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First Steps Toward a Showing of Unity

Their artists may have little in common, but a few gallery owners of Korean descent are working together.

September 24, 2000|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

During an opening at the Sabina Lee Gallery, an older couple is delighted to happen upon the artist Helena JinAh Min standing amid a roomful of her abstract paintings and collages. They begin to pepper her with questions, the kind of questions some artists would balk at.

"What is that?" the man shoots out. "Some kind of Dadaist [art]?"

"No, it's not so much influenced by Western traditions as by my own culture," the petite, moon-faced young Korean American says proudly of her work. "It's from the notions of the void--the pregnant space full of possibilities--and calligraphy, where the expression is one with the action."

A graduate of the Otis Art Institute, Min's works are mixed media, often splashes of strong colors contrasted with white.

The crowd at the gallery, in a Koreatown office building on Wilshire Boulevard, is a mix of Koreans and non-Koreans, many of whom seem familiar with one of the two featured artists. The other is Tom Post, a man who works black charcoal onto paper like brushwork. Both linger close to their art, happily explaining to anyone who comes their way how it is done and what it might mean--contributing to a relaxed, folksy atmosphere not often found at trendy art venues elsewhere in town.

The opening at Sabina Lee was part of the Fall Exhibition Launch, coordinated by the Korean Cultural Center this year for the first time. In May, Jong-Moon Park, director of the center, set up a meeting of seven art galleries owned by people of Korean descent in Los Angeles and called for joint openings to cross-promote the events.

Park says he wanted to do something to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the center, which has its own gallery and is run as an extension of the consulate of the Republic of Korea.

Four galleries--Sabina Lee, Andrew-Shire and Modern Art in Koreatown, and Inmo in Chinatown--decided to participate in the loose federation along with the Korean Cultural Center. Two of the seven ceased operation before the launch, and one--Ellen Kim Murphy at Bergamot Station--decided to go its own way. Three of the participating galleries, plus the center, opened their fall launch shows on the weekend of Sept. 8; Modern Art's show began Friday.

"We wanted to provide an opportunity to get some press for the other galleries," he explains, "to pool resources, and to express the multicultural nature of Los Angeles."

As a result of the latter goal, the nine artists in "Charm Offensive," the exhibition in the Korean Cultural Center's space, come from several ethnic backgrounds, including African American and Iraqi, with only two Korean Americans, Yong Sin and Joo Kyung Yoon. Yong Soon Min, an associate art professor at UC Irvine, was the guest curator, and she sees the project as a good way to enlarge the public perception of Koreans beyond commerce and trade.

"I don't think the general public is aware of how culturally vibrant the community is," she says, pointing out the large number of Asians enrolled in college art programs in California. (At UC Irvine, she notes, 17% of undergraduate art majors are of Korean descent, 23% are Chinese.)

The September time frame was selected, says Park, "because it was the best time for the most number of galleries to have this joint project." It's also the traditional beginning of the arts season. The center footed the bill to publicize the launch through Korean and English-language newspapers, television and radio programs. It also printed 4,000 brochures to send to its extensive mailing list--and provided the brochures to the galleries for their own lists.

"It seemed like a good idea," says Sabina Lee, a slim woman with a soft-spoken manner who has been running her business for seven years. "In Seoul, in the fall, most galleries have a joint opening like this-- we call it wharang je, or art gallery festival. I felt that if we did something like this, more people would pay more attention to us."

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Admittedly, the art gallery business is a tough one-- Lee suggests that at her establishment, art sales sometimes just cover expenses.

"I studied art when I was at university [in South Korea]," she says. "My gallery's purpose is to find new artists, a new generation like Helena--it's hard for young artists to have an exhibition."

Has the joint promotion helped? Lee says she did notice more people at the opening than usual, and the next day two works were purchased, one from each artist. The buyers were clients Lee knew, but she adds, "I'm confident I will sell more."

Not all the galleries took to the launch so readily. Inmo Yuon of Inmo Gallery went along mostly because it seemed convenient. After all, he had a show planned for the second weekend in September a year ago, in conjunction with other Chinatown galleries.

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