Shon (Independent Curator)
It has been about 10 years since I first met Jee-hye Baek, during which time we have kept in touch and exchanged personal news now and then. Meanwhile, she completed her MA in Korean Painting, had several solo shows, and participated in various group shows. She published a beautiful picture book and organized a Korean painting class for the general public. It is obvious that she has consistently endeavored to continue learning and experimenting. I tried to visit most of her shows out of curiosity and desire to see her most recent work; every time, I encountered different paintings from Baek’s ‘girl series’ which recalls the innocence of childhood and elegant flower paintings. Each strand of hair depicted in great detail and sophisticated colors are evidence of the artist’s hard work, which draw the viewer into a meditative state. Her paintings whisper, and are quiet. Instinctively, I hold my breath and take a step closer.
Shon: Why are you attracted to Korean painting?
Baek: In the beginning, I was attracted to its materials. Everything was new to me: grinding ink upon inkstone, blending natural pigments and water using my fingers, and closely observing the moment when a single drop of ink blurs as it soaks into a piece of Korean paper. The way in which materials are used in Korean painting is more varied than you might imagine. I am also fascinated by the empty space―yeobaek(1) in Korean. In my studies of Western painting, I was taught that empty space must be filled in, and this always seemed overwhelming to me. Once I found out that this wasn’t the case in Korean painting, I felt liberated in a way. What’s more, I enjoy the process of creating new colors by mixing pigments. It’s plain to see that colors in Eastern painting create a different impression than those in Western painting: their source materials are different. For me, the former appear calm and delicate, the latter stronger and more intense. I think this characteristic of Eastern color suits my personality.
To create works of such high quality, the entire process―from choosing a subject to backing the support of the painted surface―must be important. Which stage are you most concerned about?
I pay particularly close attention to sketching, since it is the initial stage in which the images in my mind are transferred to paper. I also care about creating colors. For example, it is crucial for me to find the precise skin color, among a number of similar colors, for every model. Clothing is equally important to make a perfect scene. Depending on the other visual elements within a work, I sometimes add patterns to what the model is wearing.
In the artist’s statement from your first solo show you wrote, “This is the beginning of my journey to find little stories” delivered by “daily mundane scenes which I may overlook in my busy life”. Since then, you have continued your journey for about eleven years. What have you found on this journey so far?
The little things that we easily miss in our everyday lives. I used to paint the stories from my memory but now I incorporate the feelings and emotions that I experience on a day-to-day basis. I value all the feelings and emotions that come to me. In <Sound of Spring>, which depicts a little girl is listening to a flower, I painted things which I have experienced as an adult. Some people say that as we grow up we become unfeeling, but I believe that the ability to capture an emotional moment remains in adults’ minds. The girls in my paintings don’t only refer to my past. They are about my present life too.
Memory and remembering are significant themes in your work; your current feelings are important because you don’t want to forget them. Do you feel sad when things disappear?
Yes, I mostly paint scenes as I want them to be remembered. Flowers in a vase are beautiful, but I prefer to paint the flowers in my garden, or in villages or alleyways. They retain memories of the places where they grow. Unfortunately, many of these places have been lost to new development projects. In the near future, there will be a generation who spend their entire lives in apartments; I wanted to paint for those people, and for those like me, who still remember small villages. I am not saying that the past was better. I just want to remember the ordinary landscapes that once existed all around us: there were flowers and a dog in my garden. My series of girl paintings can be understood in this context. We cannot go back to the time of our childhood. My work is not simply a memory of the past but an effort to keep things from disappearing and being lost in our mind. I try to call people’s attention to this through my painting.
Your paintings are very peaceful, such that I feel as though I am having a pleasant dream. Many contemporary artworks take a critical stance, arguing about society and/or art itself. Are you interested in this sort of subject matter too?
Some people say my subject matter is so banal that anyone could paint it. That is exactly the point. I want to tell a story that everyone can tell, since there are not many who actually do this. You may have an experience of feeling happy in your daily routine. I want to be an artist who deals with small things such as these. I hope people feel as if they are taking a break while they view my works. Take my first solo show, for instance. One morning, a woman came into the gallery, stayed for a long time viewing my works and then left. She came back with a cup of magnolia vine tea an hour later and gave it to me as a way of saying thanks. She said she was upset for some reason that morning, but that my paintings comforted her. I felt proud of myself as a painter.
Most of the figures in your works are doing something and look absorbed in what they are doing: a child ‘painting’ a train, girls ‘whispering’ to one another or ‘playing’ a game. Like snapshots, the images are ‘in the present continuous form,’ and the fact that the figures are neither gazing at the painter nor the viewer helps them to be perceived in that way. In fact, it could be said that the paintings are attempts to capture passing moments in order to keep them as physical traces.
Perhaps that is because I painted the scenes along with particular stories. Almost every scene has a story―maybe that is visible in the paintings. I didn’t necessarily intend for the models to gaze away from me or the viewer. That wasn’t necessary for me. I usually paint from photos, but before I take photos of models, I spend some time with them to create a casual atmosphere. Then I leave the children alone to do as they wish, at which point I sneak photos of them. If they were to notice the camera focusing on them, their behavior would be different. I don’t want them to be aware of me taking pictures of them, and that’s why the photos in which they are staring at the camera are naturally excluded. I like the viewer to be immersed in the same moment that the figures in the painting are enjoying.
The backgrounds around your figures are completely empty and are left unpainted. Is this because Korean traditional painting aesthetically values yeobaek?
Well, it’s not only because of that. Mostly it’s because I thought that the viewer would be able to concentrate his or her attention on the subject of painting if I eliminated unnecessary description. I wanted the viewer to read the emotions on the faces I depict in detail without being interrupted. I also wanted to build tension in each composition through a dynamic use of space. Yeobaek provides a room for reflection and narrative; there is a limit to the physical space in which everything can be illustrated. Beyond the empty space, however, new stories ceaselessly unfold as the infinite space emerges. This is why I spend quite a long time deciding not only where to put the main figures, but also how to crop each painting once it’s finished.
You use silk more often than paper. Why do you prefer silk, considering how difficult it is to treat?
I use various materials in my work―including silk, ramie fabric, hemp cloth and paper―and I choose a base material which to paint. Currently I use silk quite often because I like how colors appear on it. While studying Korean traditional portrait painting as a postgraduate, I became interested in baechae(2), which enriches colors. It is true that it’s very tiring to paint on silk; there are more things to keep in mind, but I really enjoy the moment of painting and the feel of touching the silk with a brush.
Do you have any plans for the near future?
I would like to deal with women more in my work. Female portraits in Korean traditional painting usually portray the woman as a wife, mother or courtesan. I would like to paint women as beings subjective, focusing on their emotions. This would be linked to my girl series. Many of my friends are now in their thirties or forties, and they are experiencing major changes in their lives. Some have gotten married, some have become mothers, and some have been promoted in their jobs. I wish I could give their own names back to them through my portraits.
- 餘白. A Korean word meaning ‘marginal white’, refers to the space that is not painted.
- 背彩. A technique of painting that colour is added on the back of silk or paper to show through on the front. It gives a different effect from colouring only on the front.