Abstract, minimalist and very personalThe work of Byron Kim occupies a rare position within contemporary art. It deals with issues of race, but it does so by way of abstract, minimalist art.
His “Synecdoche,” pictured at right, is an enormous grid consisting of hundreds of panels, in colors ranging from pale white to pink to dark brown. But viewers soon learn that each panel was painted to match the skin tone of one of the artist’s friends or acquaintances.
His exhibit “Threshold,” which was originally organized by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and is currently being shown at Rodin Gallery, offers various entry points for viewers to approach the pieces.
They lure viewers by offering the classic pleasures of formality offered by an abstract painting. Yet they also invite viewers to think about the work’s critical content.
That makes him very different from his minimalist predecessors, who have historically eschewed “content” in favor of stylistic fluency.
In “An Attempt at Dogma,” the artist wrote that his monochromes are a parallel to paintings by artists like Bruce Marden, whose works are known for their stylized beauty.
“These paintings would respond directly to those who ask me, ‘Why are you making abstract paintings?’” he writes. “The ‘you’ meaning Asian-American artist, artist of color, artist with something to say.
“Of course, my intention would be to make this line of question the inevitable content of the painting, one that would dominate the ostensible, conventionally romantic content.”
Another new element Kim brings to art’s abstract traditions is that he often deals with personal narratives, based on his memories of his own family members and friends.
In “Miss Mushinsky (First Big Crush),” he paints the color of a turtleneck he once wore that a grade school teacher told him she liked. He recreates the colors of his favorite car (a 1984 Dodge station wagon), a swimming pool near his studio in Brooklyn and different parts of his newborn son’s body.
He allows his viewers to participate in his recollections by including dates and subject matter in his titles. In one of the pieces at Rodin, “Mom II,” he paints a beige rectangle representing his mother’s skin tone. But he explains that he did so from memory, raising the question of the gap between perception and reality.
Kim also explores some of these ideas through landscapes, another genre that has isolated itself from social and cultural issues. In his “Sunday Paintings,” he plays with the style of the British landscape painter John Constable with a series of paintings of skies with text across the bottom of the canvas.
The exhibition includes a dialogue between Kim and two of his close friends in the art world, Janine Antoni and Glenn Ligon, in which he explores some of his ideas about his work. “I always wanted to have a voice without influences,” he says at one point. “But I realize that this is impossible.”
Perhaps the essence of Kim’s work has to do with the dilemma of separating his voice from his influences, or of creating a painting without telling a story.
by Park Soo-mee
“Threshold” runs through May 8. Admission is 3,000 won ($3). To get to Rodin Gallery, use City Hall station, line No. 1 or 2, exit 8. For more information call (02) 2259-7781.