You won't find a paintbrush in artist GuGu Kim's studio

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You won't find a paintbrush in artist GuGu Kim's studio

GuGu Kim working with dry charcoal and his fingers at H Gallery in Gangnam District, southern Seoul [PARK SANG-MOON]

GuGu Kim working with dry charcoal and his fingers at H Gallery in Gangnam District, southern Seoul [PARK SANG-MOON]

 
GuGu Kim, 53, is a finger painting artist, called jiduhwa in Korean, who uses only his fingers to create his artworks.  

 
He works on large canvases, so utilizes a ladder and paints with dried charcoal, pastel and stone powder. 

His paintings are considered representative artworks under the modern classicism genre and are praised worldwide.
 
GuGu Kim poses in front of his large paintings that depict the rich inner life of humans with monotone colors [PARK SANG-MOON]

GuGu Kim poses in front of his large paintings that depict the rich inner life of humans with monotone colors [PARK SANG-MOON]

 
Kim’s pieces depict a sense of deeply concentrated pure beauty. An iconic aspect of his works are the use of monotone colors such as black and white. 
 
The principles of light and darkness, black and white, and ying and yang used skillfully and harmoniously in his artworks, provide a window to his unique artistic world. For instance, the concept of ying and yang is shown through the black paint and the empty white spaces on the canvas that make up a single painting.  
 
Kim was born in 1970 in a small village in Gwangju. He believes that his finger paintings began when he was a young child when he used to rub charcoal from the furnace with his fingers and even draw with it.  
 
Taking interest in music and art as he grew up, Kim began to form ideals about Japan, especially after seeing pictures of Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge.  
 
He set off to study more about his passions at a vocational school in Tokyo after graduating from university in Korea. He studied subjects such as contemporary art, fashion, space design and architecture at Mode Gakuen.  
 
He had to work part-time jobs until three or four in the morning to pay off his tuition, but endured the hardships for his passions.  
 
He drew his own works at this time, but only as a hobby. He had no idea that he would become a painter one day.  
 
Kim traveled back and forth between Japan and Korea picking up work here and there, until year 2000 when he was able to open his own fashion show in Seoul with locally renowned male model Do Shin-woo.  
 
The show received a good response but had financially strained Kim. He returned to Tokyo with just 10,000 yen ($67.30). Devastated, Kim spend the days prior to the show like a corpse lying dead.  
Then one day at early dawn, he had a transformative experience that made him decide to become an artist.  
 
GuGu Kim works on a large religious painting at H Gallery in Gangnam District, southern Seoul [PARK SANG-MOON]

GuGu Kim works on a large religious painting at H Gallery in Gangnam District, southern Seoul [PARK SANG-MOON]

 
He had been drawing a nude painting with his fingers early in the morning. When he finished and the morning sunlight shone on his completed painting, he realized that he had made something beautiful and that this was the type of art that he wanted to create. 
 
He displayed his finger paintings at a small exhibition in a cafe in Korea and they all sold.  
 
From that moment on, he officially began his finger painting career and has continued this work for over two decades now.
 
 GuGu Kim works with dry charcoal and his fingers [PARK SANG-MOON] [PARK SANG-MOON]

GuGu Kim works with dry charcoal and his fingers [PARK SANG-MOON] [PARK SANG-MOON]

 
While jiduhwa refers to painting with one’s hands and fingers using black ink, Kim’s works deviate from the traditional Korean method as he uses just his fingertips.  
 
In more literal terms, his method is a type of dry pointillism which uses materials such as dry charcoal. This is why he calls himself both a finger painting and finger stamping artist.  
 
The central motif in Kim’s work is quotidian life — everything that people hear, see and imagine as well as the human’s joys and sorrows are reflected in his paintings.  
 
This is because he spontaneously paints with the emotions and sensations that he feels in the moment. Such emotions are often best depicted in the facial expressions of the subjects in Kim’s works. Even the fish that Kim paints wear an expression.  
 
 GuGu Kim's painting depicting the Last Supper with Jesus and his 12 disciples. He has drawn in hangeul, otherwise known has Korean characters, on the tablecloth.  [PARK SANG-MOON]

GuGu Kim's painting depicting the Last Supper with Jesus and his 12 disciples. He has drawn in hangeul, otherwise known has Korean characters, on the tablecloth. [PARK SANG-MOON]

 
His works also incorporate Korean aspects. He uses natural ingredients that have existed for a long time such as charcoal, pastel and stone powder. He also uses woven linen canvas that is sold in scrolls instead of the framed kind.
 
Koreans are traditionally called a “white-clad race,” meaning that Koreans in ancient times used to wear white and revered the color. Kim’s monotone paintings accentuate this Korean quality while also following the principles of ying and the yang. But Kim says that his works have interpreted such traditional Korean styles into something more modern through a process that he calls “new Koreanization.”  
 
Some of Kim’s most iconic pieces include realistic depictions of religious figures such as Jesus, Holy Mary and Buddha. 
 
Robert D. Mowry, a curator at Harvard Art Museums, highly regarded Kim’s creativity, calling him “this era’s representative finger painting artist" and "a pioneer of modern classicism whose works perfectly meld the past and the present.”  
 
He continued, “Kim has shown an entirely new concept of art. I believe that he will blow new winds to the finger painting world with his creative and unique works.”  
 
Kim currently has two goals. One is to establish an art museum specially for artworks depicting religion. Although most Koreans are religious, there isn’t a museum to exhibit religious works and preserve them, said Kim.  
 
His second goal is to open permanent art museums in 99 places around the world where his works can be exhibited and eternally preserved. Kim calls the museums the “99 Art Museum.”

 
After holding special exhibitions and solo exhibitions in countries such as the United States, Japan, China, and India and at the 2019 Venice Biennale in Italy, he recently opened “99 Art Museum” in Paju, Gyeonggi. 
 
Kim said that his ultimate dream is to elevate the dignity of Korea with the power of culture.
 

BY PARK SANG-MOON [park.sangmun@joongang.co.kr]
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