The foliate paintings of Texas artist Mihee Nahm evoke late 18th century pursuits of the sublime. They are at once botanical and reverential renderings. Nahm immerses the viewer in beyond-the-frame expansive space, a nod to an early hero, Pollock. But the broader macro implications are toward infinity. The mass of Nahm’s surface is composed of exquisitely detailed in-your-face foliage, like walking unexpectedly into low-hanging tree limbs, one’s head suddenly enveloped by unkempt nature.
Though Nahm relishes striking the eye with heightened realism, the artist is no sycophant to verisimilitude. Her compositions develop over a lengthy process, initiated from photos taken on her daily/nightly walks. Nahm responds to these images intuitively, “…playing with them in Photoshop,” as she says, over the course of several days, with periodic oil-sketch trials to evaluate the actual appearance of this or that anticipated color or value effect. The end result is usually a rearrangement of pieces of photos, repeating certain compelling shapes that work well together, not unlike Richard Estes’ method. Nahm: “I do enjoy symmetrical and centralized compositions.”
Nahm’s facility for mimetic illusion is informed from attentive observation of still life, painting “…one sentimental object at a time in a 1-to-1 ratio from life. When I approach my landscapes, I think I approach them as if I am composing a still life setup.” Yet these landscapes convey a lateral, poetic expansiveness, not an imposed atmospheric perspective scheme.
Recalling a strong memory from childhood in Jeonju, South Korea, the artist confirms that she has always been a keen, up close, observer of natural objects. As a kindergartener, Nahm proved to be an expert at gathering little twig collections off the ground. This perfect kindling was then proudly presented to older, mischievous, neighborhood children for their construction of a small, clandestine campfire.
Debris, as do most of Nahm’s smallest paintings of nature, recalls detailed drawings and watercolors of flora specimens recorded by 19th C. naturalists and gardeners in personal journals and diaries, long before portable cameras usurped that function. Nahm seeks a visceral response, tempting viewers with painted leaves and twigs of actual size.
The “Gardening” paintings derive from Nahm’s mother-in-law’s own prolific garden in Austin. A compositional tour de force is Gardening # 2. As much a tableau as a painting, the piece (in context of the show Healing) becomes a near allegorical contrast between cultivated and untended plant life. The metal lattice (4″ hog-wire) reaffirms the 2D plane of the painting, a consistent anchor in Nahm’s work. The grid of the lattice not only pays homage to Bargue’s famous classical drawing instruction (of tangible significance to Nahm’s education), but defines for the viewer Nahm’s very own method of transferring her drawn composition to the underlying structure of the painting itself.
Nahm’s commitment to abstraction becomes evident in Day Walk (Small). “I first pay attention to the larger geometric shapes of each composition. For the Day Walk painting, as I experimented with different compositions, I gradually saw the possibility of making a diamond shape. If you look at the painting closely, I copied the leaves in the middle part of the left side, rotated it 180 degrees, and placed them at the bottom right corner.”
Describing the ambience of settings remembered while walking outdoors, Nahm explains that “…certain mundane things capture my attention, such as fallen trees, the night sky, and dried leaves. They seem to be somehow embodying a sense of loneliness and nostalgia.” Mihee Nahm spent her childhood and adolescent years hiking in rural South Korea with her parents. The paintings in Healing represent the past five years of personal, introspective, walks in central Texas. Her melancholic memory is comforted by nature’s poignantly visual sustenance in both places.
All photos courtesy of the artist
Mihee Nahm is Affiliate Professor of Painting at the University of Dallas, Irving, TX.
Healing / Mihee Nahm, May 12-June 25, at Artspace 111, Ft. Worth, Texas
Thomas Motley is an artist and writer in Ft. Worth, Texas