Bae Bien-U at Slag Gallery and RX Gallery
By JONATHAN GOODMAN April, 2021
The Korean photographer Bae Bien-U is now known as one of the most major artists of his field. Receiving both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Hong-Ik University in Seoul, the artist, now mature, has gone on to make spectacular black-and-white images of the landscape, mostly of stands of curving trees. The sense of mystery introduced by his works is tempered by a lyricism tied closely to the nature he depicts. One might question the powerful lyricism of his imagery as a romantic ploy, but the fact is that such imagery still can be found in the forests of Korea. Thus, his work does not evade our current ecology, however desperate it may be, but asserts instead the persistence of natural beauty, which can be captured if only one pays close attention. In this collaboration between Slag and RX Galleries, viewers are given the chance to experience the artist’s evocative treatment of the exterior. His unabashed affection for the landscape is genuine, not artificial, and keeps our hope alive that such beauty will not diminish.
Many of the photos of the trees begin with the trees themselves and then end in a brightly white, foggy background. For a Westerner, this might be a visual introduction to Dante. We don’t know what Bae’s motivations are, but it looks like he wants to find as much mystery in nature as he can--a challenging task in environments made smaller and smaller by human development. The 1995 image SNM1A-157H consists of a thicket of slightly angled tree trunks on the left, with an opening in the middle and a single thicker trunk on the right. No leaves are seen, but more trees occur in the background, which is filed with a ghostly white mist. For this writer, only rarely has nature been portrayed so beautifully, with so much mystery. A later image from 2013, SNM5A-003H, emphasizes a thick group of trees, again many of them curving gently, that follows back into more groups of trees, ending once again with the enigmatic mist that promises so much without detail. Are these pictures demonstrative of Bae’s own outlook, are they visionary moments captured for posterity, or both? My instinct is to see the work more as a view of nature than a personal statement, even if the mystery in the photos does seem to have been drawn from the artist himself.
One 2014 image, CH2A-001V, closely follows the tradition of the Asian landscape. Three or four trees, with irregular foliage, rise up into the gray sky in the background, attended by a thick, dark grouping of leaves close to the front of the image on the right, and a small bunch of leaves on the upper left. The trees are reflected in a body of water that has no easily recognizable boundary next to the low hills in the image’s center. On the lower left, we see thin, oval, pointed leaves fill the corner. It is a deliberately beautiful image that transcends its existence as a photo and reaches into the history of painting. The photo may develop its resources out of its closeness to painting, but we accept it as it is: a contemporary photographic image cognizant of tradition but independent in its existence as a current work of art. OM1A-O72V (2002) is deceptive in its simplicity: two rounded, breast-shaped mountains partially attached to each other. In the V-shaped downward curve between them, the light image of another mountain fills the gap. The mountains only take up one-eighth of the photo, with cloudy sky filling the rest of the narrow composition. As in the image just described, again some of the picture’s power derives from its closeness to painting.
The six-image collective work, SNM 005, 6, 7, 8. 9, 10V (2014), groups together six narrow panels of the twisting trees for which Bae is recognized. In all cases, thick trunks, shot low enough as to deny the branches that likely extend from them higher up, dominate the forefront of the imagery. Thickets of trees leaning into the air follow behind, while behind them we have a hint of the bright atmosphere we have come to expect from these works of art. Bae is a lyric and not a documentary photographer, but then we remember he is capturing what exists rather than something he has made. Nature photography is often tinged with sadness now, as if the image will soon become more important than what it records because of the loss of habitat. But there is none of that in Bae’s wonderful work, which presents nature for what it is. It turns out that, in his hands, trees and leaves and mountains assume their natural stature in ways established by art. To Bae’s credit, nature itself, the origin of the photos, comes first. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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