Korea calling at Gallery 101; Figureworks at St. Brigid’s

The exhibition One Inspiration: The Very First Ideas from Korean Tradition and Culture, is on at Gallery 101 and at the Korean Cultural Centre at 150 Elgin St.

“There is something about this that’s, that’s so black, it’s like, how much more black could this be?” asks the incorrigibly idiotic Nigel Tufnel in the movie This is Spinal Tap. “And the answer is, none . . . none more black.”

I’m thinking about Tufnel’s vacant quote as I look down into Mind, an installation by Seung Young Kim at Gallery 101. I’m thinking about the depth of Mind’s blackness, and about the British artist Anish Kapoor’s Vantablack (putatively the blackest of blacks), and the British artist Stuart Semple’s Black 3.0 (even blacker), or the diamond that German artist Diemut Stebe covered in “carbon nanotubes” that are, we are told, as black as black can be — in Tufnel-speak, “none more black.”

Mind, which is part of the exhibition One Inspiration: The Very First Ideas from Korean Tradition and Culture, is vertical and white, and looks rather like an office water cooler, but for the flat surface at top. That top plate of stainless steel is covered in “Blacker pigment.” Water flows onto the plate from around the rim and pours down a small opening in the middle. And with it flows the imagination.

Yoo Hyun Mi. Good Luck – The Ten Traditional Symbols of Longevity No.1 (deer, water, cloud, sun, moon). Courtesy Gallery 101 and the artist.

Down the darkness of the voracious human mind goes all information and stimuli, to become knowledge, or enlightenment, or fear or prejudice. The mind is like a black hole at the centre of our individual universe, pulling everything around it into the void that is both limitless and unfathomable. It is an inscrutable blackness.

Nam Kyung Min. A Great King’s Desk. Courtesy Gallery 101 and the artist.

The exhibition is a collaboration between Gallery 101, the artist-run centre now relocated to 280 Catherine St., and South Korea’s Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange. (More works can be seen at the Korean Cultural Centre at 150 Elgin St.) It includes work by 10 contemporary artists who plant “roots of contemporary Korean art in traditional culture.”

At Gallery 101 it’s all squeezed into two exhibition spaces, including a long, narrow room on the ground floor and a smaller, square room upstairs. The spaces are tight, though in key ways are an improvement over the gallery’s former home on the other side of the 417. For example, the mechanical fixtures that hung too low from the ceiling in the old spaces are gone.

Kim Sung Bok’s Dream Spoon in Gallery 101

The narrowness of the new room on the ground-floor is a minor issue, because there’s a giant soup spoon on the floor — though the interaction is entirely the point. Kim Sung Bok’s Dream Spoon has a knobby handle that resembles a club, and the entire sculpture moves in roly-poly fashion when bumped into. The artist wants it to “encourage young people struggling to get closer to their dreams,” in that every time someone bumps into the spoon it “rights itself.”

Sung Dong Hun. The New Case for Time II. Courtesy Gallery 101 and the artist.

The exhibition includes other sculpture, and painting, photography and video. Kang Un’s clouds hang, appropriately, overhead, each made of tiny bits of hanji, a traditional type of paper, flecked on canvas.

Yoo Hyun Mi straddles various media with her painterly photographs of her sculpted objects, which come together to surreal effect. Her adjacent video is also curiously strange; a fixed camera shows a tabletop with an open book, a bit of origami and perhaps a tube of paint, and next to it a small, motionless turtle. Why train a video camera on immobile objects? Suddenly, the turtle starts to crawl across the table. Good art comes to those who wait.

In town: One Inspiration continues at both locations to Feb. 14.

Aaron Sidorenko’s portrait of a female veteran of the Second World War is on view in Figureworks at the St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts.

The annual Figureworks exhibition is back in the basement at the St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts, at the corner of St. Patrick and Cumberland streets in the ByWard Market.

The 10th iteration of the juried group exhibition of figurative works is the biggest yet, organizers say, with “a record 530 entries from 346 artists located across Canada and internationally.” The jury has whittled those down to a couple of dozen pieces of painting, photography, video and sculpture.

It’s a fact that almost every open-call group exhibition, including the juried ones, are uneven. Some of the art at Figureworks struggles to overcome the derivative, while some of the rest rises to the level of inspiration.

Christine De Vuono makes firm statements on the continuing trap of domesticity for women. My Armour is an apron made of stainless steel that “depicts both the strength and rigidity of domestic labour,” De Vuono (I presume) writes in her notes. “My fate is Sealed” is three small sculpted figures, representing the Fates of Greek mythology, here each imprisoned inside a sealed Mason jar. De Vuono, showing an impressive range, also has a photograph of a teenage girl, in a vaguely fetal position, at the heart of a universe of flowers and greenery, complete with butterflies and ominous spider.

A note on the frustrating wall cards that are posted beside each work. On some the only information is quotations from the artists that seem incomplete, and leave me trying to guess at essential context of the art. Two very different photographs by another artist have the same quote on each card. Elsewhere the cards seem to quote a voice other than the artist’s, or maybe the artist is speaking in the third person? If you’re not going to reveal who is being quoted, why have quotation marks at all? Overall, the cards lack continuity.

John Healey’s Michigan Man is on view at St. Brigid’s as part of the Figureworks exhibition.

Some, such as the card for John Healey’s Michigan Man after Arcimboldo, do have illuminating information in addition to the quote.

Healey won the exhibition’s first prize for his portrait of a person in profile made of pieces of plastic found in Lake Michigan. Set against a black background, I can also imagine the arrangement as a cluster of junk floating through space, the final frontier of human garbage.

Elsewhere, Abigail Gossage’s photograph of a worker, brilliant in his safety-yellow gear and leaning into his rake on a construction site, is a study in bright and drab colours, and in straight and curved lines.

Other standouts are two large paintings of faces scoured by time, including Michael Goodson’s portrait of a man and his “dimpled sag of slackened skin,” and Aaron Sidorenko’s portrait of a female veteran of the Second World War. Sidorenko’s use of bright colours for such an ancient face seems both incongruous and brilliant.

In town: Figureworks continues 1 to 5 p.m. Nov. 27, 28 and 29, and 11 to 2 p.m. on Nov. 30. See more at figureworks.org.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.