The Narrations about Me or of an Unknown

Lim, Tae-gyu (Philosophy of Art)

Before starting this writing, I would like to clarify that it is a statement replacing Kim, Hyung-jin’s artist note. This is because most of the content is from the essential thoughts of the artist that I found from the brief conversation between me and the artist.

Let me take your attention to the meaning of the artist’s composition system on the square canvas that variously combines and separates the blocks which remind me of the traditional seven-piece board game. We should be able to find the artist’s efforts and will to contain her wondering life or the philosophical logics that could seem too emotional or subjective. That is the reason why I understand the artist’s work as a visual language system like a net that talks about ‘narrations about beings’. In fact, it is clear that questions about ‘beings’ is no longer values as a notion or a metaphysical issue to be discussed. In today’s philosophy, ‘being’ is a realistic problem, is an everyday life, and the understanding point for the world that people face all the time. When looking at Kim, Hyung-jin’s artwork, a shape can be found that catches people’s scattered attentions. Some of the certain shapes from the artist’s canvas would be the ones who are around in our everyday lives or someone else. The human shaped compositions of the artist seem to be the artist, or they seem to contain the questions about the meaning of life of an unknown. Therefore, I would like to suggest adapting biological foundations to understand the artwork though it could be a bit abstract.

According to ‘Landscape and Heart’ by Kim, Woo-chang, people tend to find human face figures at wherever, psychologically speaking. Such tendency is to find someone in the world who is similar to oneself, or even if it is not exactly like the one, it is to find what is similar to the one or to find the figures that are familiar to the one. The behaviors of chameleons which color up themselves similar to the colors around them to protect them and of a number of creatures such as stick insects which get born in similar figures to their surroundings are related to the instinct of survival. Also, naming the natures according to the figures of humans or to the familiar animals, and the life style of East-Asians who connect their life issues with the nature, can be examples of the instincts for survivals.

If so, where did this psychological instinct come from? The issue here is to find psychological stability by finding figures that are similar to one; it is a type of survival strategy. The various fine art genres started from the ancient religious services which were to take the fearful nature activities as the same level as the people; it is a survival instinct. It brings out the important fact that the motivation of fine art started from recognizing the nature.

Furthermore, I could conclude that the foundation of such culture is based on the biological instincts.

What is the reason for all the living creatures on earth are mostly left-right symmetry or diagonal symmetry? Not only anatomy of humans and various animals, trees and plants also grow diagonally show the diagonal symmetry shape from the top and left-right symmetry from the side views. Such structures seem to contain the power against the gravity and as well as the flow that goes along with the gravity, or they seem to secretly have the genes of adjustments. Plus, in this secret irony, the law of balance exists. It is like human beings on earth who live lives of balancing with the world. Would not it be the reason why the Confucianism takes ‘balance’ as its core law, and Zhuangzi took the ‘absolute truth’ which places tao at the center of lives and of the world?

Though the familiarity of symmetry is not clear if it has any psychological proofs, but it seems that there is a belief of taking balance as the principle of living. However, discussing the cause and result is not very important here. What is important is that the psychological interpretations bases on the gene characters of biological ‘beings’, and what is clear is that the symmetry structure of lives has very close connections to the potential strategy of life-saving will.

This also allows the assumption in fine art that takes balance as an important element might have started from the ‘being’ instinct.

I can find that such biological logic is also contained in Kim, Hyung-jin’s artwork compositions. The inequilateral triangles’ wood pieces on the canvas, and though the inner angles of them are cut sometiems, when the three lines are elongated, the balance by making triangles is still there, and such breaks and combinations are repetitively expressed. The artist’s pattern sometimes seems to be enjoying its freedom by breaking the perfectness of the square canvas. That might be the reason why I sometimes find that the compositions seem to be under specific layouts, but sometimes they seem to be randomly displayed. However, it is clear that the artist’s canvas has the willing expression of keeping the balance of power. This probably comes from the shapes created by the pieces that catch audience’s attentions. Kim, Hyung-jin is either combining or scattering the figure of the unknown on the canvas by the repetitive breaks and combinations of the pieces.

