[New Look] Faces without Names

〈Passersby, Difference and Repetition〉 Oil on Canvas 259.1×193.9cm (102 x 76in) 2015

We all have childhood memories of telling each other scary stories under a blanket, after a long, hot summer day. A frequent character of such stories in Korea is the ‘faceless ghost’. This ghost appears with his or her back turned towards the storyteller, but when the ghost turns and shows his or her face, there appears a blank surface, smooth and egg-like. The reason faceless ghost can become a subject of fear has more to do than that it looks weird, but with how we recognize the face as a body part.

〈Passersby, Unmask〉 Oil bar on Linen. 90.9×72.7cm (36 x 28.5in) 2013

Photographer Suntag Noh, in his photo essay Photo’s Hair (Hankyoreh Press, 2013) identifies the face as the standard of recognizing somebody as a unique person, saying; “of human’s body parts, the only part that is equivalent to a person’s name is the face.” The face is not only a realization of a person’s unique identity but the proof that the person has once existed. For instance, even though one has never met the people depicted in a hall of photographs; as long as a photographed portrait exists, the viewer has evidence that those people once existed in reality. Artist Jaeyeol Han focuses on the human’s face as his sole subject. But instead of drawing a picturesque facsimile, he depicts people who will always remain nameless. Jaeyeol draws faces from which their names have been erased out.

〈Passersby, Outrageous〉 (part) Oil bar on Linen. 25×35cm (10 x 14in) 2013

Jaeyeol focuses on certain interesting faces amongst a crowd of people, then quickly sketches that face taking between three to five minutes each. These sketches later serve the basis for paintings worked up in his studio. Glimpsed in passing, in public, and unaware that they’ve observed, some passersby briefly expose their emotional states. And these brief emotional states, become facial expressions which then become the characters of Jaeyeol’s paintings. This is how Jaeyeol describes it: “I provide an opportunity to bring to life faces that are all too easily passed over, ignored. I try to create a new meaning in our modern era, where meeting another person is often done indirectly – on the phone, on Facebook - instead of meeting each other in reality, to meet each other face to face .”

〈Passersby, Penetration〉 (part) Oil bar on Linen 27.5×19cm (11 x7.5in) 2013

In 2010, when Jaeyeol first began his Passersby series in Ireland he made them on A4-sized (or 8.27 x 11.69 inches) canvas sheets. The small size enabled him to create more works, as well as their size being similar to life-size, they created an impression of a ‘crowd’ when a few dozen works were displayed together. Later, his paintings became larger than two meters, or about six feet in height. Jaeyeol works with oil bars, expressing the movement extending from his shoulder to his fingertips, and on through the oils bar to the canvas. The bigger the canvas, the more dynamic his body’s movement becomes. Another focus of his paintings is to experiment with the possibilities available in painterly painting. For this reason he paints the face in the order of bone, muscle, fat and skin, enabling himself to describe the bodily existentiality of his subject.

〈Passersby, In silence〉 Oil on Canvas 190×130cm (75 x 51in) 2013

Jaeyeol himself calls his work “both drawing and sculpture at the same time”. The thick volumes of impasto is a distinct characteristic of his work. This feeling of ‘volume’ along with bright, primary colors completes the bodily sensation of his paintings. The person’s singularity as well as their general ambience and the direction of light, serves as the basis of his painting. Jaeyeol’s selection of color is partially based on Goethe’s color theory as well as his own personal instinct. He considers his Passersby series as the prologue of a storytelling that will take his entire lifetime. Each person he has so far captured has been, in a way, cast for a certain role he or she will play. It’s anyone’s guess what each face or portrait will later be doing in Jaeyeol’s story. Mug shot or, photograph or painted portrait, we are constantly exposed to countless faces but we simply gloss over them, refuse to remember them, Jaeyeol’s work gives us an opportunity to re-consider the role of the ‘face’ in our modern society, something that is indispensably crucial yet often ignored.

Jaeyeol Han / Born 1983, Bucheon, South Korea. Bacheor of Fine Arts, Painting, Suwon University. Solo Exhibit at Gallery 41(2012), Gahoedong 60(2013)and Alternative Space Art-forum Rhee(2014). Also exhibited at Seoul Digital University Art Award Exhibit (Sejong Center, 2013), OthersSoul (Golmok Gallery,2013), Outbreeding System (Open Space Bae, Busan, 2014), Cocoon 2014 (Space K, 2014). Visiting artist at Alternative Space Art-forum Rhee (2013). Seoul Digital University Art Award, Award of Excellence(2013).

