Precision, Contemplation and the Decorative Sheen
In 1876, Claude Monet paints his wife in a splendidly embroidered silk kimono. From the very beginning, precious fabrics are part of European artists' fascination with East Asian arts and crafts. Nevertheless, the result is an Impressionist picture couched in Eastern atmosphere: the Japanese as exotic decor.
When, 125 years later, Min-Seon Kim takes similar silk fabric and turns it into round monuments, she is taking the reverse path though in saying this, I do not intend to leave the young Korean to the mercy of the thin air surrounding the classic. At the Kunstakademie Münster, she learned the European skill of creating a kind of illusionist painting that Monet and his friends wanted to surpass. She paints canvases in the Western manner, but remains Korean. Unlike Monet, she gives up her original method of painting, but to the new horizon she brings her memories of the precious sheen of Far Eastern cloth and the shadowless white depths in which the ink-brush leaves its trace. Her pictures oscillate between a precise, detailed kind of painting whose roots reach back to the Renaissance, and Korean floral patterns, enveloped in the breath of Eastern contemplation. These pictures unite the trompe l´oeil found in Western still lifes with the charm of Eastern ornamentalism and the white backgrounds of pen-and-ink drawings, in a harmony that almost has the security of sleepwalking. This raises doubts about the stubborn question of whether the constant comparison between East and West does justice to the paintings at all. For in the meantime, Kim has found her own center. Questions regarding one or the other part are ultimately academic.
Whatever the case may be, I will once again reflect upon the allure of looking in both directions.
In 1994, when Kim first began her studies in Münster, she needed time to find her way back to Korea. Her early still lifes presented an extreme close-up of a surrealistic world made up of pointed, red, glowing, aggressive objects. It was a very personal magical realism that had practically nothing to do with the 1920s, but which Kim simply reinvented for herself.
It was late in the 1990s that the East Asian influence reappeared in her work. The subjects: thin porcelain bowls with cobalt blue dragon decor, celadon-glazed plates featuring images of fish and birds, whose torsion fit smoothly into a centuries-old tradition of curves and circles. A great deal of white surrounding very bright dragons in pitched battle. A dive into the fragility of delicate porcelain, just before dissolving into a white backdrop.
Later, in 2001, Kim returned to strong colors. She paints silk fabrics with gold appliques: flowers, buds, butterfliesŠ nothing is copied, everything is modeled with great precision according to memory. Balls, knots, and rolls of cloth stand solitary in front of pure white. Layers billow and fold correctly, suitably sculptural in appearance; they might come from a painting by an old Dutch master. However, they do not rest upon any kind of surface; they have no undercoating. There is nothing that alludes to any ambience of any sort. Not even a shadow betrays the surroundings. So, apart from their strong three-dimensional presence, the balls seem to be like displaced floating objects, searching for their own space.
Kim's decorative monumentality, however, does not boast, but rather is accompanied by an intimate lyricism. A celebratory emphasis gives each individual object its own character, whether of sacred ritual or whirling uproar: artfully winding wrappings that cover and reveal nothing but themselves. The most recent paintings dispense entirely with the background. The round balls turn into a circle; the point of view and the painting are one. A late contribution to the painting as object?
Each of these balls has its own eloquent sign language. Each one signals its message, whether with ironic distance or poetic exuberance, which becomes more metaphorically pointed in the titles: Thou art mine, I am thine: a medieval love poem about the lost keys to the heart, the indissoluble knots, like Yin and Yang. Vorfreude (anticipation): a violet ball with precious gold embroidery, which announces spring in the shape of blooming trees. The triangular covering is ready to be unrolled. Is it too far-fetched to interpret it as expectation and joyful revelation? The Geheimauftrag(secret mission) is the reverse: dark anthracite, the floral pattern twisted into itself like a tangle of thorns, the triangular rest of the balls folded and heavy - a hermetic inversion. I do not want to exaggerate this game of analogies, but it shows that the silk still lifes have their own language. They can be read - projections wanted. The titles provide directions.