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Stripping off the Mask: Jane Park Wells and the Ascent of Korean Women

Talchum (detail) by Jane Park Wells.jpg

Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.

On February 25th of this year, Park Geun-hye will be sworn in as South Korea's first female president. Although being the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee gave her a considerable leg-up in the December 2012 elections, the fact that 51.6% of the Korean population voted for a female president (who emphasized her gender in her campaign) is huge in a country where the role of women has traditionally been very limited. Probably the most Confucian of Asian cultures today, Korean society has not encouraged female participation in the realms of business or politics. Until recently, the primary role of a Korean woman has been to provide her husband with children -- and ideally, sons.

The recent evolution of the social and political role of Korean women has been explored thoughtfully in the paintings of Pasadena-based artist Jane Park Wells. A native of Seoul, South Korea, Jane Park moved to the United States about 40 years ago to study fashion design. She married an American, became Jane Park Wells, and provided her husband with two sons - an accomplishment that would have certainly been well received by her Korean ancestors. When her sons were in middle school, she decided to pursue a career as an artist, something that would have been frowned upon in traditional Korean culture. Driven by a desire to create with her hands, she attended Scripps College, where she focused primarily on studio art.

Gangangsullae by Jane Park Wells, acrylic and collage on linen, 1991. | Courtesy of the artist.

While at Scripps, she was required to paint a work that was auto-biographical. She decided to honor her own mother, whose talents were never allowed to blossom in the Korea of her generation. Using acrylics and collage, she created a large-scale figural painting depicting a traditional dance called Ganggangsullae, in which women of all ages danced together in a circle enjoying temporary freedom from their social restrictions and responsibilities. The painting depicts a chain of women in traditional Korean dress dancing gracefully with bowed heads across three canvas panels covered intermittently with text torn from Korean newspapers. In 1991, a time when Wells' Korean sisters were still not as free to follow their dreams as she was here in the U.S., the painting paid tribute to their undaunted spirit. Entitled "Ganggangsullae" after the liberating dance, the work was so close to her heart that, despite being asked to sell it, she has not been interested in letting it go.

For the next two decades, Wells left figural work and Korean motifs behind to concentrate on what have become her signature abstract compositions -- seemingly meandering veins of color interconnecting rhythmically over a hidden grid pattern. "The introverted thinker in me is drawn to analytical systems," Wells explains, "like the parameters of the grid or the mathematical structure that produces rhythm and meter in music." The union of her analytical side and her emotional, artistic side produces fluid, pulsing lines solidly grounded in mathematical patterning. Think a classically trained dancer following familiar dance steps, all the while twisting her body and throwing out her arms to her own inner rhythm. Her earlier "Four Seasons" and "Vines" series, are made up of multiple painted wooden squares, each pulled together visually by gnarly tree-root lines that transmit energy from square to square. In her more recent "Nongak" series each canvas pays tribute to a different type of American dance -- the Shuffle, the Jitterbug, the Shimmy. The slender dripped lines wriggle around to vibrant beats, evoking the colorful ribbons spun around joyfully in the traditional Korean Nongak folk dance.

Jules Place Symphony (installation of 75 panels from the Vines series) by Jane Park Wells, 2010 acrylic on wood, Boston, Massachusetts. | Photo: Gene Ogami.

In 2011, exactly 20 years after her "Ganggangsullae" painting, Wells chose to refocus her attention on the women of her native country. For an exhibition that year at the Ruth Bachofner Gallery in Santa Monica, Wells struggled to come up with a new way to express her feelings towards Korean women. She had evolved as an artist and was currently comfortable in the realm of abstraction. Korea had evolved too, and women were now active in different arenas, as was apparent in the classified ads in Korean newspapers, which include photographs of the people advertising their services as lawyers, accountants and the like. Inspired by these ads, Wells decided to cut out hundreds of faces of women from these ads and incorporate the faces into a large-scale composition. The work is called "Talchum," or "Mask Dance," after a popular Korean folk dance in which the dancers' faces are hidden behind colorful masks. In "Talchum," a nest of swirling red and white dripped lines and thicker creamy washed lines interconnect, at one point forming the ghost of a large traditional Korean folk mask, only visible from a distance. Up close the mask disappears, but the clusters of dots interspersed over throughout the composition reveal themselves to be the faces of hundreds of Korean women, most of them smiling.

Talchum, Mask Dance by Jane Park Wells, acrylic and collage on linen, 2011. |  Courtesy of the Ruth Bachofner Gallery, Santa Monica.

In this important work, Wells intended to honor the accomplishments of contemporary Korean women. Mysteriously, it seems that she went beyond that and somehow foresaw the outcome of the 2012 presidential election a year before it was held. At the very foot of the painting is the face of Park Geun-hye, wearing a big smile. In 2011, when the painting was shown at the Ruth Bachofner Gallery, a fellow Korean was shocked that Wells had placed such an important political figure at the bottom of her painting. Wells responded, "Well, she's carrying such a heavy load." Whether or not Wells predicted Park's presidential win, it will certainly be interesting to see how Korean women fare under their first female President and how their social and political ascent will inspire Wells and other Korean artists for years to come.

Jane Park Wells. | Photo: Corbin Smith.

Jane Park Wells' work can be seen at her website. Wells is represented by Ruth Bachofner Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. Her next exhibition will be held at the Ruth Bachofner Gallery in October of this year.

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Top Image: Detail of Talchum showing Park Geun-hye by Jane Park Wells, acrylic and collage on linen, 2011. | Courtesy of Ruth Bachofner Gallery, Santa Monica.

About the Author

Originally from the UK, Meher McArthur is an independent Asian art historian, author and educator based in Los Angeles. She has two exhibitions currently touring the U.S.: "Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami" (th...
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