November 2015, Art in Culture, Posted by the editor Lee Hyun
Original article link

The Other Side of the Coin

When I first encountered artworks created by Jaeyeol Han the precise nature and extent of his project had yet to be defined. Those initial paintings won me over completely; I wanted to see more; to know more. Yet in the autumn of 2010 there was no available English language critical commentary on his work. As a non Korean speaker I was nonetheless intrigued by what could be said of Han's work. Thus began my own notes toward a critical assessment, evolving as his project developed. And now with the publication of his Jaeyeol Han’s Passerby Project I have the opportunity to collate and extend the observations and insights generated in response to paintings by this talented artist.
    Over the following pages my notes, together with what the artist and others say of his work and milieu, will be tested against an idea proposed by Iain Robertson. In his book, A New Art from Emerging Markets (Lund Humphries 2011) he speculates that the development of a self sustaining art market in The People’s Republic of China and its neighbors since the '90’s is leading to the region's rejection of the conceptual tropes, norms and practices of Western International Contemporary Art. Twenty years after the influx of artworks from Greater China*, after Political Pop, after Cynical Realism had their day in the sun, things change; both politics and economics interrupted the advance of globalization. Concurrent with this export driven market was the internal economic development of the region, giving rise to an expanding middle class and the growing awareness that those artworks and artists who were fated in the '90s were fated more so in the West than in the cultural milieus whence their creations originated.
    The rise of a new middle class leading a revival of interest in traditional mores and cultural practices has also seen an increase in artists responded accordingly. The consciousness of a type of artwork channeled into the West’s institutional and private collections became categorized as artwork for the export market; this awareness of an absence - rather than a loss - of favor is reminiscent of the lower value status afforded to the ceramics traded onto the export market early the last century.
    For Robertson these developments point to the conclusion that we face an East / West polarization of artistic values and markets. It's a provocative notion and Robertson maps its development tellingly, however, the inevitable end point he identifies leaves a more rewarding possibility overlooked. And it is with a view to just such a possibility that I turn now to the artwork of Jaeyeol Han. Artists create work of their time, in response to their time and the work of Jaeyeol Han will provide a means to take a closer look at his time and what the future holds.

* * *

* Greater China. For Robertson this indicates the close cross cultural continuities between The Peoples Republic of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong; he sometimes extends it include Korea and Japan and in a self titled chapter it shrinks to refer exclusively to The Peoples Republic of China.

When we first met, three years ago, Han counted the influence of Goethe’s Theory of Color as primary. More recently Kant’s Critique of Judgment has engaged his attention. The extent to which either has impacted his work remains an open question but it is his engagement with the history of western thought that is of particular interest. That aside, it was in Haiti, in the aftermath of the massive destruction wrought by the earthquake of 2010, that he found the inspiration for what was to become his Passersby project. Its first elements were created on the island. He was there as a member of the South Korean / UN peacekeeping contingent - fulfilling his National Service obligations. The resilience, determination and dignity of Haiti’s people, in the face of such devastation marked the young artist indelibly. Mere circumstance, the soldier's lot, may have dictated his choice of a canvas size, 35 X 25 cms which, fortuitously, allowed for an approximate 1:1 scale of those initial, wholly original, bursts of creativity. At this scale we are as close to his subjects as to people we pass in the street. He has since extended this to a scale measured in meters but those first works, a mere handful, set the timbre for his Passersby series. And, I would wager, when he turns to his next opus, those small vibrant canvases will remain a touchstone offering a form and structure that will punctuate, shape and drive his career.

(From my notes) Working with a restricted palette, the primaries plus black and white, the adept use of his material, oil bars in his smaller works, makes for an assured balance of concept and craft. He deploys rich saturated colors against which his use of black as a color, as a component of outline, as a means of establishing form, both directly and obliquely and as shadow. This use of black also functions as an amateur lending his images solidity. They have about them an improvisational immediacy but they are definitely not sketches. Occasional lightly applied lines, mere markers – remnants of the blocking in stage – remain visible; unaltered they sustain his heads. There are gaps in the paint film showing through to the primed canvas. They carry a certain frission, an undercurrent of expressive potential; these are charged intervals, essential elements in his paintings, each one realized in a dynamic interplay of depiction and abstraction.

