoided and mothballed, to avoid offending ‘cultural sensibilities’. And yet it’s hard for us in the West to believe by just looking
at the work.

Koh’s art is part painting, part performance, documented in photography. Carefully choosing his subjects for their personal stories, he paints directly onto their bodies as he works, and then reverses the colours in the final exposure to give his photos an unmistakeable electric vibrancy. In one way, he is an artist that paints photographs, and sees the world in reverse. But this reversal is also a social statement, a means of subverting the way society can push people away from their ideals, and make them compromise and change to accommodate social pressures.

In True Stories, all his photographs probe the kind of subtle conventions that restrain and limit their subjects – be it corporate control, racial prejudice, or the pressure to “be the best” as in his Portrait of a Girl / Portrait of a Woman” series. The works thus become a kind of release and defiance, beautifully rendered. And it’s his Eastern form of kicking against the system that makes Koh’s work so interesting. Not in the obvious punk aggressive way, what the West is used do, but a more discreet and suave manner of counter-culture, balancing Korean values of discipline and respect with the need to make a point.

Koh is typical of why there is a current swell of international interest in Korean contemporary art. Moon Generation, the spotlight exhibition for Korean Art at the Saatchi Gallery in October 2009, received superb reviews, and Koh been selected to exhibit at the Korean Art Show, a similar show timed to coincide with the 2010 Armory Show in New York. Having been overshadowed by the booming Chinese market, increased investment and activity is helping Korean art make serious inroads on the contemporary scene. Given that Korea is currently the thirteenth largest economy in the world (predicted to become the 3rd largest by Goldman Sachs), and already has a massive cultural presence in Asia through its films and music (known as the Hallyu wave), it is only a matter of time before, as an ArtTactic report recently stated, “the Korean art market and its collectors .. play a very important role in the Asian and international art market in the future.”

-James Freeman-

nowing that audiences are forced to see the optical fact that photography conventionally projects, Koh Sang Woo paints a visual poem of love to extract the deeply embedded internal emotion on to the exterior, deliberately exploiting photograph's capacity to realize a truth or reality to deliver a sentiment that is difficult to grasp by creating a tangible portrayal through successive processes of paint, performance and photography owing to his hopelessly romantic wish to conserve its existence and for the viewer to reconsider the true meaning and value of love.

The stunning contrast of aquatic blue-green, brash yellow and blistering orange seeps through the documented scenes of two couples in loving embrace, staging an overall painterly ambiance with brusque strokes of neon purple and yellow that signify their ethereal existence. Here, we find Koh's artistic method in literally extroverting their introverted consciousness to the surface of their skin through inversion of color negatives by suavely toying with the visual and conceptual paradox of positive and negative, inside and outside. Drawing a richly metaphoric scene with crisp contours of mesmerizing butterflies in What Light Dreams When The Sun is in Love, Koh concentrates on building an environment of a fantasy with dreamy motifs of nature and human in compositional and colorful harmony; Hug exudes a more expressive charm through the power of color and abstraction with its subtle arrangement in focusing on the body of two becoming one with vivid smudges of pulsating colors that unifies them in affection; his shrewd awareness of the color theory and the textural conversion of negative photography.   


hat can we expect from a member of the youngest generation of artists who implements strategies borrwed
from the considerably loaded bag of the aforementioned artists?

When Koh Sang Woo turns the lens upon himself his act of self-portraiture is also one of distortion.
His Photographic prints and video works are produced from color negatives, which results in an inversion; dark
tones becomes light; red changes to blue, and so on.

Turning figures inside out, revealing in a "negative" rather than a "positive" Key, "Koh" drops out of the picture
and there emerges a lusciously blue-toned albino. As he has described, "I use negative images because I am
inverting myself. I invert the color of image, and I also invert male and female, as well as Eastern and Western
cultures, I am inverting reality and fantasym too."

Koh alters such "gender effects" as clothing, hair style, make-up, and gesture. as if to compliment the process of
self-transformation by emptying his masculinity into feminine form. While titular references-Miss America, Maria,
Eve. Virgin Mary - are decided weighted toward the feminine, Koh's "transgender" make-overs reflect both male
and female attributes; although, it's quite possible that hermaphroditic aspects might lie undiscovered suppressed
in a male dominant culture such as Korea.

The "Emptying out" impluse plays again in Koh's use of symbols and stereotypes fished from the vast pool of the
public domain to forge "personal identity loop" that reverberate with the noise of former and future applications.
In American culture, for example. "Madonna" and "Eve" are not simply biblical figures they are also very popular,
fashion towards American Vocalists.

Koh's alter/ed images share as much affinity with the digital technology that supports the global coninuum as
with all of us who are connected to it-that would be anyone who knows how to use a cell phone, send a fax,
turn on cable TV, or get on the internet.

The exponential growth of the continuum, together with it's ever-widening reach and enormouse market demand,
results in "globally active" images that are continuously taking on, shedding, picking up, and discarding meaning:
new old additional deleted reinvented compromised contaminated and more.

Shared visual language and global gestalts : it's a thought-hosed by multi-national conglomerates, organized
religion and, potentially, Koh Sang Woo's blissed-out, blue albino, too.

-excerpt from "21th Century visual Logic"-

by Jan Avgikos
Jan Avgikos is an art critic and art historian who lives and works in New York City.
She is contributing editer at Artforum and has written on various contemporary artist, among them
John Baldessari, Maurizio Cattelan, Felix Conzales-Torres and Roni Hom.