Yun Nanjie

The Work of Contemporary Korean Women Artists: The Realization of Female Agency

I. A New Art History

It seems almost bizarre that it was only 30 years ago that it came to light that art history, spanning thousands of years, had by default excluded the experiences of half of humanity. This is also a testament to the absolute influence of the system that produced such history. Beginning in the 1970s, a vanguard of feminists began to question the existing art history, which had previously been regarded as objective and neutral and, therefore, universal. These feminists argued that established art history was not only a biased record based on patriarchal values and male experiences but yet another ideology that served to reproduce the given social system.1 They not only exposed this biased ideology, but they also urged for rewriting art history in the interest of rectifying the aforementioned issue.2 This article constitutes a humble attempt to respond to such demands in relation to Korean contemporary art history.

The exclusion of woman in art history means that woman is not considered to be a subject. In this sense, the history of art is primarily a narrative that represents and describes the experiences and values of male artists and those of male spectators (male art critics and historians). Within this narrative, a woman has appeared only as an objectified image for the male gaze. Of course, it is not as if women artists and spectators were completely non-existent, but under a patriarchal order, where the customs of communication relied solely on male language, a woman could not help but speak as a man.3 Therefore, it is another task of art history to overcome the “male subject-female object” hierarchy, i.e., to restore female subjectivity. This process, rather than replacing existing history with an alternative, is about reviving the pages of history that have been suppressed or have disappeared so that what currently exists can be revised to be more balanced and diverse.

What must be reconstructed is women artists and women spectators. To this end, it is necessary to examine artworks that represent the experiences and values of female or feminine subjectivity, which may also be present in men. At the same time, it is also necessary to approach artworks from the perspective of a female subject or one that includes it, thereby enabling men to participate. In this article, I examine the work of contemporary Korean women artists from the perspective of a woman spectator. In so doing, this essay seeks to restore female subjectivity which has been erased or brushed aside in contemporary Korean art history.

In this attempt, what immediately comes to mind is the question of whether there is a characteristic of female subjectivity, whether there exists a common “femininity.” So-called “first-wave feminists” became enamored with the essentialist belief that there existed a particular “feminine sensibility,” and they went so far as to embrace a form of separatism, which weaponized this characteristic. Second-wave feminists, who denied the existence of biologically inherent femininity, stipulated the existence of “gender difference” as a construct. They, therefore, focused on the process by which this construct was established.4 To be certain, the two generations are in consensus that there is a particular disposition that can be described as femininity. For example, Griselda Pollock has acknowledged the diverse forms of femininity while at the same time arguing, “We have to recognize what women share—as a result of nurture, not nature.” Lisa Tickner has also said that the project of first-wave feminism is still ongoing.5

As I examine the work of Korean women artists, I align my thoughts with those of the second-wave feminists, who recognize femininity as a set of symbols that emerge within a changing context while at the same time focusing on a common horizon that can be bound within the category of femininity. In existing social structures, women are of a different status than that of men. I, therefore, agree with the assertion of second-wave feminists that women's experiences are different and that their gender structures, which are products of repeated experiences, are also different. I also intend to begin this investigation from the premise that the unique gender structures of women will be represented in their creations. This follows the basic premise of feminist art history, which states that art is not the autonomous activity of gifted individuals but a discourse constructed within specific social contexts.6

The work of women artists is a representation of female subjectivity, whichever method is used. Its patterns will emerge in diverse forms, as the processes by which these women establish their identities will also be disparate: they may simply accept their status as women or reject it and, at times, make compromises with or challenge their circumstances. This article seeks to examine the various patterns through which female subjectivity is represented in the work of women artists. This is not simply a process of incorporating the existence of female artists into art history. Rather, the intent is to illuminate the process by which these women recognize their status as artist-subjects and adapt to their roles. This work will therefore be a path toward transforming art history into a network of contexts that intersects the work of artists instead of a linear genealogy of “great” figures. In other words, it will be a process of uncovering the mainstream ideology in Korean society regarding art and gender.