Since writing those words I've learnt from Kwang - Myung Kim that Korean aesthetics allows no distinction between depiction and abstraction. He also tells us; regarding the paint-film gaps revealing primed canvas mentioned above, that, "Empty space is as important as any other content."1 My very Western appraisal of the formal qualities of Han's paintings closely matches the aesthetic values Kim informs us about. The purpose of my notes, you will recall, was to understand the hold Han's paintings exerted, their gravitational pull drawing me in - the delight of being captivated. Korean aesthetics values, in the hands of a talented artist had attained significance, resonated with my own, despite my then ignorance of Korean aesthetics.
This cross cultural aesthetic contiguity is picked up again by Kim on color, the specifically Korean consciousness of black, white, red, blue and yellow:

These colors are not perceived by sense [alone]. Rather they are the conceptual colors that symbolize the Five Fundamental Elements forming the diagram illustrating the Taoist cosmos of eternal change. The five colors have lived within the hearts of the East Asian people since ancient times. Just as seven was a magic number to medieval Europe, five is a magic number to the people of East Asia; the key to solve the mysteries of the universe. Black, white, red, blue and yellow are not simply colors, but are the basic principles of the universe.2

Subtract the cultural, the religious and medieval European superstitions; leave aside Kim deserving a better translator and what remains is the very human primal response to color. They have their own literature in the West, Carol Mavor's volume; Blue Mythologies (Reaktion Books 2013) comes to mind. These five colors form the painter's basic palette, deployed to telling effect and with great aplomb by Han. All culture is an explication/elaboration of our primal responses to the world, to ourselves and to others too. Where better to start than with color's call for exegesis. And individual cultures are never more visible than when viewed from the outside.
    Here we find Robertson reporting his reflections on what he saw over the garden wall. “A cultural commonality and shared symbolic order are much harder to imagine in the West than in the societies we will encounter in this book.”3 With a nod to Borges we can picture a scholar, somewhere on the outskirts of Seoul - the Head of Art Business Studies for some institution or other - hunched over his laptop keying in: A cultural commonality and shared symbolic order are much harder to imagine in the East than in the societies we will encounter in this book - for the preface of his book, New Markets for Emerging Art.

* * *

In the following extract from his statement at the time Han, having already made clear the his use of the word 'sentiment' is to be understood as balance and moderation are conceptualized by Asian philosophy, he continues:

“ . . sentiment, as autonomous judgment; holding within its embrace both feeling and reason's analytical drive. In other words the act of painting, for me, is a process of making decisions guided by emotional impulses which are, ironically, based on reason's observations, its judgments and conclusions. The outcome of this process results in paintings, visually rich surfaces in which the exact nature of these forces - feeling / reason - is held in dynamic tension. And it is this holding of opposing forces in free, open play that provides the connectivity between my paintings and their audience.”4

Han finds his subjects on the street, in parks, in shops, having coffee with friends. For the most part his subjects only rarely face the spectator directly, their attention is always elsewhere. We become their passersby. His grasp of portraiture’s complex surfaces and volumes, his confident engagement with his material sees him deliver paintings which it would be wrong to think of as portraits in any conventional sense; they have their origin in particular people, caught at a particular moment but none is identified by name– who they are is not part of his paintings content.

(From my notes) Han’s work makes us viscerally alert to the double nature of the glimpse; the visible and the temporal as a short duration co-presence. Their conjunction might be thought of as a cusp moment, an everyday moment that only rarely becomes pivotal, this is Han’s achievement. His paintings resist being characterised as studies; or sketches, so powerfully does he evoke the poignancy of lives lived, hinted at, either side of the brief moment when their glimpsed presence is set down by Jaeyeol Han. These are fully achieved art works.

In the foregoing the impact made by Han's paintings is expressed once again from the perspective of an entirely Western sensibility - the encounter with his paintings is an invigorating experience. Han's work carries considerable heft. He uses the ephemeral nature of the glimpse as a starting point for paintings about his subjects’ relationship with the quotidian; they are about the experience of being human in the contemporary world.

* * *

Commenting on the artist's autumn 2013 exhibition Kyung Han, Hong begins forcefully, "His paintings are crude and coarse.” 5 To the uninformed reader such a pronouncement may, at first glance, appear to challenge the preceding, ongoing commendation. I'll return to the conceptual framework referenced by Hong's but not before we hear him out; he continues, encouragingly: "They are primitive, like [ ] enormous molecule[s] shrinking for an instant only to explode immediately, escaping the congenital mold in which paintings are often cast [ ] and approach[ing] us as a conglomerate of chaotic and unidentifiable energy."

