There is something touching about Joeun Kim Aatchim’s images, each portraying a mundane scene, such as a fish dinner for two or a pair of withering yellow roses. Time stills itself in these depictions of objects and bodies as they exist in the artist’s memory: rendered in translucent pigments, the shimmering, dreamlike objects are visible from various angles. Eye jailed eye, currently on view at Vacation Gallery, is born out of Aatchim’s struggle with strabismus, an eye condition that nearly ruined her life but gave her a unique perspective on her extraordinary drawing skills. The exhibition records the artist’s struggle with a talent that she considers both a gift and a curse, as Aatchim weaves an inviting conversation about artist’s practice, sincerely sharing the agonies and emotions that make creating artwork possible.
Transparency is the show’s central motif. For months, Aatchim experimented with ways to treat semitransparent Korean silk so that the fabric would absorb enough ink without producing a smudgy image. Finely detailed, the resulting images indulge the eye that takes pleasure in texture, color, and materiality. They have a luminous quality. This recent body of works on silk, all made in 2019, are delicate, poetic, and quietly poignant. In “New (York) Times, Umbrella from Jesse,” for example, white highlights cause a glass jar to stand out against a darkened silk background as if lit by moonlight. While the layered compositions show the objects from multiple perspectives, they retain the clarity of something that has crystallized in one’s memory.
Metaphorically, transparency speaks to Aatchim’s determination to be true to her chosen medium; she insists that her works are to be called drawings, not paintings, though the distinction doesn’t exist in her native Korean. Strabismus is an eye condition that, if contracted at a young age, prevents the brain from forming stereoscopic vision or depth perception. Born with the condition, the artist grew up feeling extreme agony and shame around her eyes. Yet she also found that making two-dimensional representations came almost naturally to her. In 2008, Aatchim had corrective eye surgery before moving from Seoul to New York, at which time she “jailed” her eyes, vowing to hide her ability to draw before she gave up drawing for a decade.
“I feel like drawing is my given husband, chosen by birth. I hated how it defined me,” Aatchim gestures to me with frustration, “So I cheated on it with other mediums.” The gallery is full of evidence of this: mosaic panels hang near the top of a wall or sit atop a heater; a concrete column stands in the center, housing a sound piece that fills the space with a low, scratching hum. Near the column, a spikey metal twig grows from a microphone stand. Beneath the images on three gallery walls, Aatchim’s writings are displayed in restaurant ticket holders. Explaining why she brings in works from other mediums when the show is to mark her return to drawing, she says, “At the same time that I’m reconciling with my eyes through drawing, I also want to forgive all the things I made in the past ten years. They are not fake attempts. I made them as best as I could, and they carry the emotions in lieu of the images I didn’t make.” Their presence shows that emotions have always been central to Aatchim’s work, something she has been hesitant to admit until now.
But the center of the space is drawing, that “given husband who is still waiting at home, still so good to me,” Aatchim laughs. “I think I even became better at drawing than ten years ago!” Itching to use her eyes to the fullest and understand how they work, she produced a series of still lifes drawn from observation in the past year. “When making these, I held back the desire to make a perfect image, and the shapes I see begin to shift. My brain must be switching back and forth between two eyes.” These drawings of objects with multiple tenuous outlines, creating a fuzzy image, such as one of her father’s camera, contrast with the crystal-clear objects drawn from memory.
The second floor of the gallery is filled with silverpoint drawings that are meant for children with strabismus. These represent the artist’s genuine and frank reconciliation with the shadows that haunt her formative years. In one drawing, a kitten’s eyes point in slightly different directions; in another, the flames of two candles dance away from each other. These are drawings she made for children who, like her younger self, make regular visits to the eye doctor’s office. Under each meticulously rendered image are two Hess charts that track the alignment of focus in the image, mimicking an optician’s diagnosis.
“I chose these ordinary images because I wanted to show that things in nature aren’t always perfectly aligned, and there is nothing wrong with having eyes that don’t perfectly align,” she says. The accuracy of Aatchim’s silverpoint drawings — a medium in which erasure is impossible — reinforces her statement. Though her images show everyday scenes and encounters, they are weighted with emotions. “As an artist, the best thing I can offer is the emotions I have felt, and the life I have lived. It’s a privilege of our profession as artists to talk about and working with our feelings.”
Back on the first floor is a series of nine drawings of Aatchim’s mother, based on a picture taken by the artist’s father. “This photo of my mother at my age captures her melancholy, her worries about her poetry, doubt about how she will raise her kids, and all the uncertainties that shake a creative woman’s life at age 30.” The series records her unsuccessful attempts to imitate the photograph. “None of them look like her,” Aatchim shrugs in resignation. The only one that satisfies her is one that she cheated on: one drawn from memory, of her mother now, layered behind a translucent image from the photograph.
This series of images captures artist’s constant negotiation with vision and reality. It also confesses, with vulnerability, a diasporic longing between mother and daughter. White flecks of paint dot the eyes in Aatchim’s painting, making them seem to sparkle and reminding me of my own mother, who I hold close to my heart, but who is physically distant. Personal sentiments and motivations are at the heart of Aatchim’s creations. When our conversation ends, she hands me a half-blooming rose lily, a flower that my mother always keeps in her home, and leaves me with a quote from Milan Kundera, “She took after her mother, and not only physically. I sometimes have the feeling that her entire life was merely a continuation of her mother’s, much as the course of a ball on the billiard table is merely the continuation of the player’s arm movement.” As Aatchim draws her mother, her negotiations with drawing and vision become a metaphor for a kind of second sight, from which emerges a complex and multilayered image of the artist herself.
Joeun Kim Aatchim: eye jailed eye continues at Vacation Gallery (24A Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 30. The exhibition was curated by Gavin Runzel.