Plain Beauty: Korean White Porcelains and Contemporary Photographs by Bohnchang Koo at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Plain Beauty: Korean White Porcelain/Photographs by Bohnchang Koo explores the elegance and seemingly simple beauty of plain white porcelains of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) through the viewfinder of Bohnchang Koo, a Korean photographer who made a four-year project of photographing these superb ceramics, and through the display of 16 examples of Korean white porcelain. Open June 19, 2010 – September 26, 2010.

Produced since the beginning of the 15th century, white porcelains mirrored the neo-Confucian ideals and restrained taste of the Joseon’s ruling elites. The vessels in the exhibition were fashioned for a variety of functions, ranging from a small water dropper to an imposing globular “moon jar.” In addition to presenting works created during the Joseon dynasty, Plain Beauty: Korean White Porcelain/Photographs by Bohnchang Koo also includes contemporary ceramics inspired by these historic wares from the Museum’s collection and on loan from other collections.

“These vessels represent exquisite craftsmanship and their qualities are made all the more manifest when seen in the context of Koo’s large-scale, almost portrait-like photographs,” said Hyunsoo Woo, The Maxine and Howard Lewis Associate Curator of Korean Art. “Koo captures the stained, cracked and worn surfaces of these ceramics in a beautiful and subtle light. We believe that the dialogue between the vessels and the photographs will transcend both the difference in medium and the different times in which they were created.”

While the evolution of ceramics in East Asia was closely related among neighboring countries, Korea’s preference for plain white porcelain distinguished it from China and Japan. In China, which was a source of inspiration and reference in the development of Korean ceramics, potters replaced the earlier fashion for plain white wares with lavishly decorated Wucai porcelains that featured flamboyant, multicolored patterns. In Japan, vivid polychrome Imari wares gained enormous popularity. As a result, pure white wares remained a uniquely Korean phenomenon.

Photographer Bohnchang Koo explored the classical beauty of Korean white porcelain in his Vessel series, produced between 2004 and 2008. Since the 1980s, Koo has examined the overarching themes of life and death through various subjects, including insects, animals, plants, and self-portraits. To create the Vessel series, Koo photographed plain white porcelains in the collections of museums in Korea and abroad. For him, these wares echo the essence of the Joseon aesthetic, and—because they are often stained, cracked, and worn by everyday use—they are a perfect subject through which to convey warm traces of human life.

Drawn from the Museum’s holdings and loans from other collections in the United States, the exceptional works on view in this exhibition create a visual dialogue that transcends both differences in medium and the time in which they were created.

This exhibition is made possible by the Korea Foundation. Additional support is provided by The James and Agnes Kim Foundation Endowment for Korean Art and Frank S. Bayley.

Image: Untitled, from the “Vessel” series, 2005. Bohnchang Koo (Korean, Born 1953), C-print; 60 ½ x 48 ½ in.; Edition of 7. Courtesy of the artist

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