Ⅱ. The Status of Women in Modern and Contemporary Korean Art: From Object to Subject

Following the modern era, the mainstream ideology that has driven Korean society was modernism and nationalism. These two struck a subtle balance that was at times conflicting and at times complementary as they contributed to the formation of modern and contemporary Korean history. The grand project of modernism has been underway across the globe since the 19th century, and Korea was no exception. Within this project, Korea was relegated to the status of a political and economic colony. Amid these circumstances, nationalism worked as a defense mechanism by which to preserve the identity of the nation. But these seemingly conflicting two ideologies also complemented each other, as modernism was understood as a path to preserving the nation, and nationalism was understood as justifying modernism. In particular, following the liberation of Korea, the project of modernization came to focus on the economy. And following the 1970s, the results became tangible. This led to the two ideologies joining together tightly, like two sides of the same coin. Korean art history after the modern era saw the intersection of the acceptance of Western modernist art and the attempt to define the identity of Korean art. It is, therefore, evidence of this history. The phrase used to brainwash Koreans, “What is Korean is global,” is the point of intersection between the two mainstream ideologies.

Modernism and nationalism are male discourses that have respectively weaved modern and traditional patriarchal societies.7 The former looks to the future, while the latter looks to the past. Where the former harnesses the logic of global expansion, the latter harnesses the logic of a focus on a regional center. Despite these differences, the intersection of these two ideologies is a mythology of “purity.” These are the ideologies that serve to preserve the pure lineage of white males and non-white males. Korean women, having been excluded from both patriarchal discourses, have been pushed even further to the wayside of history than Western women.8 They are relegated to the position of a sexual object or nonsexual mother by the modernist Western male gaze and the nationalist Korean male gaze. Women, unable to become subjects themselves, remained the object of the gaze of men. This was no different in the case of art. Following the modern era, Korean art history also reflected the two patriarchal ideologies of modernism and nationalism and further helped establish the ideologies. As a result, there were almost no instances where women became artist-subjects. Rather, they remained as mere objectified images in the works of male artists.

Until roughly the late 1950s, this stratification of “male subject/female object” was absolute. Women artists were almost non-existent, and they were excluded from the art community in their time. Examples include early-20th-century artists such as Rha Hyeseok and Paik Namsoon, who used modern Western techniques, and the following generation of artists such as Park Rehyun and Chun Kyungja, who employed traditional coloring techniques. From the late 1950s, which saw the rise of Western modernist experimentation with Art Informel, there was an increasing number of women artists who joined this experiment. Painters such as Lee Soojai, Bang Hai Ja, and Rhee Seundja; sculptors such as Youn Young-ja and Kim Chungsook; and the following generation in the 1970s, including Seok Ran-hui, Hong Junghee, Cho Moonja, Choi Wook-kyung, and Chin Ohcsun, were female modernists who wielded the language of abstraction just like their male counterparts. In the 1970s, traditional art, a male-dominated field, also saw the rise of artists such as the ink-and-wash painter Lee Insil and color painters Won Moonja and Lee Sookja. These artists, like their male peers, used the mainstream techniques of traditional art.9

This emergence and increase of women artists signify the fact that, within Korean art history, the status of women had begun to shift from object to subject. In other words, femininity became increasingly reflected in artwork not as an object of the male gaze but as a representation of female subjectivity. The increasing number of female artists is the result of applying to women the modernist concept of the artist, of the “creative individual,” which aligns with the idea of the modern subject of the “individual.” As revealed by numerous studies that regard modernism as a male discourse,10 this modernist idea of the artist is, in fact, the idea of a male artist disguised as gender-neutral. As such, the women artists of the time, who took on this concept of the artist, could be better described as male artists with the faces of women. That their work was forged through the masculine language of modernism and traditional technique is, in a sense, only natural. It was the only way for these women to join the ranks of professional artists. These women are, of course, the subjects of their work; still, their subjectivity was colored by the mainstream social ideology of their era.

The closer we get to the present from the 1980s, the more evident the unique characteristics of women become in the work of women artists. Already in the 1970s, artists such as Kim Wonsook, Hwaning Julie, and Ro Eun-nim and Yoo Yeunhee of the Pyohyun Group had rejected the mainstream style of abstraction and began working with figurative forms. The motifs and techniques that they used hinted at the existence of a feminine sensibility. In that sense, their work could be included in essentialist feminist art.11However, they arrived at a feminine domain not as a result of conscious pursuit but as a natural consequence of not falling in line with the mainstream. In this sense, they differ from the essentialists of the West, who harnessed feminine motifs and techniques as part of a strategy. Furthermore, the concrete visual forms and the handicraft techniques that they used, including sewing, constituted a presentation of a language that differed from abstract art, the archetype of modernism. However, because they remained within the existing frame of art, their work can be broadly described as still falling under the category of modernism.

