Portraits of a Bitter Time that Framed Isolated People

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 –