The Temple of Light: A Place for All Human Souls

Eunju Choi
Chief Curator
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea


Precisely a decade ago, in 2003, Hyunjoo Park published a book titled Inner Light. It was the repository of so many years’ assiduous work and researchthat she had conducted for her doctorate at Tokyo University of the Arts. In it is a preface written by the artist herself and I transcribe in the following a few sentences which I believe would move many a reader’s heart:

In creating a work of art, “life” presents to me the hardest, the most pressing problem. “Life,” which constitutes the theme of my studies and works, contains a tangle of so many binaries – living and dying, joy and sorrow, hope and despair – that you can’t really figure it out by dint of reason and knowledge. I wonder what we get out of such an incomplete and ambiguous grind that we call life …. Then finally I realized that by the work I do – that is, tracing light on canvas – I was actually in the process of finding myself.

Had Hyunjoo Park’s work at the time boasted the highest artistic caliber or possessed an authenticity that was just plain stupendous, then the above remarks would not have drawn as much attention. But we need to contemplate Park’s station in life that many years ago; she had at last completed herextensive and rigorous education to become a professional painter in various cities of the world from Seoul to New York to Tokyo and was finally, carefully and tremulously, testing the waters to enter the artistic career proper. If we could account that, then we might perhaps better grasp the depth of sincerity contained in her sentences that I excerpted above.

Fact is, not many people get to make a confessional statement like that. Even artists – that species touted to be the most self-immersed and -driven of all professional people – may not easily come across such an opportunity for self-reflection. In this age of overflowing tools and materials, artists may well be prepossessed by their chosen themes and subjects, materials and objects, be pushed and pulled by the pure momentum of their operations, then may at some point come face-to-face with demons that, try as you might, won’t easily be quelled. So the saying goes, the path of art is harsh, the life of artistsonerous. From very early on, Park has lived an honest life as an artist, by which I mean that she has tried to surmount the many negativities ineluctable in life – sorrow, despair, pain, what have you – and to heal her hurts by making art consistently themed around Light. Such efforts have now cohered intothis solo exhibition showcasing an ambient space of compositions, aptly titled <Temple of Light>.

You can say Hyunjoo Park hasn’t ever deviated from the theme of Light. But it should also be noted that over time – over a succession of distinctive periods each one characterized by a unique compositional style – her work has been gaining in depth and seriousness of engagement. <Sprouting> is a series produced in the earlier period of her studies in Japan, spanning about two years from 1998 to 1999. Park intended to tell a story about life-form by making consecutive circles in pencil on chalk ground. There she noticed with great interest and thrill the glittering particles embedded in the charcoal core of the pencil and this laid the foundation for her ensuing Light-themed works.

And then there is the Fra Angelico’s Linaiuoli altarpiece (1433-35) which Park seldom fails to mention in her biography as another crucial source of influence that compelled her to pursue the theme of Light. Meticulously reproducing the painting, Park was able to master the techniques of tempera and gilding, and this refined her eye for the expression of sacred Light as antithetical to secularity, ultimately giving rise to her most representative work to date, the <Inner Light> series, produced over a decade-period from 1997 to 2007. In this series, she most often fashioned cubes and boxes with wood panels, coated them in acrylic paint and gold leaf, then put them in vertical and horizontal arrangements, thus creating a strongly geometrical order. In this manner, Park maximally brought out the physical properties of light, that is, its absorption and reflection.

Subsequent works continued to reprise the theme of Light: <Beyond the Light> begun in 2008 features cylinders and cuboids rendered in riotously vivid colors; <Diagram of Light>, from 2009 onwards, arranged colored dots and bars in various rhythmic ways; <Floating of Light>, launched in 2010 and continuing, attempted to create wave-like impressions on canvas by expressing light and color in varying degrees of contrast and harmony.


In this exhibition, Hyunjoo Park seems to have gained more confidence in her art-making. This batch of works still speaks basically the same language as her past creations in which she experimented with various manners of visual composition, but it also exhibits quite a bit more verve and bravura; points, lines and planes rub shoulders in a single frame, or else these elements altogether fuse and create a wholly new kind of space. Also noteworthy is Park’s deft use of compound colors such as purple and turquoise, never before seen on her canvas, which further adds to her latest work’s flavor and nuance.


The gilded polka dots small and big – a staple feature of Park’s compositions – can be found in numerous configurations: some are huddled together like a friendly crowd; some stand apart like sullen loners; some seem to be in the middle of power struggle, taut and charged, ready to vault at any moment; some remind of a hand gesture signifying peace and reconciliation. In some cases, the dots are gathered inside a silhouette of what looks to be anhourglass, symbolizing finiteness of time. In some others, as they meet with a medley of lines – vertical, horizontal, oblique – the dots seem humanized, seem to be enacting interpersonal relationships. As such, these dots resemble nothing so much as human beings in all their complexities both glorious and damning.

As her compositions unfold, we start to discern certain recurring shapes; one by one pillars go up, stairs descend, roofs perch atop, revealing architectural forms reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, or some sacred halls of the pagan antiquities, or Buddhist temples perhaps. In any case, it is the kind of place that distills life-battered man’s deepest, dearest wishes and longings, reeled up from the very bottom of the human heart.

Named <Temple of Light> in dedication to her recently deceased mother, Hyunjoo Park’s solo exhibition contemplates her life as an artist and the values that have attended to and fermented with it. Living and dying, hope and despair, suffering and healing, lack and completion, light and shadow, secularityand sanctity, space and time….all these and more are dissolved in this temple; it is a place for all human souls.