Jeong Yoen Rhee
Born in 1952, Seoul, South Korea, artist Jeong-Yoen Rhee earned her undergraduate and masters degree in oriental painting from Seoul National University. Later, she came to America to study Western painting and print at Pratt University then continued earning her masters degree in art education at Columbia University. She is currently teaching Foundation(design) at Samsung Art and Design Institute.
Jeong-Yoen Rhee’s work is about the process of giving shape to the meaning of life, the meaning that she earnestly desires. Her spiritual experiences, religious awakenings (Rhee is a devoted Christian), her interest in yoga and advanced breathing technique, and chance encounters with nature and the universe all make their way into Rhee’s paintings; all represent encounters that give meaning to her life and ones which she fervently embraces. These works of art are achieved by combining unique materials with images that comprise a unique visual lexicon. Through her paintings, she presents an overview of the life she is pursuing. They are at the same time philosophical treatises on human nature and metaphors for her deep sense of moral values. In short, her paintings are spiritual landscapes of a sort that have a long tradition in East Asia. Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock are examples of Western abstract painters who worked in a similar fashion; however, Rhee’s paintings are firmly rooted in the Asian tradition.
Rhee uses materials that conjure images of the earth or nature while also having a close affinity to traditional landscapes or iconic images of plums, orchids, chrysanthemums and bamboo. Furthermore, she combines these images and positions them on the canvas with big empty spaces and calligraphic brushstrokes, creating an atmosphere that is reminiscent of monochromatic ink paintings. Such legacies of the Asian tradition abound in her work. And yet at the same time she stops just at the point when the true essence of nature is about to be literally exposed. Her paintings become spheres in which surfaces resemble the earth, in which nature is expropriated and where our bodies become one with the cosmos. In this expansive space we call the universe, whether it be bamboo or musical instruments, clouds or rainwater, mountains or stones, skeletal remains or the earth’s soil, all are adrift, resting momentarily then disappearing; it is this repetitive existence that Rhee’s work reveals to us.
Bamboo is a popular subject that often appears on Rhee’s works. Rhee comments that she is fascinated with the qualities of a bamboo which are the firmness and the way the hollow joints stand straight without bending. She says bamboo resembles human life and inspires us how we should live. We as humans should share our hearts together and form a stronger society as bamboo is connected through hollow joints. Thus she creates shapes such as bodies of a human and musical instruments overlap onto bamboo trunks.
In terms of technique, Rhee applies lacquer on hemp cloth to produce shapes: dots, lines, bones, bamboo, stones and clouds. She uses natural materials such as soil, charcoal, stone, and bone powders which are placed on the surface and then stained. Sometimes pieces of wood and traces of oyster shells cab be seen, which give a thicker dimension to her canvases. In fact, her recent works then to have more of these bits and pieces of nature, highlighting the fact that she is not constrained by fixed boundaries, that she moves freely between the two and three-dimensions. The three-dimensionality of her work allows her to more effectively give shape to the divine, to express the vital energy of spiritual life. The tiny bits of wood and oyster shells are raw materials that reveal the intrinsic power of nature. They are in complete harmony with the hemp cloth, soil and other natural materials.