WOONG KIMby Kara L. Rooney
Howard Scott Gallery | December 5, 2013 – January 18, 2014
The works of Korean painter Woong Kim are fraught with ambiguity: nebulous references to the representational world encrypted by the language of hardcoded abstraction. Oil is the painter’s sole medium, one that he gradually builds up in thickly applied layers that have been taped off or otherwise controlled to create highly intricate patterns and geometric fields. These meticulously considered reliefs lend themselves to interpretations of landscape—seafaring and mountainous terrains—while others recall the mined remains of an archeological dig, glistening after the vestiges of a briefly encountered storm. Intentionality is difficult to glean through the haze of inlaid shapes, at turns organic and otherworldly, that disrupt and fracture the thickly modeled surface crust of the paintings. Far from leaving one perplexed, however, this “ghost in the shell” has the effect of a centering meditative encounter.
Eight medium-to-large-scale paintings comprise this compelling exhibition, Kim’s sixth with the Howard Scott Gallery. In each, idiosyncratic shapes build and overlap across the canvas, triggering the exhumation of memory lost. In “Untitled 2013-2” (2013) Jungian archetypes armed with bodily form—shells, sea coral, indigenous rock formations—hover just below the cool indigo of the mind’s rippled surface. At the very top of the composition rests the faint outline of a canoe-shaped structure, elongated across the span of the painting and bound by the gently sloping frame of the water’s edge. Land makes a fleeting appearance in the upper left and right hand corners of the work, a boundary marker of sentient space.
“Untitled 2013-1” (2013) is a tour de force in sand-washed greys, marble-flecked white, and hints of earthen terra cotta and coal. A scrawled white line touching three of the painting’s four sides demarcates the margins of what alludes to a hulking mountain peak, with thousands of horizontally plotted paper shapes encrusting the form’s stoic façade. An ancient tell or newly forged Colossus, time here is effectively suspended, forcing past and future to retreat in the face of the giant’s authoritative presence.
But more than a dexterous technician of form, Kim is a highly astute colorist. Exacting earthen tones in works like “Untitled 2013-7” (2013) conjure mud, clay, and dirt. These paintings are both of the earth and are earth—primitive, raw, base. Others, such as “Untitled 2013-6” (2013), leave the impression of stone or sand, where deftly calibrated adjustments in hue refract light delicately across the modulated surfaces.
These canvases recall Kim’s homeland of Korea as much as his experiences in the West, where he has resided as a New Yorker since 1970. Kim’s work exudes a steadfast vision, unadultered by the portentously shifting downtown environment and cultural tropes that surround him. For this artist, painting is an internal experience. This most recent series, for example, was conceived of in relative isolation and created over the course of the past two to three years. Kim has no Internet, nor access to a computer. The landline that functions as his only tie to the outside world does not even have an answering machine attached; you either reach him or try again later. This monkish lifestyle serves his creative process well, for in only permitting a small measure of urban cacophony in, Kim has been able to remain true to his artistic voice, barely wavering in the 50+ years he has spent painting. Rather than breed repetition, as such exclusion might indicate, this manner of working has allowed Kim to mine the complexities of medium specificity that bind form to content, all through the filtering lens of abstraction.
Hailing from far off lands and distant histories, Kim’s imagery conjures the physical and psychic spaces occupied by waking dreams, where the tangible and ordered design of jogakbo (traditional Korean patchwork) collides with the teleological systems that impart the work’s intrinsic finality. Such thoughtful reveals are rare in the sphere of contemporary painting, and in the current art market, rarer still, where too often under the aegis of monetary investment, opulent display and edgy design conspire to undermine the mellifluent allure of art’s spell. Thankfully here, that causal sequence has been disrupted, Pandora’s box irrevocably spilling into the streets of Manhattan’s westernmost side.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.