The Marriage of Traditional and Contemporary Beauty

by - March 20, 2019

Kyehoon Ha

One characteristic of contemporary art is that it is relatively free of fixed rules. In fact, there may be no rules to restrict art anymore. In the past, however, indulging in creative activity in times when religion and absolutism dominated our lives and thoughts meant that the artist had no choice but to suppress his own creativity and aesthetic beliefs, and primarily cater to the client’s wishes. As a result, technical competence, rather than the artist’s creativity, was an important determinant to clients and viewers when choosing an artist to create their artwork.

Institutions founded in the days of absolute monarchy, such as the Royal Academy of Arts, also imposed rigid rules upon their artists. Whether or not an artist followed those rules would have an impact on their opportunity to enter their work in open exhibitions such as Le Salon. These policies gradually evolved as they underwent a changeover period sparked by famous exhibitions such as the 1863 Salon de Refuses or the Salon des Artistes Independant.

In the case of Korea, it is undeniable that artists were submerged in a similarly regulated artistic environment until recently. Before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which greatly diversified the training process and spectrum of work for artists, the conventional path would be to use their training in art school to be evaluated in exhibitions and continue their creative pursuits.

Originally a jewelry designer, Rimm Chae accumulated the knowledge in the humanities that would enrich her artistic creations later on in her career, through her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree studies in French literature. Her academic background is likely relevant to the powerful and deep themes conveyed in her work. Before creating tableau style art, Rimm Chae was an experienced designer who received training at professional fashion and jewelry design institutes in Italy and Japan. Her jewelry pieces are known as ‘wearable art,’ which involves the perception of jewelry as forms of art.

Though Rimm Chae’s career has allowed her to perceive art from an international point of view, and has led to numerous awards, including the International André Malraux Association Award, the Mikimoto Award in Japan, and the Signity Award in Hong Kong, it is notable that she has been persistently fascinated by Korean traditions and aesthetics even while being trained in jewelry design.

The recent works of Rimm Chae were inspired by her own roots, in which the aesthetics of traditional Korean art merge with her international experiences.

Rimm Chae’s work is a combination of the delicate yet ornate art of jewelry design and Najeon Chilgi, a form of traditional Korean art which involves combining lacquerwork with mother-of-pearl. Today, with our world being so rapidly modernized, tradition has hardly been a topic of interest. However, Rimm Chae has managed to find a solid basis to truly show her origins to the world. After all, as the German writer Goethe had once said, “The most national thing is the most worldwide.”

Many artists struggle with the problem of contemporizing ethnic aesthetics and traditional features with their work. Some actually succeed in pulling them into their creations. Unfortunately, not many are so successful. Bringing tradition into the present when our minds and surroundings are so adapted to modern society is not an easy task. When ideas gets in the way of the actual work, the project falls in danger of ending up in failure.
Rimm Chae chose to explore traditional art, but not with haste, and implement her extensive experience in jewelry design during the process of modernizing tradition. The artist creates the surface panel after applying and grinding the lacquer for a total of 40 times. During this process, she repeatedly waits for the lacquer to dry, grinds the surface, and adds another coat of lacquer. The artist interacts and nature, and by working with patience, a beautiful surface is born. Upon the surface, mother-of-pearls are placed with prong setting techniques instead of precious stones, rather than following the traditional process of gluing them on. The bordering frames, completely fashioned from silver 925, beautifully embroider the traditional Korean motifs shaped from mother-of-pearl upon the lacquer surface.

This special collaboration, not only of the old with the new, but also of Eastern with Western, and of two completely different mediums - metal with mother-of-pearl – is the birth of something new, something ‘jamais-vu.’

Peach Flower, Apricot Flower and Azalea
Ottchil (Korean lacquer), Hemp cloth
Mother-of-pearl, Gemstone, Silver on wood

Combining metal with lacquerwork may be a rare practice throughout the history of traditional Korean art, but one example is the ‘pyeongtal’ technique, which can be found in Korea’s National Treasure no. 140. In this case, however, metal is cut out and placed upon a lacquered surface, and topped with another coat of lather. This allows the artwork to preserve its status as two-dimensional art. On the other hand in Rimm Chae’s art, the metal prongs that hold the mother-of-pearls are not glued onto the lacquer surface- instead they are vertically ‘planted’ upon the panel like a tree.

Such pieces are two-dimensional, yet simultaneously display the dimension of a relief sculpture. The lacquer background and the mother-of-pearls floating above the surface illuminate a dazzling spectrum of light while casting shadows upon the lacquer panel.
Rimm Chae describes this technique as the “light and shadow effect” or a “mirror lake,” as a mountain would be reflected upon the surface of a lake.
Her artwork, each of which are individual units, can be expanded into larger installations. Some of her pieces mimic the format of folding screens or Western diptychs and triptychs. The pure colors of the polished lacquer background and the gleaming silver and mother-of-pearl generate a vibrant, yet elegant three-dimensional panel.

Born through a strenuous process of meticulous and repeated labor, Rimm Chae’s work artistically brings to light traditional beauty through mother-of-pearl and lacquer combined with jewelry design techniques.

Though not an easy task, I aspire for Rimm Chae and her work to do their part as a messenger, allowing traditional Korean art to flourish within our modern lives and expose the aesthetics of our culture to viewers all over the world.

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