New Paintings by Seong-Eun Kim
It is rare to read a Western phonetic spelling of an Asian word that consists of two symbols and appears to show a tree, a wall and a house. Since Asian symbolism is not linear to the signs and symbols of American English, the sound of this word is offered as an open door. “Hwadab” is a humanist concept that means a response to a work of either poetry or music. It formally signifies one artist’s creative response to the work of another, showing the grand depth and plurality of Asian visual culture, one that is in fact part of a larger ongoing dialogue with tradition that has lasted centuries. Through this process, artists locate their own medium and establish a unique style and conviction.
In 2017 Seong-Eun Kim presented ten new paintings on this subject. For Kim, who lives and works in Seoul Korea, these paintings function together as a single response to the Asian traditions that she has long respected but also continues to question. As contemporary Western culture continues to expand technologically, citizens throughout Asian countries such as Seong-Eun Kim have no choice but to move forward with these new developments. “Hwadab” for Kim is not just a response to other significant works of art, but it is also a reconciliation of the shared past with the artist’s present.
Unlike most artists, Seong-Eun Kim is self-taught. Although she was creative at an early age, her daily life took a practical trajectory that is reflective of others who have to select a professional education and career path rather than pursuing a life of creativity full-time. Despite this juxtaposition, Kim has established a rhythm for regular studio time, which has allowed her to pursue the large question of what it means to be a painter.
The ten canvases that comprise “Hwadab” consist of solitary plum trees, floating tree blossoms, empty chairs and slender stalks of bamboo. In each case, there is no background except the subjects themselves. Seong-Eun Kim, therefore, leaves the viewer suspended in a state of wonder, suggesting an absence and presence at the same time. It could be suggested that the artist’s shifting subject matter is a metaphor for the artist’s process of critique. In one composition measuring 50 x 30 centimeters, Kim presents a tall, standing chair on four thin, fragile supports. However the vibrant blue backrest, and the dark blue seat cushion assert a need for definition, either from the artist or the viewer. In the right margin, the artist portrays spindly but tall stalks of bamboo — the ever-growing plant.
Most significant is Seong-Eun Kim’s initial application of paint. According to the surface texture, the artist applied a thin layer that consisted of color diluted with water. More brush strokes were added sequentially, showing the color building its volume through the base of water. Kim’s delicate use of paint not only highlights the properties of paint as ephemeral, but she also reflects a Millennial aesthetic where the subject matter appears spare in form in order to eschew plurality. In doing so, the artist leaves her ideas preserved in the space of marginal circumstances, appealing to the need for definition in an otherwise empty but standard form.
Seong-Eun Kim’s lucid, tenuous aesthetic continues in two compositions that focus only on intersections of bamboo stalks. While the plant leaves appear to be a given, the representation of each plant segment is more arbitrary, sometimes making a full connection between two sections while others appear to stand, or bend, with a partially broken form.
Then in an untitled painting measuring 53 x 45.5 centimeters, Seong-Eun Kim sets the form of a black-painted loveseat within a micro-forest of bamboo.
While the painting continues the artist’s deliberation of presence and absence, the empty chair most likely symbolizes an individual, as opposed to someone missing. In other words, these paintings most likely stand as the artist’s personal symbol of self-definition within a fast-changing world. However it is clear that the path to self-definition is multi-layered.
Kim portrays a less chaotic and more stable metaphor in two untitled paintings that show a red and blue chair. Measuring 72.7 x 60.6 centimeters, the blue chair appears below a tree of pink blossoms while the red chair sits behind a dark stalk of bamboo, a barrier between the weight of the past and the nimble strength needed in order to move forward.
In two more paintings, extended branches bearing light blue and pink blossoms appear as umbrellas to the sky.
The apex of Seong-Eun Kim’s thought process culminates in two final pieces. One shows a tree with white blossoms that stretches across the painting’s horizon line at different height.
Here, the tree takes on the physical characteristics of the bamboo trees seen earlier. However the blossoms are lightweight and barely noticeable when looking toward the sky. The blue chair appears again, covered in white blossoms. But again, this poses less of a hindrance and suggests more a point of departure since the flower petals are ephemeral, with a short life.
“We respond to people and things around us by appreciating and interacting with them,” states Seong-Eun Kim. “Having a good rest in a lovely chair, appreciating an ume cherry blossom in early spring after a long winter, taking a walk in a summer garden full of green bamboos embodying gentleman’s spirit — all are Hwadab.” Throughout this series of new paintings, Seong-Eun Kim successfully reconciles herself and a juxtaposing nature that is both opposite yet nurturing. Through the motif of the empty chair, the artist extends her path toward self-definition to the viewer. Seong-Eun Kim shows that “Hwadab” is an act of inner cultivation that continues to remain viable when shared.
Jill Conner, New York