Hee Sook Kim at Causey Contemporary

by Jonathan Goodman

Paradise Between 3

Hee Sook Kim. Paradise Between No. 3. 2015. Oil and acrylic on canvas with Crystal. Image courtesy of the artist.

Hee Sook Kim is a painter and printmaker born in Korea but now based in the Philadelphia area, where she teaches at Haverford College. Her excellent show at Causey Contemporary consisted of works made with oil, acrylic and crystals. Her art balances between the humanly decorative and the influence of natural forms. It is always hard to pinpoint influences in the art of an Asian-born artist who has made her way in America for decades, but it is fair to say that Kim remains close to Eastern art practices—this despite the fact that her materials come from the West.

At this point in time, given the internationalism of esthetic practice, it is not particularly germane to comment on visual influences internalized from two distant parts of the world. Rather, it is important to note how Kim’s origins persist in her paintings, which are compelling by virtue of her use of a decorative style based on nature. For example in the red flowers and butterflies we find in “Paradise Between No. 3,” (2015)  the exquisite straight-line drips and falls from the flowers to the bottom of the painting. This may well be a nod to Western abstraction, but the device pales before the overall effect of the painting and its clear ties to Asian painting traditions.

Besides pointing out obvious parallels in Western and Eastern art, another cliché to be avoided in discussing Kim’s art is her employment of decorative effects. It would be easy enough to link this stylistic choice to gender, but in current society, that is no longer necessarily the case—one thinks of the early plastic weavings of the British artist Oliver Herring, which are as ornamental as any work done by a contemporary female artist. So it is more difficult to construe a context that is specifically gendered in the case of Kim’s paintings.

At the same time, of course, one cannot simply dismiss those elements of her work that tie in with feminine insight. A feminist reading might well assert that Kim’s style is a clarification and praiseworthy elevation of decorative impulse into something completely worthy in its own right, and it is true that her work begins with ornament and then transcends it by making design a major structural element. This is hardly new as a way of creating art, but in current times, it carries an interesting weight—in the sense that its affinity shifts from the minor arts (as has happened historically) to a major one like painting.

Paradise Between 1

Hee Sook Kim. Paradise Between No. 1. 2015. Oil and acrylic on canvas with Crystal. Image courtesy of the artist.

In the larger, nearly wall-size painting titled, “Paradise Between No. 1,” (2015) Kim presents the full scope of ornamental elements. Composed of  rows of a fan-like design against a yellow background, the painting presents a fixed order and expressionist drips with flowers and birds seen at the bottom of the composition. On one level it delivers a linear-oriented methodology; on the other level, it shows a bit of abandon.

Kim’s “Paradise,”-sequence shows her to be following a spiritual inclination, realized in the way she combines a sense of free-floating ease along with quite rigorous treatments of color and form. In the case of “No. 1,” the design motif imparts the sense of a rational arrangement, but it is also true that the white design, imposed on top of pastel blue-greens and yellows, functions as an assertion of paradise and its ultimate freedom from any troublesome motive. In the case of Kim’s work, we see the drips often found in her efforts as an independently held stylistic choice, rather than a recognition of New York art philosophy. The real focus of her art is the practice of a spiritual insight, Buddhist by implication if not specific in a doctrinal sense.

Paradise Between 7

Hee Sook Kim. Paradise Between No. 7. 2015. Oil and acrylic on canvas with Crystal. Image courtesy of the artist.

One of the most recognizably Asian pictures by Kim is “Paradise Between No. 7,” (2015) in which two peacocks occupy the right center of the painting, with two other birds descending in flight from the upper left. The background color is a mustard yellow, filled with mandala-like circles. The two standing birds wait on a rock before a tumultuous sea, while in the upper right a flowering tree drips thin red stripes. In the center top of the composition is a red circle, from which a single drip falls into the dead center of the painting.

Kim’s technical capacities cannot be challenged, but they are not the center of her interest. Instead, she is presenting a vision of heaven, whose earthly counterpart originates in nature. The flora and fauna populating Kim’s work make it clear that her version of paradise is in fact a worldly one, in which the inhabitants of earth communicate the artist’s true love of life on the planet, its glorious diversity of form and color as evidenced by living things. We can try to contextualize Kim’s art by referring to recent painting, but that misses the point, for her esthetic is timeless, without reference to near history.

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