“Feminist” art, which consciously pursued the experiences and values of women, was born in the 1980s as part of the Minjung art movement. Yun Suknam, Kim Insoon, and Hahn Aikyu practiced Minjung art through work that revealed and criticized the social conditions in which women were placed.12 In their work, female subjectivity was visualized in concrete images. The content primarily concerned the plight of women within a patriarchal system. Their work shared the concepts of socialism and nationalism, the horizons of Minjung art. In that sense, they are in opposition to modernist art, which is the product of capitalism. However, given that even the two ideologies of Minjung art are also patriarchal discourses, the irony arises that their work in pursuit of feminism, in fact, produced a different version of male discourse. They, too, were repeating the paradox of political feminism that says, “Women (like men) can do anything.”13

Despite these paradoxes, it is without a doubt that their “feminist” beliefs spurred the subsequent generation of women artists to represent female subjectivity in their work. Starting in the late 1980s, symptoms of post-capitalism began to appear in Korean society, and postmodernist discourses began to emerge within art circles. As a result, the work of women artists gained legitimacy as a means to challenge modernism. Women's art, which had once been relegated, whether consciously or not, to the sidelines of modernism, emerged as an illustration and tool of postmodernist discourse. And feminist discourse, which deconstructed the idea of gender identity as a homogeneous whole, became a valuable weapon with which to attack the modernist mythology of the hero and the worship of the individual style of the creative genius. Feminism and postmodernism, therefore, jointly participated in the project of overcoming the linear history of mainstream discourse, and in that sense, one could go so far as to say that all postmodernist artists are feminists and that all work that presents a feminine alternative can be described as products of postmodernism.

Amid these shifts, the 1990s saw the emergence of postmodernist women artists who revealed the complex contexts and strata of female subjectivity through diverse media and styles. Numerous artists, such as Kimsooja, who employs video as a medium, and Lee Bul, who works in both performance and installation, tried to accomplish the task of representing female subjectivity through diverse media and styles. Their work, unlike that of prior essentialists who produced signifiers of femininity and political feminists who criticized the unfairness of the conditions in which women were placed, went beyond merely overturning the dominant male-centered discourse and sought to overcome the binary logic of men versus women. As their work demonstrates, women artists were no longer occupants of the periphery but rather subjects in the creation of art history. In particular, recent large-scale exhibitions such as Woman, The Difference and the Power (1994), Women’s Exhibition of Korea (1995), and Women's Art Festival 99: Patjis on Parade (1999) have led to the inclusion of the work of women artists as a major part of art history. Furthermore, there has been an emergence of alternative women's discourses as well.14

As can be seen, modern and contemporary art history is deeply ingrained with the process by which women have turned from objects into subjects, which resulted in the shift of femininity from the representation of the object to the representation by the subject. This can also be described as a shift in social expectations regarding women and also artists. The shift in these activities and the positioning of women artists is, therefore, a reflection of history, which is an intersection of diverse political, economic, and cultural contexts. Now, Korean art history includes female subjectivity as an important element. The next task is to examine “female subjectivity.” To explore the diverse array of femininity—not as an object but as a representation of subjectivity—would be a true path to restoring female subjectivity in art history.

Ⅲ. Representation of Female Subjectivity in Visual Art

All artworks are a representation of the subjects who created them. Art, including even cases where attempts are made to erase the traces of the subject therein, will somehow manifest the creative intent of its producer. The works of women artists also represent the female subjects who created them. Linda Nochlin’s remark, saying, “It is important that the given artist is a woman and not a man,”15 equates to the notion that all works by women artists are representations of the female subjects who created them.

