ART & CULTURE

Lee Jung-eun at her atelier

Book Paintings over Books, and Korean Artist Lee Jung-eun
Lee Jung-eun is a Korean artist who draws ‘chaekgado’ (scholar’s accoutrements), which were popular during the Joseon Dynasty. Even in an age where paperbacks and e-books co-exist and the very existence of books has come into question, Lee’s paintings of books are still very attractive.
From the late 18th century to the 20th century, ‘chaekgado,’ or scholar’s accoutrements, was a popular art genre during the Joseon Dynasty. These paintings featured books, pottery and other tools of study for scholars of the day. Hoping to build an academically-oriented state, King Jeongjo replaced the folding screen behind his throne featuring a landscape painting of the sun and moon with the one that showed books. And that is believed to have given rise to the paintings of books. In those pieces, vases, teacups and plates were also painted, along with plants that symbolized fecundity and longevity – in other words, objects that had nothing to do with academics. But they offered a glimpse into the lifestyles of scholars of that era.
In the 21st century, Korean artist Lee Jung-eun also paints chaekgado. In old paintings, only the shapes of books were depicted. Lee, on the other hand, has the titles of the books, too – such as “Zorba the Greek,” “Cosmos” and “History of Photography” – and her chaekgado paintings are full of stories. Tiny figures and souvenirs that stood between books could tell you a lot about the owner of those bookshelves. Then we began to wonder about the artist herself. We met Lee, a cat lover who finds her inspiration from her everyday life, on a sunny afternoon at her atelier.
이정은, '이음', 100x70cm, 장지에 채색, 2017 © 이화익갤러리

Lee Jung-eun, ‘Connection,’ 100x70cm, colored on jangji, 2017 © Lee Hwaik Gallery

이정은, ‘디자이너의 서가’, 85x145cm, 장지에 채색, 2018 © 이화익갤러리

Lee Jung-eun, ‘Designer’s Bookshelf,’ 85x145cm, colored on jangji, 2018 © Lee Hwaik Gallery

Q. How did you first start painting chaekgado? What did you find interesting and fascinating about those paintings?
A. I decided during middle school that I wanted to major in art at university, and I graduated from an art middle school and an art high school. I made my career decision at a fairly young age. I’ve been painting pretty much my whole life. I majored in Oriental painting, and early on, I mostly painted human bodies. Once I got married and became a mother, my living environment changed, and so did my perspective. I started paying more attention to small things around me, like my kid’s toys, three pairs of running shoes for my family strewn at the front door, the Go board that my husband left lying about, three toothbrushes, the burner, books, and a bunch of other things around me… they all became objects for my paintings. Because it was difficult to set aside time to paint, I started working on small boards. But if I were to hold a solo exhibition, I figured I would need bigger canvases. And since I’d always painted books, following the style of chaekgado came natural to me. A bookcase says a lot about the person who owns it, because it often holds objects that reveal the person’s occupation, personal interests and experiences. I think that’s what makes chaekgado so interesting.

Q. Do you often keep a specific person in mind when you work on those paintings?
A. For something like ‘Quiet Bookshelf,’ I wanted to capture a bookshelf that exuded a comfortable air, and it had books on traveling and food. But to paint bookshelves designed to show occupations, I do think about specific individuals. I painted ‘Designer’s Bookshelf’ after visiting the studio for my designer brother. I once ended up at a school lab for a friend’s sister-in-law, and then came up with ‘Musical Bookshelf.’ I’d like to paint bookshelves for other occupations if an opportunity presents itself.
작업실을 채운 작가의 그림들

Lee’s paintings that fill the atelier

Q. What are some of the important elements for you when painting chaekgado?
A. Aesthetically, I pay attention to the overall harmony and balance. When it comes to objects, I try to convey certain memories through them, rather than simply putting them onto the canvas. If I just painted music books for ‘Musical Bookshelf,’ it wouldn’t be all that interesting. So I could add souvenirs from Vienna, a Mozart wooden figure, vases and other small things, too. I also express my gratitude by adding boxes of cookie or tea that I received at my exhibitions. That’s sort of a ritual for me.
추억이 담긴 책과 소품들이 작업실 곳곳에 진열되어 있다.

Books and other items that bring back memories are scattered around the atelier.

