Water, is one of the founding elements today, it is fundamental for our survival and responsible for our being. It is a commodity by all means but most importantly for one such as Kim attuned to an Eastern spiritualism, is water as an all encompassing element of nothing and all, negative and positive, harm and protection. Through the careful depiction of various forms, quantities and compositions of Waterdrops, a series which formed gradually through the course of the late 1960s to 1970s, we are able to trace Kim's profound spiritual consciousness, one that allows for water drops, a seemingly plain and simple subject to take on a multiplicity of significance and beauty.
Rewinding to 1965, Kim Tschang Yeul crossed the Pacific Ocean to the United States and landed in New York, and threw himself into avant-garde art phenomenon in the galleries of SoHo and Greenwich Village. Encountering icons of the 1960s American art scene such as Warhol, Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg inevitably captivated the attention and curiosity of Kim; their works, respectively innovative in their field were unusual and utilized words and lettering rather than pure spatial shapes and imagery in their compositions. In light of the American artists' graphic and colorful representation of contemporary culture, Kim became conscious that the more thoughtful spiritualism he sought and remained unfound. Thus began his artistic expedition of depicting a new representative theme of his deep personal wounds from the Korean War, a move aided by his transfer to Paris, France in 1970.
Experimenting with geometric forms, acrylic paints with which he familiarized himself with during his years in New York, and depictions of oozing liquid spills, Kim's works began to show a fascination with repetition, balance of shapes and fluidity. An early work Event of the Night reveals the dawning stages of Kim's revitalized distressed emotions over the War, his memories of anguish and horror yet his inability to let those feelings go. Departing from a literal interpretation of his emotions, Kim's use of a single drop reveals a clouded mind represented by the dark and flat background. Struggling to be clearly manifested, the drop takes the form of a teardrop, perhaps channeling its iconographic metaphor for melancholy. This early use of a water drop to direct deeply entrenched emotions is still coarse; it is not completely detached of literal associations. Kim's illusionary and insightful articulation of his emotions are best captured in the works in his mid 1970s works where his mind seems to have isolated a precise way in which to extract the multifaceted exposures of water as an article and as a medium of philosophically probing expression. By increasingly concentrating on perfecting the rendering, surreal yet realistic qualities of his subject, Kim found the process meditative thus enabling a certain lucidity of the mind:
"I see repetition in terms of Buddhist prayer. You repeat and repeat until it blocks out all other thoughts, and you pass into an empty state. I have thought a great deal about my experiences during the war, and the water drops have become a requiem for the dead. For me, painting can be compared to an act of consolation towards the spirits of the dead, in the same way that one sprinkles water to protect the dead from evil spirits during a Buddhist purification ritual." - Kim Tschang Yeul
Unlike the artists in Europe and America whose oeuvres during this time were significantly brasher in color, loud and confrontational, Kim adopted a silent contemplative and reflective approach to his art. The process of creating is intrinsically more essential to Kim than concentrating on the final product; there is a meditative quality in repetition, as there is with chanting mantras many hundreds of times. The beauty reflected in the dainty yet steady drops is an element of Asian aesthetics and age old Confucianism that Kim hopes to keep alive. As preached by Zen Buddhism and Confucianism, there is a balance between all things, two seemingly paradoxical approaches to view one thing when they are in fact, alike and matching. When viewing the Waterdrop paintings of Kim, the plainness of the canvas contrasts the small water drops yet concurrently, they are balanced and compliment one another. Transferring any negative sentiments he holds within him onto the canvas, Kim is able to strike a peace with that emotion and be blissful. He maintains attentive to the minor details, painting them with ease and care; the way the water rests on the surface and the reflectivity of the light upon it, all of which are contributing factors Kim calmly deliberates over when painting these deceptive precious jewels.
In the featured Waterdrops no. 10, 1977 (Lot 526), a true sense of clarity is manifested in the singular globular rounding of the water drops. The viewer can imagine that every drop is eventually distributed across the canvas, as if the spacing and its shadows was meticulously pre-meditated. From a scientific approach, the cohesiveness of the drops to the canvas is curious; how it is that water drops, even the larger ones do not fall in one sweeping motion to the ground, forming a large puddle? Despite the close proximity of the drops they do not gravitate towards one another but resembles a grouping of individual entities of spirited and proud beings. The compositional balance between the canvas and the paint is so complete that the viewer cannot help but initially feel visually caressed to an overall ease. Upon closer and longer observation however, the illusionism and surrealism of Kim's work floats towards the surface. The water droplets which sit tightly on the surface have firmness and a tangible gloss that makes them analogous to crystal globes which elicits associations with the healing properties of crystals, an entity also composed of water. Our knowledge of water and its scientific properties does not apply, but its metaphorical meanings certainly do.
An individual drop so perfectly vivacious and positioned brings forth a variety of narrative possibilities, an infinite contexts could have caused these drops to fall in the place that they are in: tears of joy, sadness, relief, frustration, rainfall or holy water. In reference to Kim's turbulent past in the war era, it is easily imaginable that all of those options are possibilities but regardless, it was the result of a committed creative process. By painting such pure forms of water uninhibited by contextual landscapes, we find Kim exposing his inner emotions in the most lucid manner. The transparency of each globule in Waterdrops no. 10, 1977 is specifically painted with an intense translucent yet luminescent effect to demonstrate that Kim is himself an open book, ready to be read and exposed to the peripheral viewers, perhaps in expectation that the viewer too will share his paradoxical sentiments over the war, spiritualism and beauty. In another sense, each drop resembles the individuals who fell during the Korean War, and it is their individual spirit and memory which Kim brings alive by rendering them as individuals. Like the war itself, the men and women should not be forgotten but memorialized with precision, reverence and rendered with care and magnificence. They stand resolute and are not even partially immersed into the canvas because Kim intentionally executes them so; he does not want to forget the War nor its forces despite its negative memories because fundamentally, it has also shaped Kim into the character that he is today.
Waterdrops no. 10, 1977 and its water drops are a reminder of Kim's past, a life he is not willing to forget and reminisces upon fondly and cherishes. Simultaneously, the ability for the water drops to be simple, fundamental unit of life we take for granted has its symbolic significance. In a different context, the viewer may not notice the existence of such a small, insignificant thing yet Kim has brought alive this exact same thing in a new light. Kim's works strongly carries an Asian aesthetic in its visual and metaphoric significance but artists, critics of different countries were equally enthralled and taken aback by the beauty of Kim's renderings. The post modern artists in Japan, Salvador Dali in France and the notoriously critical French critic Alain Bosquet of France who also came across Kim's works as they traveled through Japan and France equally evoked optimistic remarks on the ability of Kim's works to possess qualities of realism and surrealism, of fullness and emptiness. Kim's works are magnificent in the artist's ability to use his poignant experiences and renditions in a universal language and approach, one that a diverse audience no matter what religion, artistic or political background can relate and admire.