Park Su-man’s Less Clever, Less Agile, and Less Self-protected Man


1. Park Su-man’s work, whose main palette is light pink, belongs to the category of figure painting or genre painting. This tonality assumes a role of excluding or lessening any radicalism and excessiveness. The combination of consistently horizontal brush strokes, whatever his theme, subject matter, and message, serve to maintain the emotional stability of his painting. Due to this, even a figure with deep furrows or a haggard body without arms is not comprehended as a clue or indicator of tragedy.

The figures in his paintings, without exception, are all characteristically represented by pictorial deformation. Their faces are shown as patternized. The vivid furrows on one’s forehead are a type of symbolic mark implying the passage of his life. His eyebrows are revealed by several dotted lines and the nose consists of two dots properly distanced with its ridge portrayed by dim light and shading. The horizontally rendered thick touches by the nose are implicative of projected cheekbones. The lips burlesqued with two parallel lines can bring about various facial expressions by simply adjusting the distance between them. A ridiculously contracted face, hairstyle, and overstated neck lessen the figure’s serious look.

If these figures are regarded as typically Korean, their facial expressions can be said to reflect a type of inner truth. The expressions generated by these clumsily reduced faces look somewhat grave and stiff. Owing to extraordinarily small eyes, when compared to their relatively large, broad faces, they often appear ambiguous and neutral; sometimes imbued with feelings of tension and unrest, exuding repent, self-mockery, resignation, and contemplation. Park presents his perspective of the face in The Everyday Within Me. He sees the face as a storage place for memories and time and the face itself as a historical narrative. A facial expression is a work by time made from the medium of the past.

What we heard long ago still whispers, and the nose still remembers the smell of ancient people. To live in the present is by no means away from to stroll through the past. The face itself is the past, present or future. Why not?

2. Park’s figures are all naked. Their naked bodies, signifying their exposed existence can be seen as the absence of all social aspects. That is, we are by no means aware of their social life. Their occupation may be a peasant, judge, teacher, or student. We are unable to guess their social status, whether they have honor or not, and whether they are noble or humble, because any external reference and information is not revealed by the artist. What is shown is only fundamental information closely associated with their existence, such as their sex or family situation. They all have a shared basis that can be referred to simply as existence.

If we consider Park’s work ontologically, it is obviously extremely burlesque, but also contains a somewhat symbolic text. The bodies are deformed in a peculiar manner: One body has two or three heads, both arms are removed, the legs are slender, and the knee is abnormally angled. The head is enlarged, but the body is reduced and thus remains scrubby, stiff, and unnatural. Most of the women are typified by drooped breasts and a rotund pelvis. Short hair and the uvula depicted by a few dots give the viewer a clue the figure might be a man.

Park’s abridged, deformed figures look quite clumsy. It is clear that their big head, stunted two arms, and stiff legs seriously limit their activities and movements. Due to this incompleteness, they are inevitably less clever, less agile, and even less able to defend themselves. As a result, they could not outdo those who have normally swift hands and feet in arduous, embarrassing situations or the cutthroat competition of life. So, they are not likely to be associated with refined expression, accurate calculation, shrewd opportunism, or pragmatism. In Park’s work, contemporary men are lampooned by the elements of lacking, absence, and inappropriateness. Despite these unique deformations, in his work, we face in ordinary people who perhaps represent nothing in particular, but are none other than ourselves. In Park’s work from 2008, Life, they are compared to marathoners with their own numbers on their back. Much like we do, they run hard but fail to set a new record.

3. The dialogs that Park’s figures exchange are ambiguous and become shattered in the air. Communication among them is disrupted and comes to an end as a monologue. Recorded on every corner of his canvas are clues to these incomprehensible thoughts, fragments of vague memories, confessions, and a sense of covertness. His ways of recording can be referred to as “subjective iconography,” and to interpret accurately the context flowing through them is not easy. This is why his painting is defined as a “container of mumbling, monologue, and conception.” The subject of his monologue is not himself as an individual but simply a way of conversation.

The artist quotes what Rene Descartes remarked when he said, “We need to make efforts to understand the world through the light of nature, not through the light of grace from the theologians.” Park’s figures, seen from the view of humanism, move far beyond Descartes’ men as skeptical epistemologists. Perhaps Sartre’s most famous quote, “Hell is other people,” is also improper to bear in Park’s figures. It becomes obvious when the artist discusses Taegye Lee Hwang’s the Theory of Sadan-chiljeong (the four phases of the human mind – sympathy, shame, modesty and the distinction between right and wrong, and the seven passions – pleasure, anger, sorrow, joy, love, hate, and greed). Which meaning In-eui-ye-ji (In: the mind to have compassion, Eui: the mind to hate evil, Ye: the mind to reserve, Ji; the mind to distinguish right and wrong) has if it cannot be achieved on the passageway to the other?

Park’s people are in no way alienated and marginalized. As seen in his work, Mobius, they look at each other, remain interwoven, and address others sometimes with compassion or grumbling. Interrelated with each other, their lives are a magic or mystery that cannot be solved by themselves alone. The world is a mystic cube they make together and eventually is one of the types of diverse, interesting relationships among those who have nothing special or extraordinary. Park’s figures are perhaps the people who march on a path that the Western epistemological paradigm has so far overlooked.


By Shim Sang-yong, Ph.D. in Art History & Art Critic