But such subject is not ‘natural’ but a construct. Of course, biological sex is evidence for the existence of that construct, but that construct is formed in the context in which it is placed rather than being defined by biological sex. All subjects are formed through the process of adapting to and internalizing the surrounding viewpoints. As such, “The status of a woman is internalized in the woman's heart and mind.”16 That is why, as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out in 1949, “It is clear that the personality of a woman—her beliefs, her values, her wisdom, her morals, her preferences, and her actions—must be explained in the context of her [social] conditions.”17 Because female subjectivity is a social construct, art as its representation is also the product of gender differences arising from social structure. Rather than being a representation of the innate biological predisposition of a woman, it is a representation of the context in which she is placed. Because women occupy different strata depending on their social and historical contexts, their experiences and values are also different, and those “differences” are transferred to their creations.18) The contexts that are different from those of men as represented in women's artwork are what can be described as a representation of female subjectivity or femininity. As such, femininity is not something that has a fixed reality. It is a shifting entity that is to be revealed. Femininity embodies the possibility of change, and it reveals the multilayered nature of the contexts in which its subjects are placed.
Furthermore, as Julia Kristeva has stated, “sexual difference … is translated by and translates a difference in the relationship of subjects to the symbolic contracts which is the social contract.”19) Sexual differences are not only the product of context but also of their creator, and femininity as represented in art not only depicts its context but also in itself contributes to the construction of context. This is precisely the reason why the issue of femininity is highlighted in art history. Femininity, as represented in artwork, not only reflects the demands of the time but also sub-textualizes the process by which such demands were constructed. As a result, it reveals the relationship between representation and context.

Female subjectivity has been represented through diverse signifiers in visual arts: these not only include female imagery painted by women artists but the motifs and techniques they deployed. Korean art history is no exception. The femininity that emerges through the work of female artists is, in a sense, identical to their identity as artists who, in their respective contexts, either submitted to or resisted the established styles.

1. Image of Woman as a Self-Image
Images of a woman in the artworks are an iconic sign of sorts in that they can be considered as women through “resemblance.” This function of the sign results from the gaze of the artist, which is produced in the network of gazes surrounding him/her. In this regard, the iconic sign implies the context in which the artist is placed, or more precisely saying, the process in which the artist’s own gaze is formed by interacting with his/her environment. In this procedure, the artist takes on a different relationship depending on his/her gender to the context, which in turn results in another gaze. Therefore, images of a woman in paintings embody different meanings depending on the gender of their creator.

Where images of a woman painted by men are images of a woman as objects, images painted by women are images of a woman as subjects or extensions thereof. Images of a woman painted by women will inevitably reflect the personal experiences of the artist as a woman. As such, even if they are not self-portraits, all images of a woman depicted by female artists contain a self-image.

Within the patriarchal structure, where men construct the mainstream gaze, ’the dominant male gaze is reflected even in the self-images by female artists. Under such a system, it is rare that women become the subjects of gaze—or, in other words, artists. And even if they do, their gaze is colored by the mainstream gaze. As such, even images of a woman painted by women do not significantly diverge from those of the sexual partners or mothers demanded by the patriarchal society. This is to say that a woman represents even herself as the “Other.” In the end, the gazes that intersect over the images of women are all gazes of men. The female gaze is either suppressed or remains as a faint trace. It is only in recent art, where the patriarchal system has begun to crumble, that the female gaze is being restored.

This is no exception in Korean modern art, and the images of a woman were generally of a woman as observed in the gazes of men. What few images that were produced by the extremely rare female artists were also not an exception to this gaze. The delicate, doll-like image portrayed in Rha Hyeseok’s Dancer (1920s) typifies the male fantasy of women. Furthermore, this Western woman is the product of the gaze of white men, who were at the center of global politics in the modern era. In Korean art, we observe the overlap of the masculine gaze of not only Korea but also the West. The repetition of the female form within the Western style of Cubism in Park Rehyun’s Open Stalls (1956) is another example. The examples where it is possible to trace the gaze of the woman herself, however faintly, are perhaps portraits. One can detect the artist’s sense of self-identity as a strong-willed woman trying to overcome her temporal circumstances in Rha Hyeseok’s Self-Portrait (circa 1928), in the faithful representation of the artist herself and in the piercing eyes directed toward the viewer. The images of women painted by Chun Kyungja embody a powerful autobiographical intent. Having been painted in the image of the artist herself, they are all, in a sense, self-portraits. The private fantasy world depicted in these paintings reveals the internally directed gazes of the artists. But in these surrealistic landscapes, one discovers women who seek to escape to a different world rather than confront their reality as the Other in a patriarchal society.

