Jaye Rhee is as committed an artist as you are likely to meet. I first met her in 2001, when I was an art student in Chicago. Jaye was on an upper floor of the 847 W Jackson building. She was functionally dressed in black, focused and serious, documenting the work that she would show for the BFA exhibition at the School of the Art Institute. That piece, a video installation work called Tear, had a clear strength that put it way above the other works in that huge group show. In Tear, she stretches a sheet of plain fabric across the screen, then slowly walks from one edge of the frame to the other, ripping the fabric as she walks. In the 2001 show she placed 4 monitors side by side, such that the figure would move from the right edge of the rightmost monitor and walk across the 4 screens, eventually disappearing off the left edge of the leftmost monitor, the sound of tearing fabric continuing all the while. The effect was hypnotic, and that is the only piece that stays in my mind from that show.
For the last 3 years, I have been working as an art adviser and private dealer of contemporary artworks, in addition to maintaining my own art practice. I’ve been a student of Korean language and culture since 1993, and Korean art, ancient through contemporary, is of great interest to me. Jaye (who was born in Korea) and I agreed to cooperate commercially, and so I am happy to promote her work through my websites and blog (also, Kasia Kay gave us a 2-person show last year).
We are also friends. Jaye impresses me for her never-say-die attitude. Everything she does is quality, even if it takes her a half-year to complete a work (as a rule, she works in video and also produces photograph prints that, in effect, are high-quality still images from the videos). She continues to place her art first in her life, and she has been rewarded with inclusion in the Kobe Biennial, several shows in New York, solos in Paris, Los Angeles, Seoul and here in Chicago, a Skowhegan fellowship, and currently a residency in Korea, where she is working on a new video.
To me, Jaye’s work is a long-term inquiry into the complicated experience of seeing. The work often plays with the flatness vs. depth issue of pictorial depiction, such as when she swims in a pool in front of a wall painting of swans, the white towel on her head looking strangely part of the scene. Atop that layer she adds the notion of near vs. far; the wall painting itself exists as a fantasy backdrop; presumably, the patrons of this urban public bath
experience themselves transported away from their daily grind to some neverland that is supremely inaccessible – a representation that exists only in their mind. While the wall painting remains something activated by our (viewer and bather) imagination, Jaye’s presence in the image as simultaneously artist and bather implicates us in a strange way; we know that the artist has staged the scene for our looking, and then places herself within the frame, as though to catch the viewer in the act. Her place is in-between our space and the fictive wall painting space, or at least it was until she clicked the shutter and thereby fully passed to the far side of the representational divide. Not simply pure performance documentation, these images are like letters from the front, as though the artist has ventured forth into the scene on our behalf, and will report back with her findings on exactly what is happening when we see.
One message I’m getting: our brain adds meaning to the images collected by our eyes, and through that combination our mind may take off to places we never expected to go. Jaye seems to say that to see is to submit to a mosh pit of signs, and she’s on hand to help us enter the fray. Her new work, entitled Bambi, is a complex even richer than the bath house pictures. At the center of the work is the eponymous cartoon figure as an almost impossibly cute dog, done up in Bambi drag via
applied white spots. (Be sure to watch the video; Jaye collaborates with professional musicians on great custom scores for her pieces.) The work strikes an array of notes: Bambi is the archetype of “cute”, supplied in spades by the dog and some ludicrous yellow chicks; Bambi also connotes “nature” (an unsettled question of the highest order), so we have astroturf, and a ficus tree (the standard office plant, real or not – nature in domestic space; outside brought inside). Issues of control are addressed by a fence, the stuffed head of another deer, a fallen cuckoo clock, and perhaps (stretching a bit) the scattered girly hair clips on the ground. There is something more ominous about these images, however. The mirror reflects a deer head different than the one on the wall, and is angled so that the latter might see an image of the viewer. What is at stake when humans look at animals? The animals have their own eyes, not the long-lashed sexy peepers of the Disney version. I am reminded of the film Grizzly Man, when we see the chilling eyes of a certain bear, and the voiceover says those eyes are full of the “indifference of nature.” Later we learn that the human protagonist, his love of nature notwithstanding, was most likely devoured by the same animal. Jaye shows us that a single loaded trope, despite what we think we know, may actually be a wreckage site fraught with far more questions than answers.