Revolution in the head :about the work of Chae Eun Rhee
written by Hans den Hartog Jager
translated by Caspar Wijers & edited by Barbera van Kooij
In Chae Eun Rhee’s paintings of recent years, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film The Birds features regularly. In Spiegel im Spiegel (2019), for example, actress Tippi Hedren stands out prominently; in her role as Melanie Daniels, she flees from imminent danger, a frightened look in her eyes. The Garden of Forking Paths (2017) is dominated (along with a large Twister mat and a flapping inflatable tube man) by a vast cloud of black birds, finding their focal point around the female protagonist’s head. And in Chae Eun’s latest painting, A Song for the Unseen (2020), we recognize little Cathy Brenner from the movie, desperately trying to free herself from grabby hands. Chae Eun is clearly fascinated by the unfathomable power Hitchcock’s film is all about: the birds are concrete and menacing, but both we, the spectators, and the characters in the film have no idea what triggers their aggression. Is it the caged pygmy parrots Melanie buys at the beginning of the film? Are the birds the invisible destiny of a character – but who then, and why? Or do the animals symbolize uncontrollable human destiny in general, which can turn against a human being, just like that, without life giving any reason to do so?
Indeed: in this light, Chae Eun’s paintings are also a remarkably powerful representation of the world we live in. This is not just because of the threat: the parallel arises mainly because, in her paintings, Chae Eun brings together images and people from very different times and cultures without the viewer initially understanding why. These images vary from fifteenth-century Western painting (Hieronymus Bosch, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait) to K-pop star ‘V’ from boy band BTS, references to Bible stories, Korean policemen, the game Twister, the recent uprising in Hong Kong, and the fire in the Notre-Dame. They seem to have no connection whatsoever, yet Chae Eun allows all these people, objects and occurrences to coexist in one world, one landscape, one painting. As a result, her work instantly echoes the uncertainty, complexity and constant changes in today’s society – plus, she made most of these canvases pre-corona crisis.
The fact that Chae Eun often refers to Hitchcock is also interesting because she likes to see herself as a director, though not in the traditional sense. Painting is essentially a static medium, but Chae Eun defies that limitation by constantly stretching the perception of the viewer in time, as it happens in film. She does this first and foremost through her style. Her work may sometimes appear to be painted quickly, but that’s certainly not because she lacks the technical skill to produce perfectly realistic tableaux. Chae Eun searches for something else: a world that keeps on moving, where nothing is fixed and where new connections can surface all the time. And so her brushstroke, her style of painting, shows a striking resemblance with ‘masters of movement’ such as Velázquez and Frans Hals: the paint on her canvases vibrates and swells as if it refuses to surrender.
Chae Eun reinforces this restlessness through her compositions. Her canvases appear to be full of images and references, but she subtly structures them by letting colours echo in different places, by letting subtle elements return (the rainbow, the series of primary colours), and by repeating forms in unexpected places. This way, on all of her canvases a powerful tension between movement and unity arises – despite the chaos – and the viewer is tempted to look for new paths of his or her own.
Her way of painting fits perfectly with the way Chae Eun distances herself from the classical realistic tradition. As that tradition dictates, a painting is always viewed according to the criteria of a snapshot, of a photograph: the representation of one moment, in one place. Chae Eun clearly has other ambitions: by sending her viewer on a journey through her canvases, he or she will notice increasingly more connections between the seemingly divergent events – as if you are browsing through the world with a searchlight and get increasingly more of a grip on it. It is not for nothing that in 2016 Chae Eun made the large painting Overgrown Stories in the Shadow of the Wolf, depicting precisely such a searchlight shining on all sorts of semi-hidden night scenes – a deer or a wolf, somewhere in the distance, plants, plus all sorts of shapes that we cannot properly make sense of. The painting accordingly becomes a kind of Rorschach test: through the combination of darkness, searchlight, and distortion, you as a spectator realize that Chae Eun lets you construct the final image yourself – but based on the elements she, the painter, presents you with.
This is the crux: through this tension between reality and fiction, between objectivity and subjectivity, Chae Eun challenges her spectators to give new meaning to familiar cultural and historical images. To search for other, new underlying patterns. It is not without reason that Chae Eun in her work invariably refers to both Asian and Western culture, so practically none of the spectators will recognize all the references on her canvases: a world without a fixed cultural home, without an anchor point, where – at the same time – wholly new, non-culturally determined connections and associations can arise. Chae Eun’s work is therefore occasionally reminiscent of Western art from before the Enlightenment and before the Renaissance art that is constructed according to completely different, non-linear paradigms of time and place than our ‘enlightened’ present society is used to – but if you do open up to this, a surprisingly fresh, exciting, and seductive alternative scenario for the perception of our world suddenly emerges. More eternal. More universal.
Take the aforementioned Spiegel im Spiegel, where, in addition to the running Tippi Hedren, we also find – inter alia – a quote from Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, various rainbow patterns, an orange, a Manga-like monster and Korean policemen. Formally and culturally they all have very little in common until you realize the whole canvas is about threat and change – from unknown, uncontrollable birds, from breaking a taboo (poking your finger into an open wound), to authorities exercising their power without us understanding the mechanism behind it. This way, Chae Eun touches on the question of where fear and uncertainty in our society derive from, what they mean. And accordingly touches the core of art in general: showing, making tangible what cannot be said in ‘normal’ images and words.
The same goes for her latest painting, A Song for the Unseen in 2020. In it, a striking number of Chae Eun’s earlier fascinations come together, and find their form in the many images that were knocked off their pedestal in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests – the hiding and destruction of works of art as a symbol of change. We see the girl from The Birds, young, immature and pristine, pulled by different hands. A fallen tree – a symbol of nature, romantic and eternal – that has succumbed to the circumstances. And a parade of ‘blind people’: in front a blindfolded boy, behind him one of the blind men from Pieter Bruegel’s The Blind Leading the Blind, behind them a snowman without eyes, followed by those paper silhouette figures who never have eyes anyway. But most prominent is a man draping a huge canvas over reality – a canvas on a canvas, an illusion within an illusion. As if Chae Eun were wondering: is the canvas, the painting, there to cover or rather emphasize reality? Can you erase the past, and replace it with something new? And look, straight through the canvas runs a stream: panta rhei, as Heraclitus says, everything flows: so, A Song for the Unseen is not only about the power of illusion, but also, again, about faith in change.
Even revolution, perhaps.
That is exactly what draws me to Chae Eun Rhee’s work: that it expresses the deep-rooted human desire not to resign yourself to the status quo. That we live by the grace of change, and the uncertainty that goes with it – whether it’s to set in motion the apparent stillness in a painting or major changes in society. That is why her work is never gloomy or apocalyptic. Chae Eun’s paintings are ultimately about hope, the consolation of beauty and the longing for new prospects – not for nothing do all her canvasses feature rainbows. This way, Chae Eun stimulates us to keep moving, to keep searching for new worlds, new understandings. That always starts in the mind of one single viewer – so that the world can follow.