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Beauty and the bojagi: The art of Wonju Seo

“To me, ‘travelogue’ refers to a process of visualizing virtual landscapes and nature, utilizing textiles as abstract art.” ~Wonju Seo

The Pacific Northwest has a vibrant history and movement in textile/paper art and production – a good portion coming from artists of Korean descent. Like Jiyoung Chung, Youngmin Lee and Bella Yongok Kim, innovative artists are gracing the creative landscape with exceptionally intricate works of unique style and scope. Even La Conner’s Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum currently has an exhibition featuring the best in Contemporary Korean Quilts by up and coming artisans of the craft.

At The Korea Society in New York City, the current show, entitled Wonju Seo: Travelogue, the Korean-born artist Wonju Seo goes to the heart of her creations as well: a myriad of precise techniques and disciplines shaped to bring the viewer into a world not seen before – one of forms, shapes and cultural perceptions. In showing how art can be more than representational, the artist shows us that it can also be as abstract as it can be emotionally informative as well.

Born and raised in Seoul, Korea, Seo developed an interest in art early on; she enrolled at Hong-Ik University in Seoul, popularly known for its baccalaureate programs in Art and Architecture. Upon completing her education, she left the college to pursue work as a designer and commercial silk painting artist. Around 1998, she relocated to the United States to continue her career as a full-time artist. Here she moved her artistic direction more toward a geometric form of abstract art.

Utilizing the ancient form of Korean textile technique called Bojagi (“wrapping cloth”), the artist creates a distinct amalgamation of the traditional and the modern. As she would say, “My life as a teenager in the patriarchal society, and my current life in the western world all have become the background for my creative activity.”

Organic, bold and vibrant, the work of Wonju Seo can be seen as experimental, abstract or continuous, depending on one’s own interpretation – however, it is certainly a pleasure to bestow on the eyes of the conscious viewer. Upon entering the organization’s Event Space, Wrapped with Blessings, 2018is seen as wrapped boxes intricately layered with embroidered silk textiles, expressively shown in colors of pinkish reds to dark grays – easily reminding one of patterns usually seen on circus costumes, especially that of the Harlequin, the comic servant character from the Italian commedia dell’arte.

Seo’s connection with Korean tradition and community has always been important to her; her childhood upbringing de ella in Korea and studying the history of women and textile creation, the artist created these pieces with that artistic inspiration in mind. Meticulously working by hand and bringing to her a complete understanding of the process, her experience made it all the more vital for her when it came time to produce art on a full-scale basis

The work,titled Contemporary Silk Bojagi, 2020, presents such detail-oriented and laborious precision, as if starting from the middle of the space and working outwards, like a Piet Mondrian painting blooming to full activity. As one observes very closely into each of these textile “squares”, one can see the intricate yet unusual patterns, colors and shapes that would serve as inspiration and continuation to her vast body of work.

Featured in the Gallery section, Through My Window: Ocean, Sky and Wind, 2021 is both fascinating and mind boggling in viewing this wonder first hand. Meticulously done with alcohol ink, paper, Korean silk and photography, it starts with solid panels of rectangular shapes, moving inward and outward with blotches of colors: green, blue, and red. Algae-like in its appearance, the colors melds with the shapes: abstract yet linear, the blotches and smears builds up optically, creating shades of transparency and light – like looking through several windows into the beyond, constantly expanding with every movement, becoming otherworldly and quite expressive.

Innovative creations, like her “Map Drawing” series (cotton thread work) and “White Wonderland” (origami silk squares), hold their own equally as well – with the same skill, technique and dedication as the other works shown throughout the two exhibiting spaces.

Map Drawing. Photo courtesy of Wonju Seo.

In essence, Wonju Seo’s work reflects the importance of how a shape can become more than just a shape; that it can take form and effort into areas beyond what the eye can see and what the hand can produce. Her unique work impels the viewer toward a total and complete state of understanding, of seeing and of feeling – a conscious roadmap toward a tradition, a direction and a cultural identity.

The exhibition will be on display until May 27th. The Korea Society is located on 350 Madison Avenue in New York City.

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