What the artist is trying to communicate is either the presence of the existence or the artist’s interest in everyday life, and they are from the artist’s life experiences that include the nature. Such creative process is similar to the East Asian art tradition that transforms visual experiences into narrations; it is very familiar to us who have lived lives that are closely attached to the nature. There are some types of rules in the artwork for containing ontological thoughts. First, there is the special rule for discussions about ‘time’ which reflects the imperfectness of the finite beings. The annual rings that the artist drew in the triangles symbolize the steps of a life, and contain the unknowns’ lives. The scattered pieces that seem to be still but continually producing tension reflect the insecurity. Such creative process reminds of the Heidegger’s reasoning that considers time issue as the axis for exploring existences. Such attitude of creative process can be found also from the key words that the artist chose before, or in the middle or, after the process. ‘Praying’, ‘holding’, ‘gazing’, ‘pouring’, ‘working’, ‘nailing’, ‘writing’, etc., the continuously attached ‘ing’ should not be a coincidence. Probably, did not the artist try to show symbolically the continuously flowing time –not the segmented time– behind the finite existences?

The human characters shown in the concept of the continuing time stare at a target with softness, and stare at the movie in the camera filmed sometime in the past. Also, they pray, or eat a hamburger, or pour coffee, or concentrate on mobile, or dance elegantly. These can be everyday life activities of anyone, as well as reflecting the artist’s preference. On the other hand, there is the invisible tension and the structures of power balancing in the artwork as if telling how human lives are actually like. It seems to be visualizing human psychology or emotional changes.

But more than anything, I think that the artist’s goal is in the creative process of creating the ‘imperfect figures, or segmented figures’. As these artworks are more abstract than the other, I carefully assume how the artist’s work will be in the future. Like the keywords of the artwork, the whole canvas is segmented, and the partial shapes of the segmentations are left as imperfect figures. During this sincere process, has not the being been left as an imperfect being? This creative process is similar to the Shel Silverstein’s ‘The Missing Piece Meets the Big O’, the story of an imperfect circle with a missing piece that goes for a journey to find the piece; the process shows the endless desire of being perfect despite of the imperfect actual being. The artwork says that it is how everyone is like.

When viewing and understanding Kim, Hyung-jin’s artwork, I focus to the future potential of the artist more than anything. As the artist visualize the thoughts about existences, the artistic explorations will flourish more, and I expect that the artist would fully enjoy the freedom even more than now. Writing about an artwork after viewing an artwork is like translating and adding captions of a book. Like the quote of a scholar, ‘translation is treason’, I hope that this writing would not be treason.

– 2014 –

Fragmented existences of contemporary people

Somi Sim

Kim Hyoung-jin’s paintings are characterized by geometrically divided canvas screens of human figures. The figures are comprised of and conglomerations of various geometric shapes yet still depict the everyday individuals in random postures: a person reading a newspaper on the train, sipping coffee in a café or applying make-up. They all have different poses yet resonate a similar ambience; they are all deeply immersed in something, yet they emit a somewhat solitary sense of loneliness.

In his works, people gaze within or beyond the canvas, with a tinge of isolation immanent in every individual. The characters do not interchange gazes and are only indulging in their own world, similar to the contemporary flaneur who is isolated even while situated with others. Confronted with a surge of spectacles in the contemporary era, one is isolated as an individual and regards and accepts this as a part of the contemporary life. The withdrawn feeling of an individual, even when placed amongst people or with others, is now so common, and many regard this as universal and normal.

Kim’s works focus on painting’s figurative aspects rather than focusing on narrative perspective. Kim’s emphasis on figurative approach protrudes actual existence and presence of an individual placed in the world. Those numerously different, geometrically devised shapes comprise a human figure yet still divide the screen canvas. Geometrical composition and fragmented human figures are now very familiar from the art history context, and we could easily regard and define his works with the now very familiar –ism.

