Joeun Kim Aatchim’s Delicate Drawings on Silk Are Defiantly Sincere

Claire Voon
Jun 28, 2022 8:00PM

Joeun Kim Aatchim, A Study for the Fish Dinner, 2019–2022. Photo by Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the Artist and François Ghebaly Gallery.

Joeun Kim Aatchim is over insincerity. She had enough of it as an MFA student at Columbia University between 2015 and 2017. During that time, she made many imitation mosaics and fake concrete sculptures that were wry, palpable stand-ins for herself—a “light person who can be damaged easily,” as she put it. “I think it was the thing at the time: People making fun of sincerity and everything was cynical, sarcastic,” Aatchim said in a recent interview. “But I don’t have time for that anymore. I will do everything sincerely.”

For the past three years, Aatchim has been creating delicate drawings on silk that are earnestly quotidian in their subject matter and storytelling. She draws from memory and observation to record vignettes of her life—gifts from friends, the company of her black-and-white cat Pepe Viskovitz, chapters from her rocky childhood in Seoul. Yet the results are a few degrees removed from reality, prompting viewers to pause and sort them out. Aatchim renders her subjects from multiple perspectives, so limbs may overlap or objects may appear to collide. In several drawings of a fish dinner—referencing a tense moment from her youth—bodies intersect with dishes and the table, so it is difficult to tell whether the girl depicted is seated at the gathering or banished to the ground.


Far from dense, Aatchim’s converging forms have a gossamer lightness owing to the translucency of the silk she uses. She often further complicates her drawings by layering them, evoking the whimsy of double exposures or the dizzy twinning of red-cyan anaglyphs seen without 3D glasses. The diptych Bail Mother Melancholy (Sunday Garden Given Forgiven) (2021) initially looks like two drawings of bouquets, but a closer look reveals more tender moments behind leaves and petals, of a woman praying and a mother combing her daughter’s hair.

“I’m using the space to put as much information as possible because I have this urge that I need to put down everything before I forget,” Aatchim said. “Which I don’t, because I have a very good memory.” This skill can be attributed, she believes, to her intermittent strabismus, an eye condition she was born with that causes her to see in 2D. To avoid bumping into things, Aatchim often studies the layout and contents of spaces—“every corner, how much goes in and out,” she said. “I remember everything.”

Installation view, Joeun Kim Aatchim, “Homed,” 2022, François Ghebaly, New York. Photo by Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the Artist and François Ghebaly Gallery.

Aatchim’s memory bank has led to a tremendous output of work that has quickly gained critical acclaim. She debuted her silk drawings in 2019 in a solo show at Vacation in New York, and has since had solo presentations at Harper’s in East Hampton and Make Room in Los Angeles.

Her latest is “Homed,” which opened in June at François Ghebaly in New York, where the installation evokes the artist’s studio. Drawings line the walls, hung above dozens of notes, poems, and other paper ephemera; a fake concrete sculpture rests on its side, supporting bottles of mineral pigments Aatchim draws with, such as malachite and jasper. On silk, the powders leave soft, ghostly marks that evoke the gradual fading of a memory, but they also link Aatchim to prehistoric cave paintings, whose early drawers, too, dashed off their observations to keep them. “I love drawings because there’s an urgency,” Aatchim said. “It’s rough, but it’s really accurate in transferring emotions.”

Growing up in Seoul, Aatchim was an introvert who drew constantly, documenting everything. She recalled how, in school, “what you’re good at becomes your identity, almost. The kid who does really good math, who runs really fast. And I was the girl who draws.” When she was eight, the Asian financial crisis upended South Korea’s economy, as well as her home life. A vivid memory is of debt collectors following her father. “He was in and out of the home like a thief, and my mom was having very severe depression and hallucinations,” Aatchim said.

Scenes from this period in the late ’90s appear in several drawings, including Doubt the Hands (The Debt Collector Seeks the Father Through a Milk Delivery Hole) (2022), in which Aatchim and her sister—her face depicted both turned away and to the side—crouch behind a cabinet, its contents visible, as a headless figure grasps toward them. Pairs of shoes lie in the foreground as familiar markers of home.

Receive-Her, but No Answer. Father’s Winter Hardy Camellia Tree, an Overdue Videotape, Unlocked Bedroom, the Light of Blessing, and the Fin (2022) vividly resurrects her family’s apartment at the time, merging in one room relics that seemingly communicate in the absence of people: a phone off-hook babbles on the tiled floor; the television screens a close-up of a keyboard, just one of many in the downstairs piano store; a flowering tree and curtained window float through walls to join the group. Aatchim made these drawings to compensate for a lack of photographs of this home, filling gaps in her memory by teasing details from her family. They are intimate collages of recollections, mingling perspectives and time to tiptoe on the edge of reality.

When these drawings were displayed earlier this year at Make Room, Aatchim was surprised by how many people told her they connected with them. “Those images are personal, but they became almost like reflections for society at the time,” she said. “If you do things sincerely, it’s contagious. You will open other people [up] about their [experiences].”

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Aatchim didn’t make work about her own life for many years. She had also taken a long break from drawing after moving to New York in 2010 because it was “so closely associated with my identity, and I wanted to be a new person,” she said. She explored mediums including ceramics, bookbinding, printmaking, and ventriloquism before returning to drawing in 2019, in part because the misalignment of her eyes, which she had had surgically corrected at age 20, relapsed. “I decided to never refer to anything that I don’t know because I had this feeling that time is very precious,” Aatchim said. “That’s why I chose subjects that were uncomfortable before…the trauma I know.”

Drawing has helped her unlock family secrets and histories, like how her grandmother was a silk merchant who went house to house with fabric samples. Such coincidences stir her to keep grasping at the past and her memories. “It feels like we are just one woman, continuing,” she said. “I felt I never came out of my mom, and my mom never came out of her mom. Maybe we are part of this woman, we are carrying so much similar pain.”

Aatchim’s drawings thrive on synchronicity: One image spontaneously layered over another can complete it, and wholly different scenes can carry echoes. There are rhymes in the clasp of praying hands and the grip of a hair claw; in the tenderness of a woman cleaning another’s ears and of a girl clipping her cat’s toenails. Seeing the world through Aatchim’s eyes, one easily catches her sincerity, and her desire to hold onto meaning and record it forever. “What’s difficult for me, still, is the embarrassment of making very, very sincere work,” she said. “But the embarrassment is only until my lifetime. The art will last after me.”

Claire Voon