The World Not of Here Nor There

by Hyun Chung


In order to feel RHEE Chae Eun’s paintings properly, it would be better to follow her works one by one thoroughly. Feeling after images within paintings, not trying to drawing meanings, naturally we can find some motions, characters and icons we’ve seen before from other paintings, although we don’t recognize what meanings these images have or especially signify. Her paintings are overflowing with images. In The Garden of Forking Paths (2017), Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz fills the left part and a man is acrobatically twisting his body in the bottom. On the field of dried reeds, a white bleak building is located and a flock of black birds fly around the house. It reminds us of the movie The Bird directed by Alfred HITCHCOCK. Inside the reed beds, a inflatable sign is swaying its limbs and there are caution cones in front of it. The scene is not presenting certain logic or structure. According to the artist, she is inspired by novels, films and some phrases from mass media by chance. Here, inspiration means not special moments but the contact point where her own memory, knowledge and information meet. A part of the daily life overlaps with images from certain paintings and as a chain of film scenes follow, then impression, memory, reality and fiction are all jumbled up. Each image, whether it has a meaning or not, can be called a group of visual signs. Therefore, I’d like to untangle a skein of her painting worlds, not to connect images and stories but to understand what penetrates her works by observing her world of painting microscopically.


Some novels, films or paintings with lots of references can’t help but have multiple signs littered around. Some cases may have lots of references to parade the artist’s knowledge. Some other cases may use them as rhetorical devices to connect past and present, here and there, memory and imagination, and illusion and reality to reveal the complicated relationship between the theme and the event. Twister (2017) is a triptych based on three paintings: Hieronymus BOSCH’s The Magician (1502), Vincent van GOGH’s Wheatfield with Crows (1890) and KOBAYASHI Kiyochica’s The Great Victory of the Japanese Navy (1904). In the left part of the triptych, a magician plays trick while standing in the middle and the wheatfield and a flock of crows are extracted and magnified for the background of the middle piece. The right part is borrowing Kiyochika’s Ukiyo-e engraving background and triptych format. These heterogeneous references are no better than readymade out of original contexts. From now on, these references are images for the present, not for the past. The conservative swing and the nationalistic stream of times caused by globalization as well as pouring news and polarized interpretations on them reveal the delusional reality serving rationality and statistics.

In her works, appropriation generates meaning from within it but it works more actively in between works. Her recent work Twister series has dual meanings. Twister game is a board game where each player spins the board, then an arrow on it indicates a certain color. The player has to touch the selected color on a colored mat with his/her hands or feet. Twister Game doesn’t signify itself. Rather, the situation in which I and the others tangle up after accidental selections is ridiculous. At the same time, it reminds us of a subject with no autonomy. Using a magician cheating and cheated, a clown crying and laughing, and Dorothy moved to the world of another level, Twister series not just satirize amusing situation but also slightly show the artist’s allegoric view of the world. The world view of a northern European artist like Hieronymus BOSCH is represented with some ordinary scenes, which is far from mythic world by Italian Renaissance master. It is said that BOSCH’s magician was common to see in marketplaces in the Netherlands at that time. Kiyochika recorded the Incheon Port during the wars around East Asia through engraving the scene of RussoJapanese War. RHEE Chae Eun brings one scene of old paintings to ambiguous time and space. There are scenes of burning ship, fooling silly public and a sacrificial person or victim. Let’s think about a series of absurd incidents Korean society has recently gone through. Rather than representing the events themselves, the artist utilizes allegory. She satirizes absurdity of the present by mixing inconsistent symbols with dramatic backgrounds.

<Dramatically Attractive Background>

Interestingly, what gives emotion to the screen is nothing but background. RHEE Chae Eun puts a lot of efforts into background. Sometimes the relation between the theme and the background seems to be ambiguous. Sometimes those borrowed images seem to suffer a loss due to the presence of background (landscape). Overgrown Stories in the Shadow of the Wolf (2015) looks like the world of backgrounds only. All the colors rush down like waterfall in this virtual world where endlessly liberated plants and rainbow-colored air fill the humidity of jungle. In No Man’s Land (2015), we can find clouds and sea (?) much more elaborate than desert island covered with rainbow-colored mosaic. Under the glow of the setting sun, the shadow of that side is in the ruptures of colors. From A Sudden Gust of Dark Cloud (2015) and Twister I (2017), we can find similar backgrounds. As if she chose a scene from background templates, this ‘dramatic and attractive world’ is intentionally emphasizing triteness of those expressions. These elements ask us back the relationship between RHEE’s paintings and the concept of ready-made. Surmisedly, this stylistic background can be considered as the artist’s solicitude for providing a space where image signs summoned from each different worlds can reside, while reflecting the view of the world found in classicism art structure at the same time.

<Rainbow and Cone>

It is easy to find rainbow in RHEE’s works. In Twister series, rainbow appears rather rarely, but we can find the trace of the rainbow from game players’ sweater colors. Overgrown Rainbow (2015) shows a rainbow growing like plants to fill the whole screen, and the faces of an owl and a cat are hidden in the middle. Including Dorothy invited to the world of RHEE Chae Eun, rainbow, classic paintings from the East and the West, allegory and ridiculous scenes from the reality (Twister series), are all decided for their location and size in accordance with the artist’s recognition on social reality. Rainbow is a visual sign present in between the lie and the truth, and the illusion and the reality. With this rainbow, a symbol of hope and expectation but an empty dream at the same time, a orange cone and a warning post recently started to appear in her works. RHEE says she most frequently encountered those objects in Korea. It may be said the posts are barometer indicating how risky our reality is. Literary critic HWANG Hyunsan once said that great writing shows the author’s intention, but he also said revealing one’s inside itself is not good. According to him, “the writing one’s inside is seen is actually the one the writer’s own intention is hidden.” RHEE’s paintings show where she is currently heading and what she is seeing just as it is. In a good way, I want to define her painting as the one ‘showing her intention.’