In technique as well, they embrace the mainstream styles of the time as is, including modern Western painting and traditional color painting. This is no different in the case of sculpture. Modern women sculptors such as Youn Young-ja and Kim Chungsook embraced the modernist style, producing simplified human forms with stone and bronze. The images of women that they produced were not different from those created by male sculptors. But in light of the fact that there is a relative abundance of life and motherhood motifs among their works, one can surmise that their experiences as women influenced their work to a considerable extent.

It was in the 1980s that female artists began to more actively incorporate the unique experiences of women in their work. The women that appear in the paintings of Kim Wonsook and Bae Jeong-hye are self-images of middle-class women who were afforded relative psychological comfort. The images of dreaming girls represent the artists before they were assigned the patriarchal gender roles of sexual objects or mothers. But these women remain relegated to the status of the Other, being placed on the peripheries of modern spaces, such as nature, family, and dreams.

In comparison, the women painted by Minjung artists such as Kim Insoon and Noh Wonhee are common people such as factory workers and farmers. To these artists, women represent minjung, namely the people. The women that they paint are components of the capitalist system, who perform the dual labors of household work and economic activity. They practice “feminist art,” as defined by Harmony Hammonds: “Art that reflects a political awareness of what it means to exist as a woman in a patriarchal culture.”20 Through their criticisms, they cast doubt on the mainstream gaze that falls upon women and provide an opportunity for women to restore their own gaze.

Another facet of feminism is the call for matriarchal lineages as well as the promotion of solidarity among women. Yun Suknam, who has her roots in Minjung art, harnesses her Motherhood project as a pillar and presents an alternative to patriarchal lineages. The women that she paints, despite falling under the lineage of the traditional woman as a mother, depart from the patriarchal mythology of motherhood, where childbirth and household work are romanticized, and become the center of a matriarchal history of motherhood. Motherhood gives rise to experiences shared only by women. The women visualized in the photographs of Park Youngsook and the sculptures of Hahn Aikyu speak of the concrete experiences shared only by women. In a sense, they accept the patriarchal gaze that justifies the everyday lives of women as “natural,” but they restore their own gaze by becoming the subjects of those everyday lives. They remain in the peripheries of modern society, a family, but by becoming the primary subjects of these spaces, they overcome their otherness. Hahn Aikyu's woman sculptures are crafted with clay and bear the warmth and personal touch of the artist's own being. They are not mere emotionless stone figures but instead emerge from the very essence of the artist herself, one that is not defined by the gaze of men.

In the late 1980s, when there was a rise in the number of female artists and the spread of feminist discourses, images of women as seen by women themselves were no longer a rarity in art. Their gaze came to constitute a broad spectrum. Artists such as Jo Kyoungsook and Seo Sookjin harnessed media such as photographic collages, comic strips, and text to incorporate criticisms of women's issues in the late capitalist era, including sexual commodification. In that regard, they take up the mantle of the conscious feminist gaze. In recent times, feminism has also come into contact with postcolonial discourse. A notable example is Kim Myonghi’s Mixed Blood (1999), which depicts a Korean Russian woman clad in hanbok. It is a portrayal of a woman as seen by a woman artist’s gaze that is directed toward a dual periphery of womanhood and mixed ethnicity. The gaze of female artists falls upon traditional women as well. Lee Soonjong’s Miindo (2001) series borrows only the faces from Miindo painted by artists such as Shin Yun-bok and gives the women long, flowing locks of hair. In doing so, the series deconstructs the traditional gaze of the patriarchy. The variety of techniques used, including ink and wash, the fine brushwork of color paintings, graphic-like linework, and collages of artificial hair, are all small revolts against the fixed mainstream.

This female gaze, which has transcended the concept of “mainstream” itself, is now moving towards the presentation of an alternative existence. For example, Kimsooja, who has restored a sense of touch to the process of creation through the use of sewing and wrapping bottari (fabric bundle[s]), becomes the “needle woman” and traverses foreign countries beginning from her 1997 work Bottari Truck. Her travels were not those of an imperial subject but rather those of the Other, who continuously retreated to the periphery. By adopting the foreign and developing “a contact zone,”21 “she” practices an alternative to masculine travels, which oppress the foreign. Lee Bul, who has been deeply engaged with women’s issues through performances such as Abortion (1994), also suggests an alternative existence through her recent work. Her cyborgs and monsters adopt as a mode of existence the hybridity suggested by the feminist theorist Donna Haraway.22) Not only are they hermaphroditic entities that do not belong to either gender, but they are also an organic synthesis of humans and machines. Their very existence violates the patriarchal lineages based on the mythology of purity.

