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Contemporary Korean Art a Sleeper in Soaring Asian Market

While prices and demand for contemporary Chinese art continue to soar, the market for contemporary Korean art also has been gathering steam rapidly.

NEW YORK—While prices and demand for contemporary Chinese art continue to soar, the market for contemporary Korean art also has been gathering steam rapidly. While names such as those of video artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006) and Do-Ho Suh (b. 1962) are already known to international audiences, works by other contemporary Korean and Korean-American artists increasingly draw the attention of museums, and new and established collectors alike, many of whom are already collecting Chinese contemporary art.

Within the past six months three galleries featuring Korean artists have opened on Manhattan’s West 25th Street in Chelsea—Arario Gallery, Gana Art and Tina Kim Gallery.

Says Jaime Schwartz, director of the Tina Kim gallery: “A substantial percentage of the buyers of Korean contemporary artworks also own Chinese art.” The gallery shares two artists—Yeondoo Jung (b.1969) and Kyung Jeon (b. 1975)—with the Kukje Gallery in Seoul, South Korea, which was founded by Tina Kim’s mother, Hyun-Sook Lee. That gallery exhibits works by Koreans, among other Asian artists. “There is a growth of interest in all Asian art,” says Schwartz.

The Kukje Gallery also exhibits the works of such Western artists as Joseph Beuys, Eva Hesse, and Anselm Kiefer—works by Kiefer are currently on view (through May 24) at the gallery’s Seoul location.

“The contemporary Korean art market was very small in Korea until the late 1990s and even after, and it was very hard for us at first” to generate interest, Arario Gallery director Juhl Lee told ARTnewsletter. The gallery “arranged exhibitions for many of our artists in London, Milan and Paris, and that helped bring attention to Korean artists back in Korea.”

Korean Art ‘Affordable’

Some European and American collectors have also begun purchasing works by contemporary Korean artists because they have been priced out of the contemporary Chinese art market, says Gana Art director Jung Bong Lee. “With prices skyrocketing for Chinese art,” he notes, “Korean art seems affordable.”

Gana Art was founded in 1983 in Seoul; a Paris branch was launched in 1995, and another space was opened in the southern Korean city of Pusan last year. Gana Art aims to maintain a mix of American, European and Asian artists.

Inaugurating the Tina Kim gallery’s move to its Chelsea location last November was an exhibit of large-scale (48-by-60-inch) photographs of constructed landscapes by Yeondoo Jung, in editions of five, priced at $15,000 apiece. “The show went very well,” Schwartz reports, noting that the buyers were both American and European.

The artist’s works also were shown in Madrid, Spain, in 2007 at the Galería Espacio Mínimo; in a group exhibit at the Taipei Biennial in 2006; at the South Korean pavilion of the 2005 Venice Biennale; and at Georgia’s Savannah College of Art and Design this past fall. Last month an 85-minute silent film by the artist was shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as part of its “Modern Monday” film series; and in Dresden, Germany, the Galerie Gebr. Lehmann is displaying his work through May 17.

Bien-U Bae (b. 1950), whose large-scale (4-by-8-foot) black-and-white and color photographs (in editions of five) were on display through April 14 at Gana Art, also has a substantial exhibition history in Europe, including shows in Milan (Milan Art Fair, 2005), London (Rollo Gallery and the Royal Academy of Art, 2005) and Paris (Galerie Gana-Beaubourg, 2002).

This is the artist’s first solo exhibition in the U.S.; and half of the 18 prints—priced from $50,000/80,000—have found buyers, Gana Art’s Lee affirms. A third of the buyers are European, he notes, while the rest are U.S. buyers—many of them Korean-Americans.

At the Arario Gallery, nearly two-dozen, large-scale figural sculptures by Hyungkoo Lee (b. 1969)—the works look like skeletal versions of cartoon characters, including Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck—are on display through April 19, and the show is “almost sold out,” director Juhl Lee reports. The pieces are priced from $80,000/160,000, and most of the buyers are European, mainly from the U.K.

This is the artist’s first solo show in the U.S. His works were exhibited in 2005 in London’s Union Project gallery and in 2006 at Turin’s Fondazione Sandretto.

Arario was founded by Korean businessman C.I. Kim, who owns a transportation company and department store in South Korea. The first gallery was opened in 1989 in the Korean city of Cheonan. He expanded with a branch in Beijing in 2004 and another in Seoul in 2006. The Chelsea space was launched last November. Kim has a substantial collection of his own, having acquired works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tracey Emin, Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, Jorg Immendorf and Sigmar Polke over the last three decades.

In another development, major U.S. and European museums have devoted increasing attention to the works of contemporary Korean artists in recent years, including a 2003 exhibition of Korean-American artists at the International Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Called “Dreams and Reality,” it featured pieces by 18 artists the likes of Sumita Kim, Nam June Paik, Choong Sup Lim and B.G. Muhn.

London’s Asia House hosted the exhibit— “Through the Looking Glass: Korean Contemporary Art”—from Nov. 2006-March 2007, featuring works by Kyuchul Ahn, Duck-Hyun Cho, and Yeondoo Jung.

Beginning this fall and continuing through next May, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Conn., will exhibit works by Korean sculptor Kwang Young Chun (b. 1944).

Called “The Soul: Journey to America,” the show will feature the artist’s largest free-standing pieces to date—14-foot-high, two- and three-dimensional sculptures made of the recycled pages of old Korean books printed on mulberry paper.

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