In characterizing Han's paintings as coarse and crude Hong touches on a central tenet of Korean aesthetics. That this particularity might possibly present a challenge for a Western sensibility is hinted at by Kim when he writes: " . . . the problem of Korean disinterestedness or non - technique." To recall that actors are often called upon to improvise is to also recall that improvisation is an integral part of their training. And approached from this perspective the idea of art students being trained, mentored in disinterestedness, in non-technique is no problem at all. Kim then recruits D. Seckel and continues; " Koreanness or typical characteristic[s] of Korean art [can be defined as]: 1. The decomposition of form complexes into small elements like a mosaic work. 2. Flat in volume and graphically linear in surface design. Nevertheless, the underlying characteristics of Korean art are vitality, spontaneity and unconcern for technical perfection, i.e. nonchalance." Then Kim, somewhere between surprise and impatience, after citing examples illustrative of Seckel's two indicators, reminds his reader; "But this [nonchalance] is a basic approach in all Asian art."

* * *

Both Robertson and Kim introduce their readers to the East Asian conceptualization of tradition. Both define it with the congenially binary term, continuality and change - as an East Asian constant its relevance extending beyond the arts. In the West by contrast an interest in tradition in the arts is viewed pejoratively. The place of tradition in pre-Modern times was usurped by the teleological drive evolving through to Greenberg's theorised purity and the 1950s collapse of Late Modernism. Holding tradition at arms length has continued through Postmodernism and everything currently identified as International Contemporary Art. Robertson refers to this as the “international cultural standard” - its cultural homeland being America - north and south - and Europe. Ranging the autonomy of Eastern tradition against its Western ‘other’ Robertson, in his dread the Western imposition of its own model of globalization, of an imagined “cultural Esperanto”, champions the broad Asian cultural unity he perceives with the implication that it needs protection. He describes the stakeholders of International Contemporaryy Art rather tetchily as “institutional cultural apparatchiks.” I am reminded of Patrick Chamoisesau’s, “. . . you say, tradition, tradition, tradition . . . , you bawl on the floor for the tree that loses its leaves, as it the leaf was the root! . . . Leave tradition alone, son, and watch the root.” (Solibo Magnificent, Granta 1999)
    Neither Kim nor Robertson remind their reader that first rate art elicits and rewards sustained and repeated attention or that it offers up more than was originally perceived; all this is taken as given. And Robertson is a sensitive commentator, indeed, his book surprises in the number of artworks and artists he brings to our attention. Whether the art he engages with amounts to a hook, line and sinker submission to the Institutional Contemporary Art regime or operates exclusively within either Chinese / Korean traditional norms, his comments are evenhanded; he resists passing judgment. He does this so consistently that his contention of a developing Asian / West polarization of art values and markets slips and slides leaving next to nothing in the way of persuasive evidence.
    Let’s recap; the Korean artist, Jaeyeol Han, has produced a body of work consistent with traditional Korean aesthetics and his engagement is a passionate one. Not for him a cynical adoption of Institutional Contemporary Art Practice flavour-of-the-month norms. His paintings are about his subjects, not of them. And he’s not afraid to tackle irony; as a member of a culture prizing social commonality, a lá Robertson; Han ruthlessly isolates his subjects confident the evolving increase in their numbers grants them the social community that would otherwise be lost to individuality. Irony and aboutness may be Western art values and concerns but there’s nothing forced , self servingly manipulate , nothing artificial in their deployment by Han. More to the point, his work exceeds such normative minima. The availability of his work to Western, International Contemporary Art practices and concerns in no way takes from his achievement. His work cuts through the other/different divide. Rather than act as though Western art’s explorations of the world are a culturally alien burden or a mere resource to be taken advantage of, a weight to be shouldered, he’s tucked them under his belt, recognizing them as an available, worthy resource.
    Of particular interest in this regard is that much of the Asian art Robertson discusses shows evidence of having absorbed aspects of International Contemporary Art practice. These are the very aspects Robertson glosses over, engaging instead in silence to support his proposition. The isolating silence he elaborates between East and West has about it something of the patrician’s superiority. It covertly overlooks the fact that Asian artists have the same inquiring / questioning spirit of artists the world over; are interested in the opportunity to influence, to give a new shape and renewed impetus to International Contemporary Art. It is from a position within this vanguard that Han produces his art. The next cultural standard, the next time globalization surfaces as a credible, legitimate force in general discourse it may very well be discussing the influence exerted by East Asia. Against which Robertson's attempt to put the stopper back on the bottle after the genie has escaped is a waste of time.

