Lee Kang-hyo: the Jackson Pollock of the sculpture world

Lee Kang-hyo

Lee Kang-hyo - Credit: Archant

Lee Kang-hyo combines traditional methods with innovative ‘action painting’.

Lee Kang-hyo

Lee Kang-hyo - Credit: Archant

The first opportunity to buy the exquisite ceramics of Korean potter Lee Kang-hyo in London is offered by Sylvester Fine Arts in Belsize Village.

But for admirers of contemporary ceramics who can covet but not afford such objects, a visit to the gallery can still be rewarding.

There’s much to look at and to learn, not least because of a film showing the dextrous potter in action in his South Korean studio. It tells the story of his search for a beautiful life through his work with clay and the love of his family.

Kang-hyo is world famous for his mastery of onggi, a traditional form of Korean earthenware.

It is used for huge pots for fermenting and storing foods vital to the Korean diet such as kimchi and soy sauce – and also for rice wine. Adding sand to iron-rich clay means that onggi jars are waterproof yet porous, retaining moderate temperature and humidity, so they are ideal for the pastes made annually by Korean families.

Their monumental sculptural character and simple aesthetic appealed to Kang-hyo as a ceramics student in the 70s but, by then, refrigeration meant techniques used to make onggi pots since 5000BC had started to disappear.

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He sought out an Onggi Master and spent three years perfecting his skills with the long coils of clay formed into pots with a wheel and paddle.

But though many of his shapes are traditional, Kang-hyo is an innovator who appeals to a modern audience.

He is the first potter to combine onggi techniques with punch’?ng decoration.

In this form of Korean earthenware a coarse dark pot is coated with a white slip and then decorated by carving.

He has used flowers, leaves, fish and trees as motifs but considers that the everlasting theme of his work is the mountains, fields and sky.

The documentary made by Alex Wright for Goldmark Gallery, Uppingham in 2014, has an extraordinary climax where Kang-hyo performs his “action painting”, which began on a visit to America in 2001.

Flicking, spattering and smearing glaze on the huge pot – and inevitably himself – may bring Jackson Pollock’s working method to mind but the emotional charge conveyed is distinctively his own.

Kang-hyo has compared making art to travelling to find peace in the mind.

“On the throwing wheel, a concentric circle is made then numerous different circular shapes are created,” he wrote in a recent artist’s statement.

“Through this clay a space and a mass is created. This space contains my life. It is I.”

Until next Sunday, June 12, at 64 Belsize Lane NW3. Wednesday to Friday 11am to 6.30pm. Saturday 10am to 6pm, Sunday 10am to 4pm. DVD £10.