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  • Writer's pictureKaren Lembo

Gwangju Night Alley (2024)

One evening, on a recent trip to Gwangju, South Korea to visit my daughter and her family, we visited an art café and stopped to take in the view from the roof. My eyes tried to take in the overwhelming scope of high rise apartments that have sprung up across the city's landscape, as the majority of the population has moved from the countryside to the fast-growing cities. But peering down from that roof I snapped a photo of an older part of the city just below. No matter how often I encounter this, it takes my breath away--the ghosts of the older city still live in the shadows...but for how much longer?

I began this painting for an upcoming local show entitled "Perspective." This got me thinking about unusual perspectives and I recalled this photo. Not only did it require the challenge of capturing an unusual bird's eye perspective, I also wanted to continue experimenting with the Hanji paper I brought home after that trip.

I like the way the Hanji paper collaged beneath the surface creates a duality of 3D and 2D space, since the use of perspective in an artwork is simply an illusion. This interplay emphasizes that the work is not "reality," even though there is a sense of realism. I love this layering process I've been exploring over the past couple of years, because it mimics the complexity of life issues that often remain hidden just below the surface. Finally, there was the mysterious lighting to be considered and added without destroying the layering effects. Taken as a whole, I feel this mixed media collage of paper and paint successfully conveys the challenges of confronting a culture or "perspective" that is so vastly different from one's own.

One additional thing this painting conveys are the "ghosts" of Gwangju and cities like it in many parts of the world. My daughter lives on the 26th floor of a 3 year old high rise apartment built after the city razed a section of a neighborhood similar to this one. While I'm sure most of those buildings were in some state of disrepair, I can't help but grieve a "perspective" that swiftly dismantles its past in the name of progress, much like US cities in have done over the past century. As the next generation speeds by in a sweep of technological advances, will they, or their children, one day grieve these losses?

Finally, not many people are aware that in 1980, 9 years before Tiananmen Square, Gwangju was the site of a student protest movement for democracy that tragically claimed many lives. I had no idea this had occurred, let alone that I would find a connection with them 40 years later when my daughter married into this community. I thought often of those young souls who were hiding in alleys such as these that May as I assembled this painting.

Perspective is a fascinating thing. You can live a long time with such a firmly rooted "point of view" that you simply cannot tolerate the challenges that come with someone introducing the possibility of another. But we are all better off for considering and appreciating multiple points of view and allowing them to coexist peacefully.

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