Huh’s retrospective showcases restless spirit

Artist Huh Dong-hwa, 91, stands in front of his artworks on display at the Whanki Museum in Seoul. / Courtesy of the artist and Whanki Museum.

By Kwon Mee-yoo

Huh Dong-hwa, director of the Museum of Korean Embroidery, believes Korean “bojagi” (traditional wrapping cloth) will someday be recognized as abstract art, just like Korean modern art pioneer Kim Whan-ki’s paintings.

It is no coincidence that the 91-year-old collector and artist Huh is holding a solo exhibition at the Whanki Museum, which is dedicated to the late artist Kim.

Titled “Huh Dong-hwa: Abundance,” the retrospective captures the unique esthetic sense of Huh, inspired by his extensive collection of antiques and nature.

Huh is better known as an avid collector, who specializes in Korean traditional costumes, embroidery and other fabric items. He runs the Museum of Korean Embroidery in southern Seoul, which displays a thematic selection from Huh’s collection, which reaches up to 3,000 items, on rotation.

The collection also bridged Huh and the Whanki Museum, when the museum held an exhibition of Korean beauty in relation to Kim Whank-ki’s art, featuring fabrics from Huh’s collection and wooden furniture from the National Folk Museum of Korea.

Holding an exhibit of Huh’s work is part of the Whanki Museum’s new effort, embracing artists from diverse backgrounds.

“We started researching Huh’s artworks, aside from his collection, as Huh is an artist who discovers creative sides from everyday life and suggests a new artistic perspective,” said Sung Min-a, a curator of the Whanki Museum.

Huh is not a typical artist who was trained professionally at an art school. Instead, he developed his own aesthetic values as he collected Korean antiques, especially colorful bojagi.

“Huh is an artist out of the systemized context of the art world. However, his works represent nature, tradition and daily life. It reflects his values, bringing art closer to our lives,” Sung said. “Huh’s works might seem unrefined at first, but they are based on auteurism.”

Huh Dong-hwa’s “Fruition” Huh Dong-hwa’s “Forest”

Some 500 pieces ― including painting, collage, assemblage, metalworks and brooches ― are on display at the three-story museum and these are only about half of Huh’s oeuvre.

The first floor is an introduction to the exhibit as well as Huh’s artistic world, featuring his major paintings and collage works. A 2008 work “Fruition” has a bunch of brooches pasted onto a painting of a tree, symbolizing Huh’s love of nature and beauty.

The half moon-shaped gallery is like a salon and visitors to the museum can enjoy Huh’s fabric collage on a traditional door frame while sitting on a chair.

A tall room located next to the stairs showcases a collection of handmade brooches and silk collage works displayed in the shape of a stained-glass window, as a nod to the prayer room-like atmosphere of the exhibition space.

Huh Dong-hwa’s fabric collage on traditional wooden door gratings

Paintings and collages on the second floor represents Huh’s use of colors. The paintings have unique textures as the artist sometimes squeezes paint out of tube onto the canvas, creating clumps of paints. Huh uses bold colors and geometric shapes to portray imagery of nature as well as his life.

Fabric collage works have profound colors coming from natural dyeing, which cannot be achieved by paints. Ranging from vivid red and blue to delicate yellow and green, Huh matched the scraps of fabrics in free yet rhythmic arrangement.

“The sense of color expressed in Huh’s works could be related to typical color field abstract or abstract expressionism, but it is rather unique, coming from the discernment trained by traditional colors,” the curator said.

Huh’s signature brooches made from recycled jewels and objects are displayed on a canvas. “Each brooch has independent charm, but we wanted to present the brooches in a way showing the flow of his perspective. So instead of displaying each in a showcase, we placed them on a canvas to relate better to all of them,” Sung said.

Huh Dong-hwa’s assemblage “Family,” left, and “Big Family”

The Whanki Museum’s third-floor gallery has a large window with a view of Inwang Mountain. Huh’s assemblage featuring old farming tools goes well with the nature of the area.

“He is a collector as well as an artist. His works have been created over a long time and reflect the flow of time,” Sung said.

Inspired by the shapes of the agricultural equipment, Huh tells the story of Korean traditions in an engaging way. Rusty spoons become a family in a frame and bells become peonies on an old tree.

Huh’s fabric collage on traditional wooden door gratings speak an abstract, geometric visual language using line and color in a geometric way.

In spite of his great age, Huh is still an active artist. His latest interest is creating large-scale metal sculptures. “Metal is a material I haven’t worked with before,” Huh said. “I always try new things and that is what I have been doing throughout my life.”

The exhibit runs through May 7. Admission is 5,000 won. For more information, visit or call 02-391-7701.

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