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Daru Kim: Flights of Fancy


Daru Kim, Born in Daegu City, Korea, studied art at Seoul National University, receiving her BA in 1977. That year she moved to New York City to pursue graduate studies at Pratt Institute, where she was awarded an MFA in 1980. She currently maintains an apartment on the edge of Chelsea, as well as a home north of Rhinebeck in upstate New York. Currently, she spends most of her time in her country home, which is no doubt a strong influence on the patterned paintings she makes, orienting toward decorative, but not merely pretty, observations of nature, flowers in particular. This is a time when nature is very much on the defensive; it is the victim of human encroachment and misuse. At the same time, we need to recognize that Kim, as a Korean artist, on some level, visible or invisible, is the recipient of the great Asian tradition of painting nature. But clearly Kim is not a traditional Korean painter; she studied in New York and has lived in the city for decades. Her art, a notable combination of design, natural forms, and muted color, has long made the case for the highly attractive consequences of differing styles and influences–a perfectly reasonable result of Kim’s life both in Asia and the West.


Despite the efficacy of Kim’s merger of different painting traditions, or perhaps because of that efficacy, it is important to consider the esthetic, indeed the ethical, implications of an art combining traditions occurring at so great a remove. Kim’s work not only demonstrates a good knowledge of Western abstraction, it is also imbued with the subtleties we associate with Asian painting. How can the two approaches, so very different in their nature, be accommodated in a single work of art? Given the ease with which we pick up imageries from the Internet, across time and all over the world, it is hard not to accept eclecticism in painting, which in truth has been occurring for centuries in cultures worldwide. Kim thus belongs to an established tradition, albeit one we are experiencing as newly innovative, given that there is so much travel among artists seeking viable accommodations for work. Moreover, the artist has long made New York her home–and New York has become a by-word for internationalism in art. Yet that is a generalization, and we should be specific in our description of the differing attributes of a painter who has so adroitly found a way of communicating her double background. A mature artist, Kim has been addressing for some time the complexities facing her as someone both Korean and American. The decorative beauty of her paintings strengthens the adjective into something that can take its place among styles that we would describe as “strong,” “forceful,” and “powerful.”


It cannot be that the amalgamation of East and West always results in works that effectively unify their disparate elements. Good art is always a matter of internalizing influence; it is just that our influences have become so very numerous as to defy easy categorization. Even the materials conventionally available to Kim from the cultures she has lived in–oil and ink–are so different as to prove highly difficult in their concomitant use. There is also the question of the reach and depth of the two traditions, making it more than difficult to create a style that would effectively incorporate aspects of both. The patterns we find in Kim’s paintings move in and out of decoration, involving both abstraction and shapes that easily link to natural forms. Beauty, now a contested word considering our emphasis on social practice, is embraced in her body of work. There is also something meditative about the compositions, which are enveloped in mist-like backgrounds that encompass the particulars of the forms painted on them as well as creating an atmosphere supporting contemplation. One hesitates to delve deeper into the meditative in these paintings, in the sense that we do not want to superficially address a depth and contemplative practice Western culture is only beginning to practice and understand. But the suggestion of insight, along with the practice of a schematic beauty, is central to Kim’s vision.


Formally, the paintings come close to being palimpsests: surfaces in which layers of imagery build overlays that add to the sense we are not only looking at the paintings, but we are also looking into them. While this experience is a formal device, it carries at the same time a metaphysical suggestion, namely, that the production of art in the service of nature intimates not only formal devices, it also opens a window onto matters of spirit. I am not suggesting that Kim’s work is meant as devotional description. Instead, the array of forms and designs convey a matrix situated in both the real and the imaginary. It is as if Kim’s forms and thought hover slightly off the ground the painting provides. Her insights are surely based on her long, ongoing stays in the landscape of upstate New York, yet they also, in their mystical suggestiveness, establish a place in which the imagination becomes a tableau in which unspecified allusions of a deeply spiritual nature offset the seemingly decorative nature of the imagery. This saves the work from a merely surface orientation and rendering of nature. Mysteries abound, made specific by the suggestion of a world that informs what we see but is determined by influences beyond recognition.


