Mikyung Kim : Surrender

 Looking at Mikyung Kim’s Mindscapes and Pile Strata – assembled armatures of wooden rectangles, some of which rise and fall side by side a bit like musical notes, with bright white surfaces that are sanded smooth, collaged in places with empty graph paper grids and pigmented here and there with peaks and troughs that look, on the one hand, like mountain ranges from an Eastern scroll painting and, on the other, like some kind of electrocardiogram – a viewer feels the tug of so many complicated and seemingly contradictory ideas that it’s tempting, first off, to simply surrender to the art’s immediate sensuality.

Kim’s mastery of materials gives you the faith to submit. For one, her surgical precision is thrilling. She cuts her wooden armatures with edges as sharp and clear as a razor. And the crisp blue lines in her pre-printed graphs find a counterpart in her knife-like separation of the purest white ground from the so-called mountains, composed of delicate washes of paint. Kim achieves this contrast by loading resin with dry pigment on one side of a putty knife and spreading it in one direction, a technique that recalls Gerhard Richter’s signature use of squeegees. The technique allows for chance but within strict parameters, what Kim calls “controlled spontaneity.”

No less visually satisfying is Kim’s exploration of the properties of paint itself, its texture, transparency and opacity – hardly a surprise from an artist who came of age in the early 1980s.  At the time, the high modernist fixation on materiality remained an influence no young upstart could entirely ignore. Looking at Kim’s translucent, layered peaks and troughs, I can’t help but think of Morris Louis’s famous veil paintings of the 1950s and ‘60s, because they, like Kim’s, are exquisitely delicate and simultaneously flat and spatial. Our bodies cannot inhabit Kim’s space; instead, hers is what Clement Greenberg, the great mid-century art critic, called “optical space.” It’s an implied space resulting here from washes of pigment one on top of another. Kim’s opaque white monochrome surfaces play with optical space in still a different way. The white suggests an emptiness as flat as a page and yet, in passages around the peaks, it seems as deep as an opalescent sky. Visual delights like these are the measure of excellence in high modernist art. With this heritage of modernism behind her, it’s easy to understand why Kim insists that “art does not need to communicate anything.”

Still, with their tantalizing names, Kim’s Mindscapes and Pile-Strata evoke a geology of influences and concerns. They invite us to ponder issues below the surface, none more than the artist’s subtle invocations of her own Korean heritage.

Korea emerged on the international art scene during the later 1970s with Dansaekhwa, Korean monochrome painting. Western critics of the time pretty much dismissed Dansaekhwa as a provincial derivation of recent abstract painting in the US and Europe, but they gravely misperceived the work. As British art historian Simon Morley argues, Dansaekhwa painters found inspiration in some of this Western art for qualities that were reminiscent of Eastern tradition and, I will add, so did Kim. The Dansaekhwa embrace of the spontaneity associated with such Western movements as Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel simultaneously points to a long aesthetic tradition in Korean art and artifacts, and to a Korean veneration for naturalness; at the same time, many practitioners establish an underlying order beneath their seeming randomness. From this perspective, Kim’s interest in controlled spontaneity looks distinctly Korean. In Dansaekhwa, white summons a range of Eastern associations to ancestor garments, porcelain, hanji paper, etc. To explain her own fascination with white, Kim speaks of its traditional Korean associations with purity. For Dansaekhwa painters, and for Kim, abstraction itself points to Eastern spiritualism and philosophy. In Kim’s Pile-Strata/R-1, Pile-Strata/R-2 and other works, a translucent, honey-colored monochrome resin panel occupies a privileged position, often at the center of a triptych, apart from the busy play of lines and forms that flank them. When she discusses her use of resin, Kim invokes the five elements of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination text also known as the Book of Changes. Beginning as a liquid, resin suggests water, and through its murkiness one detects a ground, earth, which in Kim’s pieces is constructed of wood. Water, earth and wood express the yin, the female principle in nature. At the same time, the golden color of the resin evokes both fire and metal, the elements that represent the yang, the male principle. In the I Ching, the five elements suggest a cycle of generation: wood generates fire, fire generates earth, earth generates metal, metal generates water, and water generates wood, which, in turn, begins the cycle again. Kim’s serene panels present an Eastern conception of both universal harmony and cyclical change.

