An Artistic Journey | Interviewing Jung San at the Sandra Lee Gallery

Matthew Strebe

Jung San’s artwork is a mixture of found items, careful skill and Zen Buddhist philosophy. Practicing as a monk in South Korea for 50 years, he has only recently begun to showcase his work in the West. Currently hosted at the Sandra Lee Gallery from May 5 to May 30, this is an artist you don’t want to miss.

A detail from Jung San’s ‘Garden Series’

‘When you look at this, what do you see?’ Jung San asks, gesturing to a small potted shrub. ‘Or this, what do you see when you look at this?’ he asks again, touching the delicate, diaphanous leaves of a bonsai tree. Sandra Lee, the titular owner of the gallery, says bluntly ‘You must think “well, green is green.”‘ She exchanges rapid-fire dialogue with Jung San in Korean. They both smile, and then chuckle. ‘For an artist, green is not green, and a leaf is not just a leaf. You say “green is green,” but we can see the difference in the green. That is an artist’s sensitivity, what makes an artist different from a normal person. We see more, that is all,’ she says, as if to apologize for her heightened sensitivity.
If sensitivity is what differentiates the artist from the layman, then this conceit is certainly borne out in Jung San’s work. Constructing his art out of common materials, such as razor blades, matchboxes, pebbles, silk and lady’s manicure kits – ‘an ideal tool for painting’ – he finds constant inspiration from the ordinary and the everyday. ‘Without my intention, my materials follow me,’ he says, with Sandra interpreting. ‘I don’t know which materials will follow me in the next two years. I pick some up, I put down others. I find use in many things.’
A diminutive man, Jung San does not cut the figure of a stereotypical monk. Long gone are the flowing gray robes of his erstwhile priesthood, replaced by colorful red trainers, a black T-shirt and a light pink blazer. The only element in his wardrobe evocative of the past is his voluminous scarf, which dangles like a leaden waterfall from his neck and reaches almost to the ground. His demure personality comes as a shock after such an entrance. Self-effacing to the extreme, he deflects all praise of his work and bows, slightly and instinctively, after each question. His face is lit by an internal grace that erupts in constant smiles and frequent laughter, especially when he is teased. ‘My body is still “sunim,” still a monk,’ he says, ‘even though I no longer wear the robe. Inside I am still a monk. The robe is irrelevant.’

One of Jung San’s finer pieces from his series ‘Understanding Beyond Words’

Yet, spending 50 years at the monastery of Beomeo-sa in Busan, South Korea, Jung San is imbued with and breathes the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Sounds, smells, tastes and touches combine in a cacophonous array of visual cues, freely commingling, combining and disassociating in singular brush strokes or three-dimensional eruptions of color. Visual artworks cease to be constrained by the faculty of sight, and come to embody the whole panoply of the sensual spectrum. Looking at his ‘Understanding Beyond Words’ series, the viewer is struck by the interplay of colors and materials, from afar arranged in apparent order, but from close up shown to be seemingly without form or reason.
Each piece of paper that makes up the piece is inked with a famous poem in Chinese characters, then carefully folded and arranged in a circular pattern. There are so many stories in there, but you cannot hear them. They are beyond what you hear, beyond words, shrouded in silence. However, silence only means the absence of sound, not the absence of meaning. Though the words are disrupted, they are yet words, and so the two sides of being, meaning and meaninglessness, come together in a shape that is itself without either beginning or end. In such a way does Jung San embody, within the finite, the infinity of endless flux.
The fact that he works at all is a testament, however, to the incomplete victory of his years of seclusion. Throughout his time at the monastery, he was nagged by a persistent, insatiable urge to create. ‘They wouldn’t let him paint [at the monastery], so he used fruit juice!’ Sandra laughs. Thwarted in his imaginative impulses by the stern tutelage of senior monks, Jung San found another artistic outlet in cooking. Starting low on the hierarchy before becoming the head chef at his temple, he soon found a problem: ‘Even though you eat in the temple, you don’t remember what you eat. This is because, if you want to be a monk, you have to throw away the Five Desires: money, sex, fame, food and drink. Thus, there are no recipes. There is so much good food, but no one to create recipes. So at every temple I visited, I cooked there and kept records.’

From the artist’s earlier work, a piece from the ‘Contemplation Series’ composed of painted matchboxes

San’s artwork is inextricably connected to his history as a cook, for while he desired to express himself through the traditional artistic mediums, he was unable, and so his ‘creativity escaped how[ever] it could.’ The work he produces now is the culmination of ’50 years of self-history… the monochrome is like a dish, and the color is like the spice, which flavors the dish… There is no difference between art and cooking. Only the materials are different.’ His artistic sensibilities in the kitchen continued raising the hackles with the senior monks, who of course scolded him again. ‘I didn’t care what they said. I wanted to spread those recipes, to make sure they weren’t lost.’
As he collected more and more recipes, he became increasingly prominent in the culinary circles of South Korea, where he has published four temple cookbooks as well as articles in both newspapers and encyclopedias. His increasing celebrity eventually persuaded him to leave monasticism behind, but it was less of a clean break than a smooth transition: in 1980 he opened a restaurant within a temple, Saanchon, where he served many of the aforementioned recipes he meticulously collected. His work there finally gave him the freedom to pursue his interests in visual arts, and he has been creating exhibitions since 2007. Oh, and those Five Desires? ‘I have money and fame now, yes. But I didn’t intend to make money or be famous; they followed me. I am happy doing what I do. If I do not have [these things], that is fine. If I have them, that too is fine.’

Sandra Lee and the artist with a sample of his work

Jung San’s art is on display at the Sandra Lee Gallery from May 7 to May 30, 2015. The gallery may be contacted by email at, and by phone at +1 415 291 8000
Sandra Lee Gallery, 251 Post Street #310, San Francisco, CA +1 415 291 8000

By Matthew Strebe

Matthew is a writer, philosopher, and part-time dragon slayer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find him dining at the next big place, playing in the sun or talking to strangers on BART.

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