However, Kim’s subject matter is unique; people leading their mundane lives, i.e. placed in existential situations. Kim adopted this figurative method as a metaphor for further delving into his own unique theme which will be discussed below.

Before going into the formal aspects of his works, we will have to point out his use of uncommon material. His major motif is brown-ish geometrical shapes; they are all individually unique and share a similar ambience, giving a holistic feeling to the canvas. However, to our surprise, the material he uses is instant coffee, i.e. paper is permeated with coffee. He meticulously controls the density of charcoal and coffee, obtaining delicate and subdued colors and can even portray melancholy and rough textures. Along with the emotional subtleties of colors, interestingly, the material he uses, instant coffee itself, oscillates the feeling of contemporariness.

To the average person today, instant coffee is reminiscent of busy urban life, yet coffee also endows some sort of relaxing moment. Likewise, coffee has this dubious character; arousing inner instability and connoting an obsessive mentality. Yet it embraces and consoles such obsession or addiction. From Kim’s screen, the color tones of coffee allow us to penetrate the inner landscape of the figure portrayed, and the gaze toward the canvas is transformed into a gaze onto ourselves, the viewers.

The emotional landscapes of modern people are more dramatized with his figurative lexicon along with the material and subject matter. Kim’s first solo exhibition, ‘Illogical Tangram’ (2009), first clearly declared the geometrical figurative method that he adopted. This motif is based on China’s traditional Tangram play method in which 7 different fragments make up one set, yet it is possible to come up with 1600 or more different and new designs.

Despite of the formal restrictions on Tangrams, Kim traverses various formalities and seeks variations in this method with his works, cleverly playing with the artistic potential of this technique. Kim formalized all those borders and equivocal restrictions given to contemporary people then recomposed them. Such a formal aspect allows the viewer to ponder on the artist’s self-reflection as the artist himself is living in this contemporary world as an individual. Prejudices and restrictions, regardless of one’s desire, clothe the individual, and they are fragmented to small pieces then become the controlling, dominating and dividing factors of forms.

Those overpowering social frames are divided and expressed as lines and facets, and they are relevant to worldly and earthly prejudices, bigotries and prying eyes that dominate individuals and set down boundaries. Kim deconstructs and dismantles such fixed overpowering forms that are acting as shackles for the individual. Kim creates human figures by combining such deconstructed geometrical shapes, and they reflect insecure inner mentality, exposing normally hidden existential agonies.

Kim’s second exhibition, “Invisible Anxiety,” further accentuated the existential substance of human beings as shown in his first solo exhibition while rooted in Kim’s figurative method. The subtitle for this exhibition was ‘Invisible Anxieties’ and ‘Paradoxical Expectations’ with an aim to further scrutinize existential situations of human beings as placed or driven to the extreme or restrictions.

The term ‘Paradoxical Expectations’ was created to refer to the two-fold status of humans who long for communication with others alongside the private fear of such encounters. Kim uses the word, paradox to connote this fear for such longing. Human beings lead insecure lives overshadowed by obscure anxieties, yet still maintain high expectations for the hope of tomorrow, even feeling helpless and powerless with the fear for the absurd reality.

Such contradictory situations are easily spotted in Kim’s recent works, with changed formalities. Compared to his previous works that divide human figures with lines, recent works show geometrical shapes that segment yet compose human figures. The human figure is made up of numerous fragments, like some puzzles, ready to be deconstructed. The inner sentiments and landscapes are created upon/in-between those fissions and re-creations, alluding to insecurities and expectations of an individual while still maintaining tension.

This exhibition shows Kim’s attempts to unfold his own comments on others and social relationships whilst embracing previous mentioned existential issues. For example, only one of his works, , features two people, unlike other works that show one solitary person. We can see two business men confronting each other. We can sense the psychological tensions of these two profit-seeking business-men who are about to shake hands after a deal. The hand-shaking moment is fragmented yet reveals the upcoming relationship of these two. This discloses the paradoxical character of relationships which claims harmonical co-existence yet still retains the aggressive confrontation of individuals when facing others.

