Julien Levy Gallery, first floor, Perelman Building
Plain Beauty brings together exquisite porcelains made in Korea during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), Joseon-inspired ceramics by contemporary artists, and large-scale photographs by Bohnchang Koo (Korean, born 1953). Actively produced in Korea beginning in the fifteenth century, simple but elegant white porcelains reflected the neo-Confucianist ideology of the dynasty's ruling elites, which promoted a frugal and restrained lifestyle. Production of these wares continued through the early twentieth century, yielding vessels of diverse functions, sizes, and shapes.
While the evolution of ceramics in East Asia was closely related among neighboring countries, Korea's preference for plain white porcelain distinguished it from China and Japan. In China, which was a source of inspiration and reference in the development of Korean ceramics, potters replaced the earlier fashion for plain white wares with lavishly decorated Wucai porcelains that featured flamboyant, multicolored patterns. In Japan, vivid polychrome Imari wares gained enormous popularity. As a result, pure white wares remained a uniquely Korean phenomenon. Photographer Bohnchang Koo explored the classical beauty of Korean white porcelain in his Vessel series, produced between 2004 and 2008. Since the 1980s, Koo has examined the overarching themes of life and death through various subjects, including insects, animals, plants, and self-portraits. To create the Vessel series, Koo photographed plain white porcelains in the collections of museums in Korea and abroad. For him, these wares echo the essence of the Joseon aesthetic, and—because they are often stained, cracked, and worn by everyday use—they are a perfect subject through which to convey warm traces of human life. Drawn from the Museum's holdings and loans from other collections in the United States, the exceptional works on view in this exhibition create a visual dialogue that transcends both differences in medium and the time in which they were created.
Bohnchang Koo, a pioneer and leader of the modern Korean photography, lives and works in Korea since the mid 1980s, after he returned from his several years' study in Germany. The works featured in the Plain Beauty exhibition are from his more recent series, "Vessel." In order to create the series, Koo visited museums with Korean art collections both in Korea and abroad, and photographed only plain white porcelains. Initially, Koo felt that there was a "distance" between the camera, a modern and mechanical medium, and the white porcelain, with its classical and natural beauty. Through more than two years of work on the series, Koo eventually realized that his focus had to be the essence and inner sensibility of the vessels, not the visible outer shape. This corresponded exactly to the ideas of the people who lived during the Joseon Period. To them, conveying and appreciating the essence of these objects was also more important than perfecting the shape or lavishly decorating the surface. Due to his efforts to personify the quintessence, the white porcelains reborn through his lens seem to possess certain personalities, almost like portraits.
This exhibition is made possible by the Korea Foundation. Additional support is provided by The James and Agnes Kim Foundation Endowment for Korean Art and Frank S. Bayley.
Hyunsoo Woo, The Howard and Maxine Lewis Associate Curator ofKorean Art