Painting perfection

WHILE it's true that a genuine artist can create art with only an egg for a model, I never suspected anyone would attempt the same with a drop of water. And yet, that is exactly what Korean painter Tschang-Yeul Kim has done. Not only with one drop of water, in fact, but with two, seven, three dozen -- even with hundreds.

Most remarkably, these paintings are extremely handsome and intriguing. As the world judges such things, they may not be as important as what a handful of other artists produce, but they are art nevertheless, and of a particularly charming and challenging kind.

They impress us, first of all, because they are so sensitively and tastefully painted, and because we cannot imagine anyone spending so much time and energy on anything so simple and undramatic. Not only are the droplets painstakingly delineated, with accurately placed highlights and shadows, but each has been subtly differentiated from those nearest to it to ensure a variety of shapes and sizes. Just as important, the ground upon which they are placed is kept flat and unobtrusive, and is usually a soft earth-color or a light, luminous gray. The compositions vary from a single drop, strategically placed, to complex formats in which the water creates regular or irregular patterns, adheres to the surface at a diagonal, is lined up in a row horizontally, or fills the entire canvas with clusters of tiny rivulets.

Simple as these pictures may appear, they represent a unique combination of a starkly realistic approach, an exquisite tonal and design sensibility, and a flair for allover patterning. They also represent an extraordinary degree of patience, considering that many of these works are quite large -- an image 5 by 7 feet is not unusual -- and that each and every drop is lovingly painted.

No matter how charmed and impressed we are by these canvases, however, we inevitably come back to one question. With all that patience and ability, we wonder, couldn't the artist have chosen a more interesting or sympathetic subject, or at least varied his output to include other objects and forms?

Answers are difficult to find. The critical literature on Kim is relatively sparse, and it is filled with so much double talk and verbal pomposity that discovering anything of significance in it is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

We have to plow through such sentences as ``Memory is dissolved and the entire body aspires to become a water drop. And the conscience desires, if possible, to take the form painted on the surface of the canvas.'' Or, ``In the strict sense of the term, it may be more to the point to say that he does not paint the water drops, but that the water drops are created.''

Even taking into account Kim's Eastern philosophical and aesthetic approach, with its more subtle and oblique approach to the question of subject in art, such language short-circuits our understanding of the artist's intentions. If all that some interpreters can come up with is so much hot air, then isn't it possible, we ask, that Kim himself really has nothing to say, and that he is only a highly skilled technician endlessly repeating a successful gimmick?

A few minutes spent with his paintings, however, quickly dispel that conclusion. Not only are the paintings beautiful in the simplest and best sense of the word, they also tug at our sensibilities and imaginations in tantalizing ways.

For one thing, they have an extraordinary presence that demands our full and undivided attention and provokes something very close to a meditative state of mind. For another, so much thought and sensitivity have gone into their creation, and so much care has been directed toward ensuring the most perfect tonal and coloristic relationship between every tiny form and the background against which it is set, that we slowly become aware that the real subject of these pictures is not isolated bits of water but harmony itself.

Once alerted to this fact, we quickly realize that these images are actually icons of formal sensibility, wholeness, and perfection, and that they have much more in common with the nonobjective paintings of Mondrian than with the representational works of Wyeth. Apart from their dissimilarities of style and approach, Kim and Mondrian are very much alike. Neither is really concerned with what his pictures seem to be about, and both are passionately interested in fashioning art that will lead the viewer to deeper and more holistic insights into the nature and purpose of life.

Both, in short, are metaphysically inclined, Mondrian in the Western sense, and Kim in the Eastern. Their formal languages may differ, but their overall intentions do not.

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