The fragments produced from the relationship of these two emit and embody the influences of these indivisible tensions and binding forces of two people. The psychological spaces unveiled with the cleverly designed architectural corner on the canvas further theatrically dramatize the whole scene.

The lighting projects a meticulously calculated canvas frame. This lighting effect thoroughly isolates the human figure on the canvas from the real world, theatrically directing one’s feeling of existential dilemma. The carefully designed artificial and overtly excessive lighting exposes the character’s dark side and desire to meditate in silence. The absolute solitude and insecure mentality give rise to oscillations of to those fragments, and reveal one’s psychological fitness, reminding us of the extreme fear for human existence. From this, one may obtain courage to face one’s fears from the vanity of life, like some absurd plays, and many identify themselves as those fragmented, torn individuals.

– 2011 –

Portraits of a Bitter Time that Framed Isolated People

Hwang Jungin
(Independent curator, former curator of Sabina Museum of Contemporary Art)

Square framed pictures display earthy, yellow, fragmentary images that contain numerous earthy yellow variations from grayish to dark brown in the shape of puzzles or patchworks. Through the outlines of such faded fragments, familiar human figures meet the viewers’ eyes one by one. The figures seem like that they are caught in a big fish net or surrounded by an opaque film, and, absent of expression each figure strikes very uncomfortable poses. This is my first impression on Kim Hyungjin’s work.

Kim Hyungjin takes contemporary city people as his subject matter and deals with the relationship between the society and individual, more specifically the problem of isolated people that is caused by conventions and institutions of modern society. His work begins with his observation of people in a busy downtown. There he observes and sketches or takes photos of unique characters. Before they are depicted in the canvas, these characters are represented as simplified figures with speedy lines that only suggest very least sense of movement. After that, the curved lines of human body are completely erased and only the figures made by a composition of fragmented squares and triangular shapes remain.

However, other than such simplified representation of the human bodies, one will notice the composition of lines and geometric shapes. When looking at these characteristics of each figure, we can see that these shapes are working as a sort of frame that restricts the actions of characters. The whole body of the figure is fully covered by geometric shapes in vertical and parallel lines, and if you look at them closely, you will realize that those shapes are mostly placed around the body’s moving parts such as wrists, shoulders, knees and feet. And in so doing, they restrict the actions of the characters. This seems to be his visualization of the existence of the territory around the characters; it signifies whole social systems and institutions such as stereotypes, prejudices, other people’s gazes, etc. In other words, these characters signify modern people that are controlled by other people and social forces. This is a visual depiction of the circumstances that show how stereotypes and the prejudice of other peoples’ gazes restrict subjective action.

The people who encounter Kim’s work for the first time often make the mistake of assuming that his work is similar in form with the works of twentieth century cubists. Kim’s figures receive their form through the organic combination of divided fragments; yet, this is not done by employing multiple perspectives towards a subject. Rather, it is an absolutely flat representation of characters that have been observed from a fixed perspective, and then re-produced through the combination of simplified geometric shapes.

Furthermore, the formal basis of his work is the tangram, a traditional Chinese puzzle game. With seven different shaped pieces consisting of five equilateral triangles of different size, a square and a parallelogram, it is a game for creating new and unique shapes and forms. Over 10,000 shapes can be made with the seven tangram pieces within a square frame. However, even though hundreds and thousands of shapes can be created, those seven basic fragments are still restricted within the ten by ten centimeter square frame. (Originally the tangram consisted of seven pieces, but pieces can be added more in order to create more variety, still, the forms do not escape the basic frame.) When applying this to the work of Kim Hyungjin, the thousands of modern people’s images captured by the artist’s gaze are depicted as characters in various actions, but their reality is not yet free from the frames of conventions and ideas: indeed they are restrained beings. In this context, the frame of the canvas acts as the square and the figures are tightly constrained by its four corners.

