The Buddhist Kingdom of Goryeo ended its rule of what is now South Korea in 1392. But the style of art from that era is experiencing a humble renaissance right here in Queens.
Flushing Town Hall, a space dedicated to exhibiting global art, is hosting a gallery from April 22 to May 3 that features works by three contemporary artists who have adapted the ancient genre of Goryeo Buddhist painting for today’s audience. Portraits of serene Buddhas painted by Joy Rock, Kang Chang-ho, and Hyun Seung-jo—three South Korean artists who have studied the history and craft of Goryeo Buddhist painting for more than a decade—emphasize the dignity of this religious figure, while also emphasizing the spiritual quality of the portraits.
“We are not only here to look at beautiful paintings but to seek the nature of the Buddha, said the Venerable Hak Dan, a Buddhist monk from South Korea, at the exhibit’s opening reception on April 22.
Typically painted on silk canvas, Goryeo Buddhist paintings stand out for their ornate appearance. The artists often embellished their portraits with gold powder and typically hung them without frames so that they could be easily rolled and moved.
Hak Dan and other visitors of the gallery say they are attracted in particular to the minute details in the works of Joy Rock, the main artist featured in the exhibit. Originally working as a “Western-style painter,” Rock transitioned into Buddhist art in her late 30s. Since 1999, she has been experimenting with the diverse styles of Buddhist art while remaining loyal to traditional Goryeo aesthetics. For one of her pieces, Rock painted 15,000 miniature Buddhas on one canvas.
“Counting them is a form of meditation,” says Janie Chung, a resident of Gloucester, New Jersey who drove to Flushing to see the gallery. She says she learned about the importance of painted Buddhas from her mother. “They symbolize peace, good fortune, and a beautiful afterlife,” says Chung. But she stresses the works’ universal appeal: “It’s not about religion. It’s for everyone.”
“There are hidden treasures as you look at the art,” says Sean Cho, Director of Community Engagement at Flushing Town Hall.
“Buddhist paintings are one of the most brilliant Korean cultural artifacts,” says Sung Jae Oh, the Director of the Korean Culture Center in New York. “We can share with more people across the world.”