As seen above, images of women by female artists reflect the process in which the artists have constructed their identity, complying with or resisting the mainstream gaze. Their work acts as a battleground in which the diverging expectations and demands placed upon women clash with each other.

2. Feminine Motifs and Techniques

“The differences between men and women that arise from social gender structure determined what and how men and women painted,” said Griselda Pollock.23 The gender of the creator influences the motifs and techniques of the artwork. The motifs that are so painted are the world as seen by the artist, and the techniques used are the language and idiolect of the artist. In that sense, these constitute a representation of the artist’s subjectivity, which means that the gender of its creator will be transferred to the motifs and techniques as well. As a result, as many who studied the work of women artists agree, gender is at least one factor that influences women’s creation and interpretation of images.24 This is less the product of biological factors than the result of the fact that they occupy a different status in the contexts in which they are placed and that the types and characteristics of their experiences differ from those of men. Women perceive reality differently from the way men do, and these differences are manifested in the motifs and techniques that they choose.

Where the images of women in the works of female artists are iconic signs that represent female subjectivity through resemblance, motifs and techniques are indexical signs that do so through the traces of the artist, which comprise the artist's perspective on the world and the body that visualizes it. Indexical signs are a type of tautology to which the artist’s presence is transferred; for this reason, I believe that the artist’s presence will be more directly injected into these signs than in iconic signs, which are less likely to be free from the mainstream traditions of images. However, as subjects are not formed independently and inseparable from outside perspectives, indexical signs, the record thereof, are created from the intersection of these perspectives. In particular, the mainstream perspectives dominate these intersections. As Vivian Gornick stated that “The cultural products of the records of our experiences for the past centuries were the records of male experiences … What became the metaphor of human existence was the maleness of experience,”25 no sign can be free from male discourse within a patriarchal history. Even indexical signs, which are a record of the existence of the women themselves, are ingrained with the process of acclimatization between the mainstream perspectives and the subjects that adapt to the perspectives.

Korean art is no exception. From the modern era to the period of modernism, driven by a single, mainstream discourse, the motifs and techniques chosen by women artists fell in line with the mainstream. They adopted figures, landscapes, and abstract forms as motifs, and in technique, they utilized traditional painting techniques, Western techniques, and abstract brushstrokes and splotches—techniques that did not differ considerably from those of male artists. But it appears that even in the work of women modernists, it is possible to detect what can be described as a unique feminine style. The pastel-tone floral patterns that adorn Chun Kyungja’s canvases, the straw-like structures that form the abstract paintings of Park Rehyun, and the wooden rice-cake patterns in Rhee Seundja’s woodprints are ornamental, everyday motifs that are gendered as feminine. These motifs are a manifestation of the mainstream perspective that views these things as feminine, but at the same time, the active adoption of motifs that were neglected in art circles at the time demonstrates that these artists were relatively free from the center-oriented logic of the time. And in technique as well, the women artists revived handicrafts that were regarded as minor arts. Bang Hai Ja’s hanji collages and Sung Okhi’s tapestries adopt handicraft techniques in the production of abstract art, the mainstream of modernism. They are, therefore, examples of a restoration of a feminine touch.

The process of adaptation, of speaking in the mainstream language of the time while at the same time attempting to speak in one's own voice, is ingrained in the motifs and techniques used by women modernists. This occurs at the sensory level as opposed to the conscious level, and as such, it is true that their work is overall dominated by male language. In a modernist paradigm that is exclusionary to the extreme, it could not have been easy to speak up on behalf of the marginalized. It was after the 1980s when modernism lost its stranglehold, that there was an emergence and a focus on uniquely feminine motifs and techniques.

Women artists began to actively adopt motifs of household work and nurturing, which had been pushed to the periphery by the mainstream. This indicates that they became free from the demand to be recognized as gender neutral—but in fact masculine—“artists.” It means that they began the natural process of transferring their identities as women into their work. Here, the fact that identity is more of a construct than an essential nature is revealed through the intersection of signs that cross between genders, as well as elements that gender their work as feminine.

