Chae Eun Rhee's cosmopolitan fever dreams

Thomas van Huut

NRC newspaper, Netherlands

27 October 2021

Link to digital article on NRC

The images in Chae Eun Rhee's paintings float between space, time and cultures – as a result of which the viewer can end up in a kind of hyper-consciousness.

A blaze, a demonstrating crowd, the Korean pop star 'V', fragments from paintings by Breughel, Caravaggio, and Van Eyck and images from Hitchcock's The Birds, a figure in a dinosaur costume, recurring rainbow motifs... they swirl all around in the paintings of Chae Eun Rhee.

The exhibition with paintings by the South Korean artist in Museum De Fundatie in Zwolle consists of only ten paintings (one triptych), but the multitude of subjects and details on the often meter-sized works make that you experience it as a retrospective exhibition of an artist who has been going on for decades – and not by an artist who only recently (2020) completed her residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. In addition to her art education in Seoul, Chae Eun previously studied in Chicago – Asia, Europe, and the United States, which explains something of her cosmopolitan frame of reference.

Personal visual language

Decipher those overstuffed, cryptic paintings, you might say – but there's no getting around it. The references are so diverse that probably only Chae Eun understands exactly what she's trying to say with them. Because she keeps returning certain elements in her paintings (the waving windsocks that you associate with car dealers, the Twister dresses, the fire, fragments of Breughel) she makes you a part of her universe, you slowly get the idea that you are learning to speak her language. Until you try to pronounce what that is exactly, then it turns out that you don't have the words for it after all. They are images, not conclusive grammar.

Chae Eun manages to convey a clear mood with her images: her paintings are like a turbulent cosmopolitan fever dream, in which the images are fired at you as if in a busy metropolis. The stack of meanings is given an extra layer in A Song for the Unseen, on which a man seems to drape a cloth over the image, behind him, a dancer covers his image with a second cloth. In the middle walks a blindfolded figure, chased by a paper garland. You can try to guess what this is about, but you can also just experience it.

Handsome image rhyme

Chae Eun's paintings are not chaotic because she tightly directs your gaze with clever diagonal lines. There are clever forms of image rhyme, such as the man standing in a round hoop, connecting around a perfectly round smiley more to the right of the canvas on A Song for the Unseen II. The curved back of a man who seems to fall over a fallen boy rhymes with the bulging back of a dog from a Breughel painting. Points like this reveal that these chaotic canvases are actually constructed accurately.

Chae Eun's images float between space, time, and cultures – as a result of which the viewer can end up in a kind of hyper consciousness. In that respect, they are perfectly in place here, in the cloud-shaped new building above the neoclassical building of Museum de Fundatie: these paintings are like dream images in which reality is processed and shaken up. The most beautiful thing is to sit and look at these paintings as if you were watching a blockbuster movie, an overwhelming sequence of images – seeing what it does to you, dreaming away and perhaps thinking of something unrelated yet true, as the words which in 1976 announced the first Star Wars movie: “ Somewhere in space, this may all be happening right now.”