“When at Night”, a 2021 mixed-media painting, beautifully expresses the diverse complexity, both abstract and figurative, of Kim’s technique. It also impresses the viewer with its evocative mystery. Against a mostly dark green background, all manner of ornamental effects occurs. They include circles of white dots, flower shapes in outline drawn as white petals with a white center, orange and white bloom-like concentrations of dots, random smudges occurring throughout the space of the picture. In its entirety, with its muted background and enigmatic (but beautiful) forms, “When at Night” is suggestive of another world, whose formal attributes are beautiful but beyond human knowledge. Without concern for any particular spirituality, the emotional life of the painting runs deep. The intimation of mystery remains unexplainable, deriving from a place deep in Kim’s imagination. To what extent the imagery relies on effects found in the natural world is unknown. That is what gives “When at Night” the considerable beauty it holds.


The painting on paper titled “Into the Woods–Morning” (2021) is, as the title suggests, much lighter in tone. Here the background is a light tan, with designs drawn in thick black lines; a flower form with many petals centers the painting in the upper middle register. From it there are black lines leading to spiral or circular shapes, and underneath these designs are faint shadows and touches of color. Despite the picture’s title, Kim offers little in the way of forest imagery. Instead, it is an approximation of nature rather than a copy. Like most of Kim’s work, the effects are brought about indirectly rather than as direct figurative description. This would tend to weight the art in the favor of abstraction, but the essence of nature is attended to in ways that enhance the emblematic quality of Kim’s work. “Into the Woods–Morning” communicates a day-time atmosphere, in which the particulars of the woods become motifs whose beauty stems from but does not imitate its origins. The distance occurring between that which is seen and how it is presented is long enough to understand the work’s attraction without consideration of its natural foundations. At what point does the distance completely remove us from nature? It is a question that may be asked in light of the ornamental patterning that pervades Kim’s body of work.


If abstraction can never be fully reconciled with figuration, neither can it ever be fully free of the suggestion of the real world. Kim explores this conundrum expertly. In “A Perfect Bliss” (2021), a mixed-media work on paper brilliant with color, especially reddish pink, we come up against a patterned work of art whose individual elements clearly stem from the artist’s experience in nature. The misty background is variously colored– from reddish-brown to gray to tan. The parts embellishing the plane are clusters of circles, variously colored pinkish red, white, orange, and blue. On each side of the painting is a diagrammatic circle of black dots connected by thin black lines. There are also white circles produced by dots, as well as blossoms outlined in white. The composition is filled with these random effects, organized more by feeling than intellect. Without stating so directly, joy abounds. Kim organizes her work by virtue of intuition and feeling, as most artists do. But in doing so, she also approximates the inspired disarray of nature, its perpetual change and random arrangement.


In “Spring Light 1” (2021), another mixed-media work on paper, the background is an overall gray, with some indistinct passages of pink. Kim’s usual vocabulary of circles connected by lines, mostly black but a few white, along with flower blossoms and spheres determined by straight lines, offers an interpretation of spring. The profusion of energies and forms relates directly to the rebirth of nature once winter is gone. But the tie between the representation we encounter and what we would expect from the work’s title is not fully established–likely because Kim is more interested in the atmosphere of spring rather than its specific attributes–the particulars of flowers, new grass, light green foliage. If it is true that Kim is more interested in creating an approximation of nature rather than a detailed facsimile, and I think this is so, then her art, both in this work and in the paintings in general, becomes an impression addressing her feeling as much as her gaze. This is what happens in good art: the atmosphere generated by the details is as important as the parts of the painting. Kim, who has been working for many years, surely knows this because of her ongoing efforts.


We will never be able to capture the heart of nature or duplicate its countless variety and visual effects. But we can approximate the landscape and its constituent parts, as well as its consequent emotion, in visual art. Kim may not be actively sourcing her paintings in abstraction or figuration, or even so very closely in nature, but she is committed to a language that reflects these categories in an oblique fashion. At this point in time, we are taken with issues other than those described here, but that may be a quandary more than it is a solution. We have to allow for a broad range of vision in a world culture whose differing points of view are not only numerous, they are regularly equal in achievement. Strikingly, Kim makes her art in ways that consider traits that imply both historical and contemporary understanding and come from more than one convention. Her work is demonstrative of a formal pluralism rooted in the exterior world–even when it is apparently abstract. By concentrating partly on the feeling generated by her excursions into nature, Kim details an affection for art’s capacity to suggest natural life as we experience it. Her work becomes a synthesis of the eye, the hand, and the emotion accompanying her environment. Its attraction thus is multifold, accentuated by her skill and by her perceptiveness, and especially, by her depth of feeling.


Jonathan Goodman, March 9, 2022

Daru Kim Images
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