The paintings of Ro Eun Nim, with their fairytale motifs of fish, animals, and flowers, and the paintings of Yoo Yeunhee—which, in addition to such motifs, incorporate household items and scenery—present an expressionist style characterized by spontaneous brushwork and vivid colors. Furthermore, the paintings of Kim Wonsook, Bae Jung Hye, and Hwang Julie, the motifs of which are the everyday lives of women, adopt the mainstream styles of modernism, including expressionistic colors and brushstrokes, or the bold outlines and simplified colors of Cubism and Fauvism. In short, feminine motifs are painted in the mainstream style. At the same time, they use techniques and materials that evoke handicrafts, which were relegated to the periphery of modernism. Yoo Yeunhee’s paper reliefs and cloth collages, Kim Wonsook’s wooden boxes, wooden pillow paintings, and ceramic figures, and Hwang Julie’s ceramic masks and objet paintings all represent a form of feminine intervention in mainstream techniques.

There is an intersection of signs that represent the mainstream and the periphery in terms of motif and technique in sculpture as well. Park Sil’s egg-shaped forms, to which copper plates are cut by hand and attached to create a pattern of scales, offer an alternative to the mainstream style of Brancusian organic abstract sculpture. In this case, craft techniques are applied to the mainstream motif of eggs, which represent life. In contrast, the work of Kang Aeran represents the feminine motif of bottari using the mainstream technique of casting. At the same time, her work follows the mainstream style of minimalism, simplifying the shape of bottari into geometric forms and repeating them. Park Il Soon too similarly produces minimal sculptures. Her rectangular and cylindrical sculptures borrow their motifs from everyday items like spools and mortars. The process of creating the spools, of wrapping threads around a rectangular block of wood, is a recreation of the thread-winding practiced by the women of old.

Having been handed down as a practical domain of women, needlework, in particular, is often used as a device for feminine intervention in mainstream art. The abstract art of Yang Juhae, painted on quilted blankets and underpants; the abstract work of Kimsooja, which incorporates stitching; Ha Minsu’s sewn paintings; and Hwang Hae Sun’s still-life sculptures, produced by knitting fabric, are examples of combining needlework with the mainstream art of painting and sculpture.26 Various forms of needlework, including quilting, sewing, and embroidering, constituted a domain that was doubly neglected in terms of gender and class, being relegated to women by men and to craftsmen or workers by artists. At the same time, it is an area that has preserved the unique experiences of women, in particular, the lineage of feminine aesthetics. As Rozsika Parker states, women used media that excluded them from power to create their own unique meanings, thus performing “subversive stitching.”27 As such, to revive this practice constitutes “a revealing of the hidden through beautiful stitches.”28 Needlework not only reveals the gendered power structures of art history, but it also becomes a “visual metaphor on the lives and culture of women”.29

There are examples where the crafts are evoked without the direct use of needlework by emphasizing the manual character of the creation process. Such examples are commonly found among women artists who belong to the modernist generation, especially in the 1980s. For example, Lee Soojai’s fabric collages, Won Moonja’s paper reliefs, and Seok Ranhui’s wooden sculptures applied to the existing abstract language. Shin Kyunghee, who was of a younger generation, combined, overlapped, and stitched together multiple materials such as paper, fabric, and marble or printed patterns upon them. Through her handiwork, she created complex abstract and figurative forms as well as repetitive patterns on the canvas. She revived not only the crafts but also relatively minor art styles such as photography and print. Jeong Soyeon’s artificial gemstone desserts also evoke a sense of the space outside of the mainstream. Her faux food, molded in pudding tins as if they were actual food, constitutes an intersection of kitsch imitation and the everyday feminine activity of cooking. Jung Jongmee, who used East Asian painting materials, also focused on the process of crafting artwork by hand. Her work involved pounding jangji upon fulling blocks, layering the paper with powdered pigments and oxide glue, applying and removing hand-squeezed bean extract and natural pigments, and applying and removing hemp and ramie cloth to the paper. In this process, her work is akin to that of the painstaking labor traditionally performed by women. Her Mrs. Paper series and abstract landscapes are alternative East Asian forms of painting that, through the touch of a woman, revive color painting from the literati ink wash painting tradition, which is based on spontaneous brushstrokes.