Symmetrical and iconic, many of Kim’s artworks suggest altars. She herself cites a source of inspiration in the honorific altars created for Eastern ancestor worship. But it’s also impossible not to see Kim’s golden hues and diptych and triptych formats in relation to medieval European altarpieces. By featuring these spiritual and formal similarities of the religious art of the East and West, Kim suggests a universality of human needs and expression, a commonality she discovered by studying the thought of Joseph Campbell, the philosopher of comparative religion and mythology.

When Kim arrived in New York City in 1979 as part of the first big wave of ambitious young Korean expatriate artists, a new art-world emphasis on multiculturalism and personal identity must have encouraged her to explore her Korean heritage. At no moment had that heritage more deeply affected her than during her mother’s traditional Korean funeral in 1974, when the age-old rites, which Kim knew little about, unexpectedly eased her distress. Many years later, upon her father’s passing in 1992, Kim drew comfort from Campbell’s insights about how religious myths and rituals from around the world address the same human needs. What emerged was a sense of her connection to people everywhere, past and present. Then in 1994, a year after she married, Kim bore a child, an experience that related these larger themes of the life cycle to the cycles in her own body. Cycles assumed a central importance in Kim’s art.

In her Mindscapes and Pile Strata, cycle guides the swift, decisive gesture of her hand in spreading pigment with a putty knife because she acts in synchrony with her own breathing, one stroke per vital breath. Cycle elucidates the peaks and troughs of her mountain ranges, as steady as her heartbeat and as regular as what she calls “the swell and tides of the oceans’ rhythms.” Cycle makes Kim’s art a meditation, both for herself as she creates, and for her viewers, who are invited to surrender to the mysterious and ineluctable forces she invokes.

Surrender is essential in Kim’s art, surrender as an act of faith, not only to her magnificent artistry but also to the whirlwind of apparent contradictions in her work: the sensuous that thrives within the numinous, the spontaneous that emerges from the controlled, the personal that expresses the universal, the breath and the tide. Kim’s Mindscapes and Pile Strata reveal an artist of wisdom and power in conjuring a measure of the complexity and profundity of life itself.

Exhibition Essay…Nabi Museum, NJ    2015

Andrew Weinstein, Ph.D.

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York




Mikyung Kim’s stated comfort with her own new body of work is the best testimony to its success. As a woman sculptor, she has already proven her “rational”. mettle by making stimulating physical conceptualizations of some of the ways humans think about existence. These earlier painted-wood sculptural constructions consisted of elements which had symbolic, representational and formal significance. Now, she chooses to face the issue of existence on a sensate, personally experienced level.

Recent family experiences of the death of their father and birth of her own baby have led the artist to more visceral explorations of form and meaning. Still regulated by geometry and the grid, and far from histrionic, the work has come to include such materials and shapes as cast-rubber nipples, rubber tubes suggestive of umbilical cords and IV tubes), and navels sometimes the nipples double or are inverted for this purpose). Often, these simple individual forms protrude from boxes on the wall, with the tubes sometimes hand-wrapped in twine) drooping to the floor or leading to other forms. Organic and natural colors predominate. Sexuality as pleasure, as means of reproduction, as representative of cycles of life and death: these are all touched on. The contrast of soft, flesh-colored elements with sterile, white-painted boxes parallels the way we often experience our bodies most vividly in antiseptic hospital situation.

In a major new piece, Red Calendar/280-2, the modular strength of the new series reaches new heights. In this work, 140 lightly gridded steel tiles are arranged in a modified grid on a wall and painted with 280 red dots-referring to the duration of a pregnancy – in ones, twos, and threes. Attached here and there to the wall are rubber nipples also red), connected to tubes which sometimes coil loosely onto the floor. Related drawings explore the calendar like nature of the filled-in grid: it suggests at once a recording of lab results, a counting of days, a measure of health or disease. It refers to pregnancy, to illness, to the routine as well as the drama of the monitored body. Mikyung Kim, as the female conceptual sculptor proving herself. a sentient being brings her bodily awareness to an art form that can sometimes be astringent and circumscribed. Her work marks an important step towards a conceptual art determined by women.