Q. You said you draw things that are around you. Tell us about objects here in your studio.
A. Books are basically from my mother and her friends (Lee’s mother is Oriental painter Rho Sook-ja, better known as the ‘flower painter’). Most of her friends are painters, too. They wanted to throw away some books, and since I was an artist myself, they just handed them down to me. Most of them are in English and I haven’t read all of them. But I still drew their covers to thank them for their generosity. I made the quilted teddy bear for my kid. It’s pretty worn, right? I painted a lot of teddy bears for my chaekgado pieces. I associate quilt with motherhood. The orgel music box next to the bear was a gift from a friend of my child’s from Russia. That friend wanted me to put that in my painting, and so I added that to ‘Artistic Bookshelf.’ There’s something that my husband brought back from a business trip, and a tea box my friend bought as a souvenir from her trip. Each and every object has a story attached to it.
직접 만들어 아이에게 선물했던 퀼트 테드 베어

Quilted teddy bear that Lee made for her child

고양이 스케치 그림. 그의 책가도에는 고양이가 빠지지 않는다.

Sketches of cats. Lee’s chaekgado pieces always have cats in them.

Q. Is there a particular reason why cats are always present in your chaekgado paintings?
A. I started putting cats in because of cats that my brother has. All the photos that he posts on Instagram have a couple of cats at the corners of bookshelves. They’re sitting there like a piece of painting or a sculpture, and they’re absolutely adorable. I adopted two cats myself in spring last year, and I am in love with them (laughs). Another reason for their presence is their long lifespan. I think animals, as opposed to plants, give paintings a bit more life. For recent paintings, I place the bookcases and decide where cats should go first.
고양이와 화병, 꽃으로 채워진 그의 책가도

A chaekgado painting by Lee with cats, vases and flowers

Q. Flower vases are also seen in many of your chaekgado paintings, and you’ve drawn your share of vases and flowers, too. But that wasn’t always the case, right?
A. It’s not that I didn’t draw flowers. But because my mother was a flower painter, it was something I wanted to avoid doing. But I guess I couldn’t entirely get away from their sheer beauty (laughs). Buying different flowers for each season and keeping them close to me has been a bit of luxury I’d allow myself, and it’s always made me happy. And flowers make for great objects for paintings. For flower vases, I drew ones from the book of Chinese vases that my mother bought at a Taiwanese museum. At first, they were so elaborate and I wasn’t sure how I could draw them. But once I finished one, it was so much fun. These vases were only on display at the museum, and I tried matching those vases with flowers in my paintings. What I actually do is putting flowers in a plastic bottle and then placing that bottle on a worktable to draw them. So flowers are mostly three-dimensional, but vases are two-dimensional, without shading, so that their forms or patterns are accentuated.

Q. They all look quite natural, and it’s amazing how such antique-looking vases go so well with casual-looking figures.
A. Oriental paintings are basically two-dimensional. And I picked up watercolor techniques when I first got into art at an early age. So I don’t get tied to any specific style, and I just try to highlight each and every object.
본격적인 작업에 들어가기에 앞서 간단한 스케치를 한다.

Lee makes a rough sketch before the real work begins.

이정은 작가의 작업 도구들

Tools of trade for Lee

Q. Tell us about your working process. How does a chaekgado painting get completed?
A. I use a conventional coloring technique. There’s this paper called ‘jangji,’ made of the paper mulberry tree. I paint on yellowish jangji that isn’t bleached. And then on top of it, I apply the diluted glue called ‘agyo.’ I don’t make the glue all transparent, though. I add a small amount of paints and give anywhere between a dozen and 20 strokes in all directions, so I can get the color that I want. Then I apply more colors on top of it. With this painting you see here, to get the color that I want for the covers of the books, I’d need five layers of colors. I just keep working until I get the color that I have in mind.
작업실에 나올 때마다 화판 옆면에 그은 바를 정(正) 자

The 正 signs Lee made next to her drawing board every time she left her atelier

Q. It’s quite labor intensive then.
A. It sure is. When I write white letters on a black background, I have to repeat the process at least three times, because the color at the bottom keeps creeping up. Ditto for writing black letters on a white background. You’d see people who are so persistent and relentless in pursuit of excellence in their craft. And they put in incredible amounts of work. And I’d rather not talk about how much time it takes to complete a painting. I just want my work to do all the talking.

Q. But would you mind talking about that with us? How long does it typically take to finish a piece?
A. I’ve been asked that question quite often lately. So I started making marks next to the board every time I left the studio, so I could keep track of the number of days spent there. I’ve concluded that it takes a little over a month to finish a 160X130 chaekgado painting. But if I had to count all the days that I stayed overnight here, then it would be even longer than that.