©Shay Reilly 2014


    1. Korean Aesthetic Consciousness and the Problem of Aesthetic Rationality. Kwang-Myung Kim. AE. Volume 2. 1996
    2. Ibid.
    3. A New Art from Emerging Markets. Iain Robertson. Lund Humphries, 2011.
    4. Quote taken from one of the artist's exhibition catalogues, 2011
    5. Kyung Han Hong. Exhibition review in 'Article' - journal of Contemporary Art. www.kharticle.com (p.149)

Savagery – Reading His Veracious Vernacular

    Jaeyeol Han Opens Out / Solo Exhibition at Gahoedong 60 / June 12 – June 25, 2013

His paintings are crude and coarse. Words of embellishment and supplement are not allowed for these images. They are primitive, like an enormous molecule shrinking for an instant only to explode immediately, escaping the conventional mold in which paintings are often casted in, and approaching us as a conglomerate of chaotic and unidentifiable energy. His main subject is rumination of his own memory, specifically the nameless strangers perambulating amongst.

These are his words. “There are just as many ways of seeing and understanding as the number of humans in this world. Likewise, I paint to express my personal and subjective response to each object.”

Under formal analysis, his portraits traverse the figurative and the abstract. His works are formed from instinct, not with underlying calculations. Contrary to his statement, “I add logic and judgment to the mixture of reason and sentiment”, his paintings are, in fact, rather marks of an upheaval - what Carl Gustav Jung had often referred to as primitive image – during which the subconscious manifests. His artworks accentuate feverous subconscious rather than cold logic, and therefore the process of “capturing none but the dynamic tension between emotion and reason” is rooted in primordial intuition yet to become coherent thoughts. His argument, “the outcome of this process is a visually rich surface, painting”, is finally completed. The result, what we witness, is his veracious vernacular.

Jaeyeol Han received Bachelor of Fine Arts from Suwon University, and has since held two solo exhibits including the latest one at Gahoedong 60. He also participated in a number of group exhibits, receiving Award of Excellence from Seoul Digital University earlier this year in March.

- Translated by Jae Hee Han

July 2013, "Article" a journal of contemporary art in Korea

[b]racket magazine March 2014

Sometimes, while walking through the crowded streets of a large city, it can be easy to forget that the people we pass are also going somewhere, meeting someone, or hoping for something. Those people are also ervous, happy, anxious and sad. We walk by each other thinking little of the other pedestrians, hardly seeing their aces, rarely wondering where they are going or who they are. We often just focus on ourselves. Artist Han Jae Yeol, however, pays attention to the passers-by and has introduced us to them in his paintings. “During my military service, I was dispatched to Haiti’s peacekeeping unit in response to the earthquakes.” Han said, “what was happening there was contained in {the Haitians} faces.”

He continued, “I collected those faces and that’s how it began.”

Though we are many, we are also individuals. Han hasn’t forgotten the importance and beauty of individuality. “A Crowd of humans flowing like a body of water,” Han says in his blog “negates individual energy and dissolves their existence.” Walking amongst a group of people makes us less likely to focus on any one individual. While Han walks amongst a crowd of people, he often begins retreating further into himself. His work is a response to that inward focus. Since his service in Haiti, he has turned his energy outward and created his project; a collection that encompasses over 300 paintings. Han believes that artists must “pay close attention to things, to give them the attention they deserve.” Han gives consideration to the “existential energy” of the people he observes and looks to capture its presence with oil paints. “I was first interested in the structural qualities of the human face,” Han said, “but later realized that this interest rose from a primitive force exerted from faces.” He decided to work with paint despite it being a traditional medium. Painting, Han feels, is the best way “to capture brief existences born between image and spontaneity.”

Han’s work doesn’t show details of the subject’s face. The final outcome looks similar to what we may remember when trying to recall a face with which we are not familiar. Han’s portraits are blurred with color expressing the “existential energy” he sees in a person’s face. Han reveals the subject’s emotions and energy with the colors that he chooses to use.

His work also speaks of a larger societal issue. “We avoid human relations,” Han said, “our lifecycles change to make living alone more comfortable and convenient.”

He believes living too much within ourselves isn’t healthy, and we must communicate with others more often. “The age of excluding the others is over, but now the self exhausts the self, and violence is returned into the self.” Han’s work looks to expose this idea of the self, and to give us an experience with the faces we rarely take the time to examine. His paintings remind us that sometimes you should take a closer look at the people around you. The discoveries you can make with this simple act may surprise you.

[b]racket magazine Whit Altizer 2014

Copyright © 2013 Jaeyeol Han. All rights reserved.