Essay by Eugenie Tsai
Byron Kim came of age as an artist in the early 1990s, a moment when buzzwords like “multiculturalism” and “identity politics” ruled the day, and artists and institutions attempted to come to terms with the thorny relationship between power in the art world and the politics of race. In this climate, the 1993 Whitney Biennial proved controversial. Kim exhibited Synecdoche (1991–present), an enormous painting composed of nearly three hundred 8 x 10–inch panels, each painted a single shade of peach, beige, or brown, arranged on the wall in a tight grid. The colors correspond to the skin tones of as many individuals, rendered from life by the artist; the panels are hung in alphabetical order by first name of the sitter, who is identified on a wall label.
Like other artists of his generation, Kim infuses the anonymous abstract language of sixties Minimalism with personal and political content. Whereas the skin paintings investigated the racial implications of color, a group of paintings Kim embarked on after the 1993 Biennial examines the link between color and memories of place. The horizontal bands in shades of pink of 46 Halsey Drive, Wallingford, CT 06492 (1995) represent Kim’s attempts to re-create the color of the family home on the basis of the combined memories of his parents and sister, who each selected paint chips they felt most closely approximated the color of the house. Undoubtedly the most endearing of these paintings is Miss Mushinski (First Big Crush) (1996), a small canvas of green and dark blue stripes. The stripes refer to the turtleneck shirt Kim was wearing when his first grade teacher, the eponymous Miss Mushinski, told him she liked it, resulting in his wearing it for three straight weeks. Moving from childhood memories to those of young adulthood, 1984 Dodge Wagon (1994), three panels in brown and buff, memorialize the artist’s beloved Dodge Aries station wagon. Kim refers to this group of paintings as “spots of time,” a phrase from the British Romantic poet William Wordsworth that refers to epiphanies, significant childhood experiences that continue to shape one’s adult life.
It is not surprising that Kim, an English major and admirer of English Romantic poetry, eventually turned to the theme of landscape in his work. Kim’s four-part Painted from Memory of San Juan River Near Moab, Utah (1991), one of his earliest landscapes, resembles a skin painting in its use of tan desert tones. Through the Night (Skowhegan) (1997), an enormous black-on-black painting of the night sky glimpsed through foliage, with its barely discernable distinction between sky and tree, pays homage to Kim’s idol, Ad Reinhardt. In addition, it commemorates the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the renowned summer art program in Maine, which occupies a meaningful place in Kim’s life. In 2001, Kim began a series of large sky paintings, the most overtly romantic of all his work to date. While a horizon line in Grunion Run (2001) schematically divides the canvas into sea and sky, for the most part, the paintings are devoted to portraying sections of the sky, ranging from deep blue with nearly invisible wisps of cloud in Clear Blue #1 (2001) to the subtly modulated field of White Painting #3 (2001). These paintings look back to empirical cloud studies by nineteenth-century British painters like Joseph Wright and John Constable. At the same time, the scale of Kim’s canvases and the way they slip in and out of abstraction recall Rothko’s schematic and ethereal landscape-like compositions, with their ability to move the viewer beyond the appearance of exterior reality.
More closely resembling the format of nineteenth-century cloud studies are Kim’s Sunday Paintings, small paintings of the sky on panel, each painted from direct observation. Kim began by writing a few lines under each image, but soon found himself writing directly over the image. The Sunday Paintings simultaneously record a moment in the natural world and in human society, particularly the artist’s life, and metaphorically suggest the possibility of a transcendent reality. Lined up on the wall, each panel appears like a frame in the loop of a film, a moment in time stilled. Like the panels in Synecdoche, each Sunday Painting is part of a larger ongoing whole.
Excerpted from her essay “Between Heaven and Earth” in the exhibition catalog
Threshold: Byron Kim 1990–2004 is supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Peter Norton Family Foundation, RBC Dain Rauscher, and Consortium for the Arts at UC Berkeley.