Q. I would think that there would be one group of people who owned old chaekgado paintings, and a whole different group of people who enjoy your chaekgado works. Do you know what type of people take interest in your art?
A. For a few years now, Lee Hwaik Gallery has been helping me with exhibitions and other aspects of my career, and so I don’t really know who has purchased my paintings or has taken note of my work. But the gallery’s director once told me this story. ‘Musical Bookshelf’ was sold at KIAF during the morning, and a music professor visited later in the same day, hoping to buy that painting for his classroom. I think people take particular interest in paintings of bookshelves that represent their line of work.
이정은, ‘책가도에 담긴 이야기’, 130x162cm, 장지에 채색, 2017 © 이화익갤러리

Lee Jung-eun, ‘Stories inside Chaekgado,’ colored on jangji, 2017 © Lee Hwaik Gallery

이정은, '열매 맺는 계절', 105x75cm, 장지에 채색, 2018 © 이화익갤러리

Lee Jung-eun, ‘Fruiting Season,’ 105x75cm, colored on jangji, 2018 © Lee Hwaik Gallery

이정은, '어울림', 100x70cm, 장지에 채색, 2017 © 이화익갤러리

Lee Jung-eun ‘Harmony,’ 100x70cm, colored on jangji, 2017 © Lee Hwaik Gallery

Q. How would you like your audience to view the modern chaekgado?
A. I hope those paintings put them at ease, because that’s how I feel when I work on them. I put chairs in a close-up so they’re placed in front of books, and my goal is to make my chaekgado pieces to feel real. And these paintings have a lot of stories in them. The title of my first chaekgado work was “Stories inside Chaekgado.” So I hope people will take their time viewing my works, as if they were reading a book.

Q. Aside from chaekgado, what are other objects that you enjoy drawing today?
A. I am constantly drawing things that are around me. In April last year, cats came into my life. Here’s the painting titled ‘Comfort Granted.’ During this COVID-19 pandemic, we have this sort of freedom that we have inside our confined space. I hope to give my cats a comfortable life, as long as they don’t get sick, and I think I should be able to provide that. I go to church, and I also felt God would want to grant us that kind of comfort. That’s why I gave that title. I can sit back and sip at some tea and browse through my favorite art book. Cats are lying down peacefully. I’ve done a few pieces with a vertical view of the cats. I think I’ll keep drawing these cats for some time. I miss them so much whenever I am outside. And if I end up in a situation where I have to travel often, then I’d like to do draw landscape. I am not sure if I have the peace of mind to take such a broad view.
카펫 위에 누운 고양이 두 마리가 허공을 응시하는 그림이 바로 작가의 최근작인 ‘허락된 평안’이다.

Two cats stare at the ceiling while lying on the carpet in Lee’s most recent piece, ‘Comfort Granted.’

Q. You’ve written about how you worked on a painting every day as if you were writing a diary. Do you still paint every day?
A. Painting is my life. It’s nothing special. I just do it all the time. It’s no different than waking up in the morning, washing up, eating when I am supposed to and feeding my cats. Actually, I don’t keep a diary (laughs). I try to come here every day unless there’s something urgent, such as when my mother gets sick. There’s nothing I love more than being here. I can forget about all the worries of the world. Once I am here, I start painting within five minutes and I continue working until right before I leave. My son got me an alarm clock, so that I could take a 10-minute break each hour. But sometimes, three hours just zip past by. And people who’ve ever been so immersed in something would understand. If you get so into films, you can watch a few in a row in one seating. Painting is like that for me. I am also grateful that it’s a pursuit that I am always proud of.

Q. I get the sense that you begin drawing things around you because you didn’t want to let go of your brush.
A. Exactly. I had a brush in my hand all the time. I think I was more intense back then. I couldn’t even set aside two hours a day for other things. There were days when I would sit down to paint for 30 minutes at a time. Results weren’t great, but I felt I’d be worthless unless I kept working. My parents raised me with so much love and support, and then I found myself in a position where I had to provide for others. Now that I think about it, I needed to do all of that – paying monthly rent for my own working space and just plugging away at it – in order to feel worthy. I needed to keep patting myself on the back and telling myself, ‘I got this. I am not finished.’
이정은 작가의 작업실 전경

View of Lee’s atelier

Q. What are your plans for the future?
A. I don’t know how it may sound if I say I don’t have a plan. But I’ve come to realize that life doesn’t always go according to your plan. Over the recent years, I’ve enjoyed painting to my heart’s content without being under any time constraint. Then last year, my mother became ill, and other distractions dragged art down from the list of priorities. From the very beginning, I thought I’d like to have a long career, even if it was an unspectacular one. I once texted the head of Lee Hwaik Gallery: I felt the gallery showcased my art just at the perfect time, not too late that I would begin to wonder if I was doing the right thing, or not so early that I would let my head get bigger. And I’ve always had great help along the way. Very few things have gone according to my plan. So here’s what I always think: I’d love nothing more than to just keep painting.
September 2020 Editor:Kim Hyewon
Photographer:Ahn Garam

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