Yun-Hee Toh

Toh Yun Hee: In Search of the Beauty Embedded in the Mysteries and Cycles of Nature Both Finite and Infinite

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In stark contrast to the turbulent and challenging times of the last century when it was not always so easy to find beauty in life, Toh Yun Hee finds herself living in a Korea far more economically prosperous and politically stable. Today, people have a life of growing abundance and are surrounded by beautiful objects--some natural and many man-made. And yet, the pace of contemporary society has hastened to such frenzy that people have become almost oblivious to the beauty around them. After all, aesthetic appreciation requires time for both contemplation and reflection.

Hence, in her life and in her work Toh Yun Hee has intentionally learned to take pause and search for the inner components of beauty found especially in the cycles of nature. While believing each stage of life has its own secrets and unspeakable beauty, she has focused primarily on the degenerative stages of plant life. At the end of every cycle, traces of what once existed remain and these remains encapsulate the imperishable qualities of beauty and the ceaseless potential for rebirth and renewal.

In some ways, the beauty created in the generative stages of plant life is readily recognizable and instantly appreciated. At the same time, Toh Yun Hee feels there is more depth and greater meaning in finding something beautiful that remains after the life force has begun to wane. This more detailed and perhaps more abstract way of looking at nature has much less to do with surface beauty than the more intrinsic and hidden beauty that constitutes the greater essence of life forms. Toh Yun Hee pushes herself and the viewer to gain a perspective beyond the immediate beauty in things and in nature in order to discover the more intangible, yet sustaining qualities of beauty from which all living matters emerge from, exist in and return to. In short, beauty is embedded in the mysteries and cycles of nature both finite and infinite and requires us to go beyond the superficial in order to unlock all of its deepest and most sacred manifestations.

In Toh Yun Hee’s works from the mid 1990’s, her study of nature was essentially more scientific in form as she explored the beauty of plant life on a molecular level. In her attempts to move beyond the surface beauty, she searched deep within the cellular realm where an untold number of micro-universes exist. This microscopic perspective resulted in paintings that evoke the imagery of leaves or flower petals floating across a plane saturated with the nebulous substance of all living things. These mystic clusters of microorganisms in subdued colors replicate the auras of ancient life forms fossilized, yet fluid. Her visual representation emerges from a contemplative silence and awe and breathes freshness into the permanence of life. By encapsulating both the life and death of an organism, fossils preserve and reveal the precarious nature of evolution. In this earlier series, Toh Yun Hee replicates this effluence through a refined process of drawing and layering that emanates a delicate beauty and meditative serenity.

However, in Toh Yun Hee’s current works, she has become more observant than scientific. Her inquiry into nature has moved away from microscopic analysis toward more remote consideration. By standing back and pondering nature from a distance and for long periods of time, she is able to silently connect on a deeper level. Through long observation and contemplation the true energy, rhythm and beauty below the surface begins to emerge. For Toh Yun Hee, this depth is where the reality of all truth, including self-truth, can be found.

These two different perspectives Toh Yun Hee has employed in her study of nature remind us of the story of two doctors, one from the West and one from the East, who were asked how they could best understand the rabbit. The doctor from the West suggested capturing and dissecting the rabbit in order to gain a precise anatomical understanding. In contrast, the doctor from the East recommended closely following and observing the rabbit in his natural habitat. Although very different in approach, both methods offer invaluable insight into the understanding of a rabbit. In a similar way, Toh Yun Hee’s new works complement her earlier pieces by adding a different vantage point –one more from within and one from a distance.

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Throughout the history of art, nature has been a constant inspiration for countless artists. And like so many who have come before her, Toh Yun Hee has thought much about what she sees and feels in nature. This insight includes not just the nature that is observable but her own nature and the interaction that takes place between the two. This subjective and personal experience is what she uniquely brings to the canvas and shares with the viewer.

Toh Yun Hee views her art as a personal journey of discovery in pursuit of beauty and truth. While she finds her own notions and ideas in the process, she believes all viewers will approach her work with their own thoughts and meanings, images and connotations. In this sense, her works do not have strictly defined parameters that need careful delineation. She enjoys being an artist most when others bring their own experiences and memories to her works and it is this openness that gives them wide appeal.

Although there are many contemporary artists who prefer to leave their works untitled, Toh Yun Hee believes the title of her works are very important because they give viewers insight into her own discoveries and experience. The titles are purposely spiritual and poetic and serve as general guidelines, but are not meant to channel viewers’ thoughts in any given direction. Ultimately, it is left up to them to decipher and come up with their own interpretations based on their own discoveries.

Toh Yun Hee’s paintings convey a purity and simplicity that can be found both beneath and beyond the surface. When she looks at something in nature, she imagines what came before it and what is to come after it. Through the meticulous and painstaking process of drawing, Toh Yun Hee is able to find expression for her thoughts. Her use of lead pencils is a way for her to connect with the endless cycles in nature that are ancient and eternal. When manipulated by the artist, the lead bears witness to the continuation of life. The layers upon layers of varnish that are then applied to the canvas allow her to enter into a different world and also serve metaphorically as a transparent window allowing the viewer to see beyond the moment and understand that what is new is old and what is old is new.

Garett Marshall, 2004