Men—alienated, imprisoned, in hiding, dead, defiant, alone—populate Suh Yongsun’s rough-hewn paintings. Wide-eyed, like an animal, one shoves his face into a bowl in Eating, 2003, which Suh built with thick green and red marks. In A Night in the Desert—Prisoners, 2004, a small group of soldiers sit behind barbed wire, barefoot, useless, as darkness hovers behind them. The artist himself gazes out from the eight-and-a-half-foot-tall Self-Portrait with Red Eyes, 2009, looking like a man who has seen horrible things and is willing to recount them.
Suh was born in Seoul in 1951, amid the Korean War. In My Father—Mom’s Story, 2008, he shows his father crouching beneath a wooden floor, avoiding the conflict. The Young Deaths, 1997, depicts five naked men, eyes closed, in the dirt, drawing on North Korea’s failed 1996 infiltration of South Korea, whose media published imagery of enemy commandos killed in action. A large head floats atop water in Lying on the Sea, 2012, channeling a sensation experienced by the artist while he was working along a coast. Those three paintings variously mine a family tale, current events, and a personal vision. Brought together in the artist’s violently hued, almost Fauvist palette, their disparate qualities (intimacy, urgency, surrealism) blur into one another.
All of this only works, of course, because of how Suh paints: in quick, plainspoken strokes, with candor, as if he is assembling a picture from a memory or a dream. Leon Golub may come to mind, especially when Suh occasionally affixes his canvas directly to the wall. He catches scenes at odd angles and often wields just three or four colors. Self-portraits that he painted this year, acrylic on mulberry paper, are just red and blue, plus white space; multiple Suhs float about in each one.
Cycling through painting genres, Suh presents a kind of oblique autobiography, following the artist’s journey through a world being molded by historical, political, and psychological pressures. He paints vaguely sinister images of the brokers of Japan’s colonization of Korea, William Howard Taft, Katsura Taro, and Theodore Roosevelt; history paintings, such as a barely legible depiction of Roosevelt’s funeral; and lucid landscapes, sites of conflict or revolution. (There was little in the way of still life here, unless you counted the pile of skulls that compose Nameless Deaths, 2010.) His masterpieces are his large city scenes from around 1990, when Seoul was expanding rapidly. In sharply contrasting tones, as logos loom, people ride mass transit, gazing through windows and at mirrors; the air is eerie but also full of potential, as in film noir.
Suh may hint at his politics, but in contrast with his Minjung contemporaries, he usually chooses the role of careful (albeit selective) observer over that of the ardent activist. One exception is the earliest piece here, the blackly funny Politician, 1984/86, showing four besuited men, agents of authoritarian power who are at once ridiculous and menacing. Their polar opposite is embodied in Suh’s 2010 portrayal of Kim Si-seup, aka Maeweoldang, a fifteenth-century Korean scholar who rejected officialdom to become a monk following a palace coup. He sits cross-legged atop a smoldering expanse of red and yellow. Nearby, trees and water vibrate. He is still.