Wonhee Nho puts her considerable painterly skills in the service of a figurative language that has its main roots in the late 1970s. Negating the desperate elitism or aloofness that shaped the attitudes of Korea’s modernist avant-garde during the Park era and after, she crafted a kind of realism that could both articulate the political and existential concerns of the common people, including the artist herself, and match these anxieties. A member of the activist artist group “ Reality and Utterance”, which aligned itself with pro-democratic forces in Korea in the 1980s and thus helped establish the Minjung Art movement, Nho’s paintings generally make use of mass media-imagery or deeply ingrained Korean symbols, but also convey a strong sense of eerie atmosphere. Her famous street scenes from the early 1980s are an example of this. “ Garden of Learning” makes room for what could be considered a small retrospective of Nho’s work, including a recent series of small-scale paintings inspired mostly by popular mythology. Painted in a manner that is straightforward and casual, rough and overtly direct, her treatment of those subjects foregrounds their utter banality, even absurdity. But the artist’s gaze is not at all cynical or eager to expose, for example, a young woman’s claim to be fashionable and sexy. Nho’s gaze is sober and full of humor – not only in relation to her subjects but also with regard to her own understanding of painting as a practice. Every painting is thus a testing ground for art’s claim to truthfulness and for the riches of a popular mythology that lies buried under the precious waste of commodity culture.
Another feature of Nho’s painting is her use of montage, as we see in the painting that juxtaposes an image of a couple with that of a Korean house. A thin, grayish layer covers the entire canvas. The young couple is wearing fine clothes – the man a black suit and the woman a traditional Korean costume. But while the couple is meticulously rendered in a subdued, but still polychromatic palette, the traditional house is monochrome and sketch-like. Despite their elegant attire, the graininess of the canvas makes the couple appear dirty. Indeed, the way they are painted speaks as much of the extraordinary effort that goes into their beautiful appearance as it does the appearance itself. Posing in his black suit and embracing his wife, the man seems very much a factory worker in disguise. You almost smell his sweat. Of course, this is another couple dreaming of a house they cannot afford. The house remains ghost-like, or conceptual. Nevertheless, given the thousands of high-rises built to shelter the army of peasants-cum-factory workers needed to fuel the country’s rapid economic development, it is equally evident that this kind of dream house belongs to an altogether different Korea. Fascinatingly, Nho makes no effort to align the couple with the house; her montage simply exposes irreconcilable elements, which she leaves floating on a piece of painted canvas.