Sacred & Secular
by James C.W.Chae
20 Dec. 2011 ~ 7 Jan. 2012
ICON STUDIES - Wall Paper_acrylic,conte on linen. 160x100cms. 2011
An Aesthetic Proposition Towards
Time of Roots and Space of Transcendence
1. Time of Roots, Space of Transcendence
Science focuses on the future and glorifies technology while regarding the past as something to be overcome. Art is more closely associated with the past as it represents products of time, i.e. highly sophisticated accumulation of human creativity. Art may be one of the most unique and human ways to delve into and utilize our past, i.e. appropriately view the present in light of connection with our roots. Nevertheless, this perspective has been pushed to the sidelines by a techno-centric mindset and distorted by the Avant-Garde aesthetics, which is biased in favor of the future and has no place for the past. The foremost virtues of Avant-garde aesthetics are never-ending novelty and overcoming or overturning the past: in a word, it is an aesthetics obsessed with ‘forward’. It has erred in disparaging experiences of encounter with the past and search for our roots, and ends up clinging to the dogmatic present that goes adrift, and the future that could just be an illusion.
Nonetheless, humans ought to learn from the past: for the sake of the future, we need more opportunities to experience the past and reconcile with our roots. This is because our existence itself is, obviously, rooted in the past, which in turn goes all the way back to our beginnings. Such an ideology of ‘forward’ monopolizes the space for infinite possibilities and poses a serious threat to our existence.
ICON STUDIES - Christ Pantocrator II._conte, color pencil, acrylic on board._21x23.5cms. 2010
One other area that the obsession with forward has effectively annihilated is the space of transcendence. With its expulsion from the range of our perception, we have been left with very little room to imagine this world and one that goes beyond, simultaneously; which in turn has dealt a serious blow to the artistic mind and creative imagination that can fictitiously reflect such space for the sake of contemplative and other benefits for human beings. Echoing this perspective, Nicolas Wolterstoff once said, “…deeply hypnotized by the present, the Westerners have disregarded a full spectrum of human creativity and its significance.”
The crippling and perhaps even total loss of the potential to explore and enjoy transcendence has permitted a rampant consecration of art itself, i,e art has become megalomaniacal, in delusions of grandeur: art as a heroic fighter whose mission runs the gamut from shaking up absurdities, to ultimate revolution and emancipation; art, as theoreticians like Herbert Marcuse noted, ‘which is unshackled from a chain of actualities and finds meaning and truth in itself’, art that is pure and unpolluted, art that always commits itself to a great cause, and art that is essentially great … For such art, there would be no need to seek other dimensions from outside; and even if the transcendent dimension becomes completely crowded out of its horizon, it wouldn’t feel a thing.
ICON STUDIES - DAHON / acrylic,oil,conte, pencil on board. 103x73cms. 2010
2. Icon: Balance Between ‘Principle of Consecration' and ‘Principle of Honesty’
C.W.Chae’s works can be understood as a series of attempts to connect his own world to the time of roots, and to the space of transcendence. He steers towards the past and attempts to make contact with the transcendence by inviting images of icons that go far back in time. By juxtaposing the transcendent world that icons imply, with human existence here and now, his works achieve symbolic encounters between the past and the present, roots and existence, this world and one that goes beyond. Icons ‘construct a transcendent world’ and suggest a hint of truth that is transcendent. A sense of sublime beauty that icons evoke is “clearly distinguished from a sensual one instantaneously attained through catharsis or pleasure”: the emotion of sublimity is produced from experiences of something or someone transcendent and is, therefore, completely different from sensory or rational experiences.
ICON STUDIES - Insanely Great! / acrylic,conte on board. 103x73cms. 2010
Did the artist simply employ icons in his own world and interpret them in a contemporary way? It may be true but only partially so, and also leaves room for misunderstanding. In any interpretation, focus is given to the subject’s act of ‘interpreting’, which results in objectification of the given object; whereas in ‘invitation’, the invitee also becomes a subject just as the one who invites him or her. It can be understood in the same context of Simone Weil’s replacing of the verb ‘find’ with ‘wait’. Even if the artist did interpret icons, the interpretation is made possible and relevant only when being ‘interpreted’ at the same time: dealings can be made only by what’s dealt with; one can only reach out by being reached out to. Such paradoxical interactions occur simultaneously when he invites the world of icons into his own world. It could also mean ‘In an utterly unfathomable humbleness, God submits himself to our submission’. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
ICON STUDIES - Red Shoes II / acrylic,oil,conte on board. 103x73cms. 2010
It is this invitation which gives the incarnation of Jesus the Son of God yet another relevance to our life: it is a confirmation that He is no longer someone who is just sitteth at the right hand of God far far away, completely detached from human existence in this world. on the contrary, He lives here and now, shares and engages in all situations of human existence, just like one of us: listening to music by an iphone, not being shy about wearing a pair of trendy red spectacles. He is even depicted in a vivid orange t-shirt imprinted with ‘NIRVANA’ and a pair of skinny jeans, let alone in a pretty hippy hairstyle: just beneath NIRVANA on his t-shirt we see the words “Never Mind”, and an iphone with an Apple logo sticking out slightly from the front pocket of his jeans.
