Forget Chinese art: it's been over-hyped, over-valued and is now well beyond the reach of most collectors - even though prices have slipped substantially on the back of financial turmoil and, indeed, growing doubts regarding quality.
Korea is currently where it's at, and makes fertile stomping ground for collectors in search of highly original, quality work at far more reasonable prices. Sums for established artists have certainly been rising steadily, but in comparison with all things Chinese or even Indian, bargains abound.
And even if you're not in the $25,000 a work (and upwards) league, it's still worth checking what the Korean contemporary scene has to offer. The vibrancy and energy associated with emerging art arenas is very much in evidence, with new artists of note appearing frequently. And as more galleries spring up to feed growing demand, prints and editions will become more readily available for those wanting to get involved on a lesser scale.
But before taking a look at some of Korea's most interesting artists, it's worth taking a moment to consider the infrastructure of the country's art scene itself.
Just as in China, there's little state support for contemporary art, meaning that major collections are largely in private hands and vary in quality and range.
Commercial galleries, though fairly abundant in the capital city of Seoul, have tended to favour traditional painting over the new (as on-the-ground buyers attest, it can be fairly difficult to hunt down cutting edge work). The gallery system, too, differs substantially from its western counterpart, with dealers doubling as curators and organising several large, pay-for-entry shows per year.
Nevertheless, this situation is changing, and several of the more important galleries have recently established branches in cities such as New York to take advantage of growing interest from western collectors.
As for the art itself, Korean contemporary practice is highly diverse, something that differentiates it from its Chinese counterpart in which certain themes and mediums tend to predominate. This partly explains its relatively slow recognition as a powerful new creative force: focus has generally fallen on individual figures rather than the scene as a whole.
Yet as greater numbers of Korean artists become known to western audiences, a sense of collective artistic merit is becoming ever more obvious.
Of course, art markets thrive on hype, and with highly uncertain economic climates affecting art sales across the board, Korean art is likely to receive a sharply increasing degree of acclaim.
But the truth is, Korean art really does merit much of the hyperbole. And if you're still unfamiliar with what's on offer, it's time to judge for yourself.
Born in 1949, Soo Koo Shim can be seen as a transition between traditional Korean art and the wholly contemporary subjects and methods embraced by a younger generation of artists.
Creating works consisting of thousands of segments of twigs harvested from bushes grown on his country studio-farm, Soo Koo Shim's practice reflects the Neo-Confucian emphasis on nature and eloquent simplicity that dominates traditional Korean art forms. At the same time, his idiosyncratic approach and nod towards western formalism is also entirely modern in tone.
One of the better known new Korean artists, So-Young Choi creates intricate landscapes entirely from recycled denim.
Her clever compositions and sheer skill in teasing astonishingly nuanced, multi-textured scenes from this most ubiquitous of materials lend panache to what is, essentially, collage with a twist. Quirky and fascinating, prices for her work are climbing rapidly.
Multimedia is particularly strong amongst new Korean artists, and Joonho Jeon's arresting video works are an excellent case in point.
'Drift / Wealth' focuses on a Bank of Korea bill and its engraving of the Royal Palace complex (it is, in fact, a detailed reproduction, as the artist was refused permission to use the genuine article).
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A tiny figure is seen moving in the palace grounds, wandering through the array of buildings in a strangely subversive exploration not only of the restricted complex, but the symbolic value of the banknote itself.
A similar work, 'White House', was created for Joonho Jeon's first US show. In it, a projection of a twenty dollar bill reveals another miniature figure systematically whitewashing the emblematic US seat of power.
Han-Soo Lee's kitschy hybrids of extra-terrestrials, world religions, LED lights and fluoro paint may feel less conceptually substantial than the work of many of his contemporaries, but do exemplify the free-for-all energy and humour that marks much of the current Korean scene, as well as its whole-hearted embrace of all things technological.
At its best, Han-Soo Lee's work attempts to seriously examine the various influences shaping modern Korean society - and his colourful aesthetic is always a crowd-pleaser.
Despite appearances, Hyun-Mi Yoo's extraordinary works are not paintings at all - or at least not in the conventional sense.
What appear to be two-dimensional canvases are originally arrangements of three-dimensional objects, first created in clay, then carefully painted as if to appear part of a flat composition.
To complete the illusion, 'painterly' shadows and lighting effects are meticulously added before the completed set is photographed.
The deliberate confusion demands considerable attention to resolve. From a distance, Hyun-Mi Yoo's works appear to be actual still life paintings; close up, they seem photographs of canvases (although an increasing tendency to create surreally improbable compositions prompts the viewer to observe the images far more closely).
The conceit is strikingly complex - photographs of three-dimensional, sculptural installations painted to look like two-dimensional paintings (which in themselves attempt to achieve a sense of three-dimensional space) - and through her use of medium within medium, the artist sets up a fascinating perceptual conundrum and devious approach to the nature of painting itself.
Korean contemporary art > continued
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