Ha, Kye-hoon (Art Critics)
Looking at Jee-hye Baek’s painting, which portrays figures with accurate and elaborate brush strokes on a silk canvas using traditional coloring methods, viewers are filled with admiration and step closer to the painting as if spellbound. In her paintings, a girl repeatedly appears in various postures; her hair, eyebrows, and even the stitches in her hair band are delineated elaborately and naturally. The exquisite detail is not limited to the main figure, but is evident even in incidental items like flowers and a hairpin.
The artist says she has been interested in color painting and portraits since her school days. Subsequently she studied the portrait methods of the Chosun Dynasty in depth in graduate school, and has applied the method to producing modern portraits. Historically, in both eastern and western societies, the subjects of a portrait used to be figures of high social status. Thus a portrait would present the subject in an idealized way to emphasize monumental and venerable characteristics.
However, the figures shown in Jee-hye Baek’s paintings are ordinary people we come across in daily life. Most of them are girls or young women who are reminiscent of the artist’s own past. Therefore, the artist does not feel the need to idealize the figures. On the contrary, she remains faithful to realistic description, which makes it easier for viewers to relate to the painting. As the artist portrays her acquaintances, she seeks her own identity by projecting her personal history on the artistic perspective.
One of the reasons that the artist’s figures have a realistic feeling is due to the method called baechae (or bokchae), which is firmly rooted in traditional Korean painting. This method was widely used in Buddhist painting during the Koryo Dynasty: by adding a light layer of color on the back of a paper or a silk canvas, the transparent feeling of medium hues is emphasized, and as the color seeps into the front, it reinforces the shading and coloring of the painting. This method helps to control smearing of a brush stroke, and also helps to express subtle facial expressions in a very sophisticated manner. Moreover, fading of the color is minimized as time passes. Traditionally the method was rarely used in ink painting, but extensively found in landscape paintings, bird-and-flower paintings, bird-and-animal paintings, and portraits.
Jee-hye Baek reveals her solid background in traditional styles, while presenting daring and unique compositions and spatial layouts that are rarely found in traditional paintings. In her works, the conventional formula of canvas layout is boldly overthrown. The figures may be shown in the corner of a canvas instead of the center, and their gaze might be directed beyond the canvas as they turn their back to the viewers, leaving wide spaces behind.
Among paintings shown in this exhibition, such characteristics can be found in ‘Full make-over’ and ‘Sound of spring.’ In ‘Full make-over,’ a young girl is absorbed in adorning herself with a pink ribbon in her hair, wearing a solemn expression. The interesting gesture and expression effectively offset the ambiguous open space behind her. Similarly, in the ‘Sound of spring,’ the endearing expression of a teenage girl is captured as she perks up her ears to hear sound from an azalea in full bloom. Over her shoulder is a blank open space, but this is soon filled with mystic sounds of the spring as the viewer concentrates on the expression and movement of the girl. In contrast to the finely described figures, the background is painted with only a mild color, and is consequently turned into a neutral space without any reference to a specific location. This leaves room for the viewer’s imagination. In the ‘Story on the wind,’ the artist paints blurred leaves as a background, which brings viewers’ undivided attention to the main figure. The depth of space is effectively presented, much like a picture taken with a camera lens with shallow depth of focus.
The artist skillfully presents a unique and remarkable layout on a canvas by blending the portrait style that uses the advanced descriptive method of traditional colored paintings with the ability to manage space and composition. In this exhibition, Jee-hye Baek focuses especially on the figures’ hands as well as their facial expressions. In revealing a person’s characteristics, hands can be as effective as a face to indicate emotion and psychology.
Opening her fifth individual exhibition, the artist must feel she is standing at a crossroad: she has settled her experiments and exploration as a newly emerging artist and become a fully-fledged painter. Notwithstanding recent trends in Korean art where traditional painting is relatively neglected and artworks of intensive labor are rarely found, Jee-hye Baek’s works are expected to attract serious attention and appreciation from viewers.