Beauty and Nature in the Paintings

by - August 30, 2021

Eleanor Heartney

A flower is beautiful, we say—but why? Because in its geometry and in its sensuous qualities it is an embodiment and significant expression of that precious something in ourselves which we instinctively know to be Life, “An eye looking out upon us from the great inner sea of beauty,” a proof of the eternal harmony in the nature of a universe which is too vast and intimate and real for the mere intellect to seize. . . So there vibrates in us a sympathetic chord struck mystically by the flower. 
Frank Lloyd Wright, The Japanese Print: An Appreciation 

Chae Rimm evokes the beauty of nature in order to explore the nature of beauty. Her dazzling sculptural paintings remind us of wind swept forests, rushing streams, the ocean floor, a cloud dappled sky, trees glimpsed through rain. But while their beauty speaks of nature, they are meticulously created using precious materials and techniques drawn from the ancient decorative traditions of her native Korea. They display the artifice, or perhaps we should say, the artfulness, of craft in order to present a vision of nature that transcends the surface appearances of the natural world. Combining processes like ottchil’ (lacquer), ‘saengchil’ (raw lacquer), ‘heukchil’ (black lacquer) and ‘chaechil’ (colored lacquer) with materials like silver, gold and nacre, or mother of pearl, she presents an image of nature that is simplified, stylized and purified. 

 In this she brings to mind the belief expressed by the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright that all great art, design and architecture stem from what he called “the conventionalization of nature.” By this he meant that the artist must discover the beauty that is essential - that goes beyond mere imitation of nature - to strike a chord in the human soul. He believed that beauty is universal and that it is what ties us to each other and to the universe. 

 When Chae Rimm uses Korean decorative techniques and materials to create paintings inspired by the natural world, she presents a hybrid aesthetic that marries the traditions of East and West. The lacquering processes she employs reflect her deep study with Korean masters of that art. But instead of applying lacquer to functional objects like utensils, furniture and jewelry in the traditional way, she creates paintings that speak to western traditions of abstraction. The formal construction of these works brings to mind the explorations of Western artists like Joan Mitchell, Pat Steir and Helen Frankenthaler. Like Chae Rimm, their works are grounded in the experience of nature but refined through the artistic imagination into something more universal and spiritual. 

 With titles like Dancing Willows, Gold Rain and Spring in My Hometown, her paintings are evocative rather than descriptive. The lacquered surfaces are densely layered, with color lapping over color and mother of pearl shimmering like flashes of pale moonlight or reflections on the surface of a lake. Using skills she honed in her earlier life as a jewelry designer, Chae Rimm attaches curling calligraphic filaments of gold and silver with raised pins to the surface of her paintings. These additions cast winding shadows on the fields of color below and suggest leaves, flowers and other natural forms. But despite these references to the natural world, the real subject of these paintings is color and light and the way that these properties interact in a way that addresses our spiritual hunger for harmony and beauty in a distressed and distressing world. They have a healing quality that invites us to immerse ourselves into environments that soothe the edges of our brittle egos. 

 Chae Rimm notes that one inspiration for this works is the Korean folk tradition of Arirang, a Korean folk song that dates back over 600 years and has hundreds of variations. Like the decorative techniques she employs, Arirang is closely tied to the history of Korea. And just as the lyrics of Arirang transform each time the song encounters a different region, images of nature in Chae Rimm’s work are transformed by their encounter with different materials and decorative traditions. The lacquer gives the paintings the mysterious glow of forest shadows, underwater depths or dusky skies. The mother of pearl provides a shimmering iridescence that suggests moonlight or glittering stars. The silver and gold filigree winds over the surface of the paintings like vines or branches or clusters of tiny leaves. Gems like amber, coral, turquoise and jade sparkle with the hues of colorful blossoms. 

 Nature here is more a matter of memory and dream as it is the product of direct observation. And this is the reason it connects so powerfully with our imaginations. Char Rimm presents a nature that is generalized, or as Frank Lloyd Wright might say, conventionalized in order to express a deeper sense of harmony and beauty that can be shared across diverse times and cultures. With these sculptural paintings, Chae Rimm erases the boundaries that separate East and West, tradition and modernity and craft and art. She unites these supposedly separate spheres within paintings that are a celebration of a beauty that we all can share.

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