The characters that Kim represents display familiar movements that look like something we have encountered somewhere in our ordinary surroundings. Some are drinking coffee, smoking, typing or vacantly waiting. By simplifying these kinds of familiar human actions that we commonly see in our everyday lives, Kim seems to be achieving sympathy from viewers. In addition to this, one can find some unique characteristics from his characters: the gazes of all the figures are toward the right side, and the bodies of the figures are also depicted in profile. By doing so, Kim seems to be trying to satire the monotony of modern experience.

Kim intentionally adjusts the direction of the gaze of his subjects toward one direction. In addition, the bodies of the characters are represented in a similar manner to that of the tomb paintings of ancient Egypt: faces, legs and feet are represented in profile in order to emphasize the traits of each body part. Artists in that era drew their figures according to certain rules of form; therefore, their figures were depicted in stiff postures. In fact, their purpose was to express flawlessness and perfection based on their belief in the afterlife; their purpose was not in expression of the beauty of human figures. For this, they emphasized rules of geometry because they believed that it would express the substance of the human figures. Considering this, one might take pleasure in the peculiar interpretation of contemporary human being that Kim attempts in his geometric representation of the human body.

Actually the artist started to concentrate on the subject of modern people since his Windy City series where, while at college, he drew dreary cityscapes of Chicago. What the artist encountered in the center of that city established by human civilization was empty windy streets void of human trace. There a circumstance was created where the main component of the civilization is overturned by civilization itself. Humans become anonymous beings lacking ontological purpose. In this way, the artist became interested in the idea of the complete isolation of the modern people in civilization’s city. This continues in Kim’s Pedestrian Series that portrays anonymous people passing by in the street. In this series, the figures are not illustrated as fixed images with clear outlines, but are rather portrayed as vague shadowy figures. It seems to be quite important that he chose anonymous subjects with particular characters.

The movement of the characters who speedily passed the artist’s eyes is expressed in rough brush strokes, with lingering images emerging in their midst. This enables the viewers to have a same visual experience with the artist who stays outside the canvas, and with this, they can mutually experience the invisible distance between the artist and his subject. Such a psychological distance develops into more concrete forms: as if the city people are being examined with a square shaped conceptual lens, the body of the characters is captured in the frame of a square and their movements are gradually restricted in the fragmentary geometric images. In this way, the characters are situated in increasingly isolated circumstances, and there the sense of alienation is fortified. As a result, the alienated people of the city continue to occupy Kim’s work.

Finally one can find another trait of his paintings in the materials that he uses. Maybe it became difficult to achieve an adequate persuasive power when it comes to a discussion of the manner of graphic expression in present times; however, in his work one should mention the importance of his materials to his paintings. First of all, the artist puts rice paper onto a canvas, and then copies his characters from the original sketches with charcoal. After that, he colors the surfaces. Then, he uses instant coffees. Controlling the density of the coffee grounds, he controls color saturation. In addition to this, he uses powdered charcoal for making outlines, and this effect comes out in a form of soft and varied tones of the Chinese ink outlines. Having studied Oriental paintings in his undergrad, his technique of monotonous shading seems quite mature. The reason why the artist uses coffee as his coloring material has to do with the fact that his characters are all contemporary figures: coffee, one of Kim’s main materials, is a drink that people in present times cannot live without, instant coffee in particular is a symbol of contemporary life. The surface evenly painted with coffee accomplishes the look of vintage books. In contrast, Kim applies colorful primary colors to the surface of his characters. Yet with lowered colour saturation, Kim creates a subtle harmony with the brownish, monotonous representations of his characters.

Kim chooses colours according to the atmosphere of each character’s movement. This monotonous color use signifies the spectacle of the city while at the same time becoming a formative element of the work that intrigues the viewers’ attention to the two dimensional characters on the canvas. The last process in producing the work, the artist coats the surface of the canvas with an opaque medium achieving a softer tone and a sense of coordination. With this coating effect, the characters even appear as if they are frozen in time. We don’t know when it began, but the modern people started to appear as controlled figures forcibly removed from their own subjectivity, their thoughts, voices and acts systematically restricted by social conventions and the piercing gaze of others.

