Korean photography exhibit

With the end of martial law in South Korea in 1987, the arts recovered independent voices. One art form that took off was photography, and 10 years ago when Karen Sinsheimer, photography curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, saw a special exhibition of contemporary Korean photography at Fotofest in Houston, she was electrified. Later she and Anne Wilkes Tucker, her counterpart at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, agreed on a collaboration.

The result, “Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography” (at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through Sept. 19), is the first major American exhibition of photography by contemporary Korean artists living in Korea — 42 large-scale works by 40 photographers. While the show claims not to be about “Korean-ness,” it certainly reflects a certain state of the nation–forward-plunging modernity and backward-reining tradition and all.

The “nature” section reflects the more traditional side of Korean aesthetics. For 20 years Bae Bien-U has been photographing pine trees on the hills around Gyeongju, trees planted as royal memorials in the past and considered national treasures now. The black-and-white image selected for the show stands 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide, reflecting the loft and majesty of the trees. In a similar vein DaeSoo Kim has worked on his Bamboo series for the last 10 years — the show includes his shot of a dense bamboo grove.

Not surprisingly both are from an older generation, born in the 1950s, while Myung Sook Yoon, born a decade later, has turned to color in her series “The Sea.” In her photograph “The Sea — Yearns for Light, 02 - #12,” diadems of light sparkle on the ocean, so framed as to look nearly abstract.

However, not even the landscape is eternal, especially when it’s been claimed by human beings. Ahn Sekwon captures that change in a triptych, “Lights of Weolgok-dong.” Starting in 2005, he started shooting the crowded hillside shantytown of Weolgok-dong in the evening, all aglow with houselights and streetlights. He returned again every year for the next two years and captured the lights going out as the shantytown is razed and turned to rumble.

In a vivid illustration of gender politics, Jeong Mee Yoon has photographed girls with their pink things and boys with their blue things in “The Pink & Blue Project.” In “Seo Woo and Her Pink Things” (2006), an array of pink items cover the entire floor of a room — crayons and pencils, dolls and books, jewelry and shoes. Somewhere in the back is a little girl, with a pink headband and clothing, propped on a pink pillow.

“Raising my own son and daughter, I found out that colors for children’s objects are classified according to gender,” Yoon says via e-mail. “I also noticed that such distinction of colors by gender applies to most children regardless of their ethnicity.” In her work she tries to highlight its artificiality.

This real-life fantasy world has as its counterpart some media-enabled fantasies. Yeondoo Jung allowed her sitters to tell her their fantasy jobs, and she organized elaborate set-ups to indulge them. Sanggil Kim sought out oddball clubs that formed via the Internet and then held meetings. The photo on the cover of the catalog is the Burberry Club — a formal group portrait showing 10 members proudly dressed in their plaid tops, skirts and coats.

This generation of younger photographers, Sinsheimer says, “are looking at their own identity and their own memories in a fresh and new way. It’s a very energetic and passionate impulse that’s driving their work.”