The hands-on aspect enables the physicality of female subjectivity to be more directly transferred to art. Even in cases where the touch of the woman is not as evident as in the aforementioned examples, one can surmise that the techniques of female artists will reflect the physicality of women. Even in the works of artists for which the gender of the creator is unclear, it is possible to detect this sense of the physical. Oum Jeongsoon’s paintings, a tangle of countless lines, first and foremost evoke Abstract Expressionist paintings. But a close examination reveals a closely-knit network of lines and the shapes of flowers that emerge from within. “My lines, like the feelers of insects, feel their way towards the subject matter,” said the artist.30 As such, her lines are an extension of her senses, filling up the thin skin of the world. They are not an outburst of entities drawn from the deep, as with the dripped lines of Jackson Pollock or the spontaneous brushstrokes of literati painters. They are a record of the process of embodiment at the hands of the artist. Ham Yeonju’s spiderwebs, which comprise her hair bound to “her” body, are, in fact, embodied time. The cubes of hair are a soft and warm geometricity that violates the mainstream cold and rigid geometricity. It is a process of imbuing a concrete body with geometric forms that belong to the domain of abstraction. Kim Joo Hyun’s sculptures likewise constitute an alternative geometric abstraction that intervenes in the mainstream by means of “her” physical labor. With the repetitive act of cutting and compiling paper and fabric, she builds upon the volume of time. As the artist herself has said, the concreteness and futility of handling “insignificant” materials thus evade the power of mainstream geometric abstraction, which was a symbol of absolute truth.31 Another example of female intervention in the male discourse of mainstream geometric abstraction is the “organic geometric abstraction” of Hong Seunghye. Rectangular cells, digital lifeforms born in the computer, multiply as windows, houses, and at times “real” tiles. Through “her” clicking fingertips, the rectangles are imbued with a sense of warmth and thus speak of the world. Here, the geometric forms are no longer abstract in nature.

The motifs and techniques selected by women artists incorporate both the mainstream as well as elements that serve as alternatives to the mainstream. They provide a record of the various gazes that have fallen upon women artists as well as the process of adaptation by the artists who accept these gazes. 

IV. Conclusion

Selecting women artists as my topic of investigation and adopting the view that these are social, historical constructs, I examined the patterns in which their subjectivity was represented in their work. In so doing, I attempted to write a new art history. That the work of women artists is interpreted as a multilayered visual text that encompasses the mainstream and periphery is a reaffirmation that their work is the product of the social and historical contexts in which the artists were placed; Their works are not purely individual creations that have emerged from isolated persons. Just as women artists as subjects are the products of context, the artworks that they represent are also products of signs and contexts.

Women artists, in short, have produced visual signs such as images, motifs and techniques by complying with or resisting the expectations and demands of the societies that they inhabited. In particular, the mainstream ideologies of the time exert a considerable influence on their work. Modern and contemporary Korean art history is no exception. Until the 1970s, when the patriarchal ideologies of modernism and nationalism constituted the mainstream, women's art was not significantly different from that created by men, who were the primary subjects of said mainstream ideologies. But starting in the 1980s, when these ideologies began to be questioned, there was a notable emergence of signs that represented the “differences” unique to women.

Throughout the history of modern and contemporary Korean art, the most prominent characteristic of women’s art is that women artists are relatively free from the aesthetics of “consistency.” In other words, they have used visual signs that float somewhere between the center and the margin. Even in the modernist era, when all artists adhered to the mainstream styles, peripheral elements such as crafts were featured in the work of women artists. In recent times, not only are these elements more clearly visible but they are also even used as strategies of feminism. If one can define the “femininity” in women’s art, it is its “unfixedness” as a visual sign rather than some concrete feminine aspects. In this sense, female aesthetics, if it exists, may be described as that of the “in-between.” These positionings are the product of the unique conditions of female subjectivity, who have been historically relegated to the status of the Other. Women, being unable to occupy the center, cannot help but adopt a state of eternal deferral, of “the woman as the not-yet,” as a mode of existence.32 All subjectivity that are products of their contexts, in a sense, maintain this state of deferral, but where men forget about or overcome this state as part of the mainstream, women experience it as reality and, as a result, can never completely overcome it.

”Others,” whose identities are always deferred, can never construct the unified subjectivity. For that very reason, however, they can bypass and even challenge the “myth of consistency.” For women, “the not-yet” is the path to “becoming oneself.” In this paradox lies the limitations and the potential of women.