Exhibition Essay…Gallery 9 , Seoul, Korea   1995

Cynthia Nadelman



Mikyung Kim’s highly intuitive and individualistic works communicate through a language of process. The works symbolize a process of emergence, rather than revealing traditional representations of static or set principles. Ideally, or theoretically, these installations are analogous to physical projections or objectified extensions of the structures of thought the artist has chosen to reveal to the viewer. In practical or formal terms, these contextual structures order the reading of the associative content alluded to by various signs and visual phenomena. As a whole, the harmony of these effects generates a tangible contemplative quality rarely seen presented in such a compelling manner.

The formal and structural origins of these pieces have developed from her previous works which were spatially or architecturally oriented installations. These new objects retain the appearance of installations; yet introduce an appreciation or illustration of the psychological as well as the physical sense of space. Thus, in addition to the material or physical sensation one derives from spatially integrated installations, these pieces transform what at first appear to be clearly defined spaced into a continuous flow of multiple rhythms engaging both our sight and imagination. There are two main factors, which contribute to this effect: the direct relation to human scale, and the foreground screens. Specifically, the key element is the employment of frontally oriented geometric picture planes, or screens: which act to obscure our field of vision from the sculptural forms behind them. These screens, which immediately attract our attention, are beautifully crafted objects in themselves. Within their wooden frameworks we see softly gleaming metal planes, which both reflect and contain ambient light, and gently evoke an immaterial presence. Likewise, the incorporation of translucent and transparent planes of glass call to mind a luminous inner source of energy; in turn complemented by sensuous layered surfaces of pale or subdued tones of color. The apparent mid-air suspension of the screens in front of their sculptural counterparts in combination with the ephemeral nature of the materials used, creates a feeling of weightlessness or internal tension. Similarly, a curious equilibrium is established between the implied and virtual spaces of the three – dimensional structure and the tension or compression caused by the foreground screen’s two-dimensionality. This effect simultaneously attracts and resists the viewer’s attempts at perceiving the sculpture as a unified composition. Essentially the pieces require a series of separate explorations ranging from an intimate to a more distanced view. In fact, it is impossible to view the pieces in their entirety from a single perspective. One must inspect them gradually, almost sequentially to discover the inter­relationships of the drawings, tableaus, and spatial environments within the installation. This is significant in that it separates the viewer from the purely visual experience into an experience based on a number of individual perceptions; with ultimately demands a re-creation in the minds-eye in conjunction with a conceptually based method of interpretation. By implication or direct reference we apprehend the metamorphosis of thought from one region to the next; not read as a linear or analytical character, but rather one of a lyrical or intuitive nature.

The screen’s relationship to the sculpted wall unit is in many ways analogous to the interconnections formed by the :masses, volumes, voids, and arid surfaces within the wall unit itself. These spatial and structural concerns are reinforced by diagrams and sculpted illustrations of similar thematic content. For example, drawings, which simulate the division of matter and antimatter, are direct references to the recent advances in Theoretical Physics. Another illustration visually describing the processes of thought is that of the ‘Game Tree’, a diagram that maps the linear progressions of the nature of decision-making or probability theory in mathematics. Representations of, or allusions to other thought paradigms are depicted by: Cartesian coordinate systems, number lines or sequences, grids of measurement and proportion, balance, beams, scales of weight and measure, gravitational phenomena, and so on. These abstract representations are placed in unexpected combinations by instinctive arrangement and clearly are intended as harmonious relations. The traditional painterly media and methods of construction seem intuitively at home with representations of diverse phenomena, and create a natural setting for the co-existence of or inter-relations between form and content.

These pieces all share a simple and direct, yet complex vocabulary of inter-relations within which the process of and focus on meaning occurs. A tenuous equilibrium bordering on irresolution is created by the diverse visual, structural, spatial, psychological, and conceptual phenomena. These works are metaphorical representations of both contemplative sanctuaries and active personifications of an individual psyche. They equate the active and passive and direct our attention to universals we cannot comprehend. Mikyung Kim’s thought provoking installations reveal consciousness as a continuous, interchangeable flow of sensory, interpretive, and experiential processes; they reflect the suspension of meaning in the natural realm of phenomena, and are in accord with it.

Exhibition Essay…Seomi Gallery,Seoul, Korea   1990