Treasured Erosions: The Art of Chae Rim

Chae Rim. Walking in the Forest. 2017. Lacquer, silver, gold, and nacre. Dimensions variable.

The mountainous landscape across Korea and China is one of the most understated wonders of the world. The seemingly arid rocks stack high toward the sky and give root to light-weight looking deciduous trees that give vibrant color to otherwise rough, stoic surfaces. The juxtaposition seen throughout this temperate environment continues to generate a particular exotic mystique. In the sculptural paintings of Chae Rim, “The Ten Symbols of Longevity” appear and disappear through thickets of metal-smithed foliage. Rim’s reductive representations of such a volume-filled subject further construes individual curiosity while her lyrical, calligraphic forms build a sense of illusion and atmosphere.

Trained as a painter, Chae Rim’s specialty is intricate jewelry design where she carves out the gestural painted line from materials such as silver, gold and nacre — also known as mother-of-pearl. Rim’s technique, moreover, highlights the handmade and sets each small filigree upon raised pins that are anchored into a densely-layered, lacquered surface. These traditional processes are referred to as ‘ottchil’ (lacquer), ‘saengchil’ (raw lacquer), ‘heukchil’ (black lacquer) and ‘chaechil’ (colored lacquer) to create ‘najeonchilgi’, the incorporation of nacre with lacquer.

Rim’s close attention to miniature details further elevates the role of iridescence in Asian art and also renews the significance of surfaces made with the glow of polished sea shell. Unlike silver and gold, nacre reflects a range of light pastel colors that appear and interact with light that reflects upon it. Within eight new compositions in an exhibition titled “Chanson de la forêt” (Song of the Forest), Chae Rim takes viewers through the idea of undiscovered wilderness such as forests, mountains, trees, wind and sunrise.

Chae Rim’s sculptural paintings range from single to multiple panels since her aim is to create a sense of outdoor space. Vast expanses of dark blue, green, red, gray and black lacquer give way to busy networks of shiny, leaf-like forms. “At Sunrise” presents a graceful, curving line of tiny gold fronds that hold calligraphic carvings of clouds and water. While making one’s way around the composition, smaller shapes signifying deer, turtles, and mushrooms emerge. The sun, pine trees and bamboo are defined by the light reflecting a range of tones across the dark lacquer surface. The shadows that appear opposite to the vast expanse of gold filigree transform the shiny surface into a suggestion of ocean water, as it appears still under moon and morning light.

The three vertical panels that comprise “Evergreen” show two squares of dark red around one square of dark green. Both hues represent the life cycle of this particular tree when it is robust with water and when it is without. Chae Rim also adds groups of gold and silver filigree that cluster alternately to the right and left, as the observer’s eye moves through the detailed but minimal composition. “Pine Tree” on the other hand is a cylindrical sculpture that is balanced against a dark frame, with carved nacre objects on one side and silver on the other. This piece suggests a larger-than-life size branch of sharp needles that, when examined closely, are dozens of small representations showing the crane, water, clouds, deer, and bamboo. Before taking the viewer further into the larger context of a forest, Chae Rim presents “Mountain” a similarly reductive composition when seen next to “Evergreen”. However “Mountain” is a single square of black lacquer with two circles of white, leafy-like forms, in the upper left and right corners. Both appear above a long line of silver that moves horizontally across the surface, curving every now and then, suggesting either the erratic, rocky landscape or a river, as a downward flow of water.

The last four compositions take the viewer into the wilderness and begins with “The Forest,” which is a two-panel piece that appears to represent the growth pattern of trees, across land, when seen from a high, aerial view. The track of these plants appears as three separate curving lines that diverge at the edge of each panel. Chae Rim maintains a consistent, even rhythm by also applying light shades of nacre on the ends. The silver pieces seen in the center appear much darker as each component reflects a different intensity of the shiny black surface.

The bird’s-eye view of nature’s migration turns into a heightened experience of complexity within Rim’s grand sculptural painting titled “Walking In the Forest.” This particular painting consists of 13 panels that carry a base color of iridescent blue. Rim clusters and expands the small, metallic and nacre forms that bear the Ten Symbols of Longevity. Through elegant repetition, the artist shows these small elements as larger, singular groups that take on their own collective. In each panel, the nacre carvings are outnumbered by those in silver, suggesting a particular hierarchy within the life cycle of nature.

Chae Rim then goes even deeper into this impression of untamed wilderness beginning with “Trees and Wind Variation.” Silver filigrees lace the corners of four panels that are seen against a warped and weather-worn surface. The artist’s decision to impose the texture of a cracked surface beneath her intricate metal-smithed networks reveal her attempt to represent the idea of wind, something that is felt but not seen. In “Song of the Wind in the Forest,” Rim presents 11 panels that carries on with the motif of the disrupted flat surface. Except this seemingly wear and tear is not the direct result of rain, wind and condensation. But instead, these round-yet-square-like forms thatch together into the forms of the rocks that stack, shape and stretch into the mystical mountain range above.

Chae Rim’s sculptural paintings are heroic. She consistently presents work where meaning and experience are delicately embedded within layers of intricate details. To each viewer, Rim sets forth the challenge to not only learn “The Ten Symbols of Longevity” but to experience them through the process of meditation. “I will never forget how breathtaking it was to see my work reflecting the majestic ceiling of the Grand Palais,” state Rim. “I feel that this light and reflection effect is what deeply touched the heart of the French people at the exhibition held in the Louvre and the Grand Palais.” In 2015 Chae Rim received Le Prix Eugène Fontenay as part of Le Salon International du Patrimoine Culturel du Louvre.

Jill Conner, New York