ICON STUDIES - Kenosis_conte, acrylic on linen. 60.6x60.6cms.2011
As long as we do not limit our thoughts to a restricted category, i.e. religion, we may be able to hear the voice universally present beyond our imagination, including in the word ‘Never Mind” spoken through the artist’s brush strokes. Perhaps, we might have locked Jesus in such a narrow and prejudiced cultural ghetto: but how could anything in this world, i.e. signs, characters, patterns, symbols, etc. stand in the way of His coming up to us out of love, how could anything be rejected as a critical stumbling block for His coming? This is exactly the same theological question which Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced when imprisoned at Tegel military prison under the Nazi regime in 1943.
“They seem to strive to set aside certain spaces dedicated to God, but I would like to talk about God not at the end of my life, but in the very midst it; not when I am weak, but when I am strong; not when I die and sin, but in my own, very life and in the goodness of human beings."
ICON STUDIES - Apophasis_ conte, acrylic on linen. 60.6x60.6cms. 2011
To the same question, c.w.chae responds with his own paintings: thinking that it is high time that it (painting) should invite God much deeper and far more widely into the world, the artist opens up the whole world for Him instead of merely letting Him live in a confined, consecrated ‘religious ghetto’, and he sees Him engage in all the moments and aspects of our lives, represented by Steve Jobs’ iPhone, trendy red spectacles, red shoes, and so on.
ICON STUDIES - Askesis_ conte, acrylic on linen. 60.6x60.6cms. 2011
This invitation, or act of ‘inviting’ is described in the artist’s ThM thesis as a balance between ‘the principle of consecration' and 'the principle of honesty’. When the former becomes overemphasized to an extreme, it could become doctrinal and dogmatic, while excessive focus on the latter may risk losing its religious profundity both in styles and sensitivity. In other words, it is important to keep a balance, seeking harmony, exercising checks and balances between the two so as not to become trapped in dogmatism while maintaining profound religious depth. To the artist, it is not only the internal structure that buttresses his faith, but also the principle of his aesthetics: “capturing Kerygma of the church based on the principle of consecration, as well as needs of the contemporary society and art based on the principle of honesty.” Upon such a theological framework, i.e. the principles of consecration and honesty, which has its appeals both to the world and to the church, he hopes his approach would serve as a trigger for opening up a new horizon.
c.w.chae brings transcendence back to dimensions of contemporary art, envisaging an art in which such reconciliation gets respected. And for him, the icons are a bridge connecting the two worlds or dimensions, i.e. a language system that lies between consecration vs. honesty, aesthetics that are representational vs. symbolic.
ICON STUDIES - Hesychia_ conte, acrylic on linen. 60.6x60.6cms. 2011
3. Time to Seek Different Direction
c.w.chae has conducted his Icon Studies on the basis of such criticism and reflection on mainstream contemporary art: ‘What’s not art pretends to act like art; what’s real becomes replaced by Simulacre’, i.e. rousing cheers and acclamations for postmodern elements, blindly opening up aesthetics, symptoms of deconstruction and extinction prevalent across the visual art scene based on the premise that everything could be an art …..However, everything could be an art only in the context of the world where everything is true. In such a world, one cannot help but become an absolute skeptic or lock oneself into one’s own world – for the world that may or may not exist beyond this is simply irrelevant for him or her. The past half century has witnessed such false claim of freedom and liberation attacking and disrupting the genuine values of art. The artist, therefore, poses a question: what should we do then? It is his conclusion that he cannot simply pronounce the ‘death of culture and art’ with a bitter cynicism; and it is time to seek a different direction, away from the mainstream trend of contemporary art. And this is the very reason that we need to read, all the more carefully, between the lines of his icon studies in which images of icons get re-visited and given new meanings.
■ by Sang-Yong Shim (art historian, Ph. D/ art critic)
 Nicolas Wolterstoff, “Art in Action,” translated into Korean by Shin, Kook-Won (IVP; Seoul, 2010), p.231
 Eric Metaxes, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer” translated into Korean (Poema: Seoul, 2010), p.659
 Ibid, p.673
 Chang-Wan Chae, “An Aesthetic Theological Study on Contemporary Christian Art”, 2008, Sungkonghoe University, ThM. thesis, pp. 20-23