Ultimately, his work captures the viewer attention because of the fact that these are indeed sad portraits of the life of the modern people in a city who are alienated from the substance of being human. It has been a long time since we have lost our autonomy, the substance of our humanity: caught in the current of the times, we have lost our individual independence. Kim Hyungjin’s work signifies that this might be captured as a custom of an era and be represented as our gloomy portrait to the next generation’s eyes, and with this, he calls our attention to the circumstances that we are facing now.


– 2009 –

The Illogical Tangram

Chung Hyoim (curator of Seoulmuseumofart)

Kim Hyungjin has been interested in the social atmosphere that criticizes both people with penetrating standards and the self-isolation of members of society. The characters in his works are depicted as loners who are concentrating on the repetitive everyday activities of modern people: they are sitting, driving, drinking coffee or typing in square frames. In the empty spaces of the canvas, these characters are patterned, and their individual characters and circumstances are eliminated. In this way, a kind of irony is created where the activities of the characters dominate the subjects of the activities themselves.

Traces of everyday life

Kim’s paintings are represented through scrupulous and sensitive processes. The background is painted in acrylic and the central images are painted with charcoal powder ground as soft as coffee powder on rice paper and glued onto the canvas.
The painting’s shades are deepened through the application of numerous layers of paint. Such a painting process makes the paper become more securely fixed to the canvas since it absorbs the pigments. When the pigments and water are mixed and painted on the paper, the granules of glue used between the paper and the canvas are spread softly scattering the particles. The translucency produced by the layer of pigment on the paper emphasizes solid subsistence and lyrical aesthetics. The application of rice paper and the controlled shading process are probably related to Kim’s former educational background in oriental painting. Yet this cannot be read as an ‘oriental’ approach but rather a reflection of the mixture of his everyday life: coffee as a common consumer product and rice paper as a familiar material. The combination of these heterogeneous materials creates a unique effect that accomplishes a strong persuasive power.

A condensed solidity

Such a geometrical structuralization and application of limited colors have been a hallmark of Kim Hyungjin’s work, and a visual element that drives us to look at his work’s connection to Cubism. However, interestingly enough, beyond its surface-level similarity to cubism, his paintings rather suggest special characteristics that are quite different from cubism in its intrinsic value. While cubism used a geometric shapes in order to realize transfer the three dimensional into the two dimensional, Kim uses the shapes to condense solidity and transform it into the two dimensional. The cubism that tried to realize an expanded space-time reality of objects in two dimensional spaces by associating with basic particles that constructs the foundation of figures and Kim who concentrates on the two dimensional are laid on opposite sides. He doesn’t construct the reality by reorganization of geometric shapes, but deconstructs the actuality within his application of lines and transforms the three dimensional into the two dimensional. As a result, his works have a peculiar plainness as if they were created by putting together puzzle pieces. To him, the fragmented surfaces are not an element that gives conceptual volume to a two-dimensional space, but rather fragments of condensed actuality.

Space and time of an instant moment

Such constructed images are organized in the background where the illusion of realization is eliminated. And here in many perspectives, the characters and background contrast. The monochrome background painted in opaque acrylics don’t even have any traces of brush strokes, and the characters appear separated from the background as if they were cut out from different spaces. These two make a clear contrast against each other and create a kind of tension in the picture. Though it is now captured in suspended time and space, such an instability of an aggregate seem unstable as if they are about to scatter again as the pixels of a cyber space. When the represented figure signifies a trace of condensed solidity, the background becomes a phase of a captured time and empty space. Modern people trying to take a place in the gaze of the others are transformed into a group of fragments and frozen into a moment.

People living in metropolises pass by hundreds and thousands people everyday from the moment they wake up until they go to bed. With the increasing speed of life, individuals get lost in the surface of life, and they indifferently pass by each other everyday. The indifference toward unknown individuals, furthermore the familiarity of such indifference are a typical cliché which describes the sensitivity of a big city. Kim Hyungjin deconstructs reality and reconstructs it and in this way, he represents the true, hidden character of modern people.

– 2009 –