In this essay art critic and curator, Andy St. Louis, reviews Minjung Kim 김민정: Timeless at Gallery Hyundai in Seoul and Minjung Kim’s solo exhibition at the Hill Foundation in New York.
Classifying the art practice of Minjung Kim (b.1962) is no easy task. Fusing techniques of Eastern ink wash painting with compositional logics of Western minimalism, her works reverberate with an uncanny visual energy. Often, they exude a sensibility innate to drawings, a designation consistent with Kim’s use of hanji (Korean mulberry paper) as her primary medium; indeed, her work was classified as such in the recently released Vitamin D3 (2021), a compendium of contemporary drawing practices by art book publisher Phaidon. However, Kim’s penchant for incorporating untold amounts of paper into densely layered composites also invites comparisons between her artistic approach and that of collage. While this may be the most accurate label to describe her works, it is also overly reductive and – given the unenviable status of collage in the discursive arena of contemporary art – somewhat unfair. What imbues Kim’s works with such indelible presence and immediacy is the way in which matière serves as both substrate and subject, confounding distinctions of genre and technique to propose an inventive aesthetic paradigm unlike anything else.
As a child growing up in Gwangju, the largest city in Korea’s southwestern Jeolla Province, Kim often found herself surrounded by the surfeit of paper scraps brought home by her father, who ran a printing company. She studied traditional painting in her youth under Kang Yeon-gyun, a master watercolor painter and Gwangju native, before leaving for Seoul in 1985, where she matriculated at Hongik University in the Oriental painting department. After completing BFA and MFA degrees, she moved to Milan in 1991 and enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera – an undertaking that would alter the course of her career. There, she immersed herself in the rich traditions of Western art history, which offered a welcome respite from the stifling conventions of the Korean art world; having untethered herself from the strictures of prevailing art movements back home, Kim remained in Europe as she charted a new course toward developing her own painterly syntax. This initially manifested in bodies of work that adapted traditional Korean techniques and materials to contemporary modes of abstraction. By the early 2000s, she settled on minimalism as her preferred means of expression, often foregoing the use of brushes altogether and focusing instead on the physical properties of hanji paper itself.
In early 2021, Kim held concurrent solo exhibitions on two continents – at Gallery Hyundai in Seoul and the Hill Foundation in New York – that foregrounded the extent to which hanji has become inseparable from her artistic identity. Since moving to Milan three decades ago, she has increasingly focused on pursuing a new approach to art-making that relies on the transformative power of fire to alter the materiality of hanji paper. With a trained hand and tranquil disposition, Kim tames the destructive potential of this alchemical element as she painstakingly singes small pieces of hanji, which she later combines into abstract minimal compositions. The hundreds, if not thousands, of paper scraps that fill these works disclose layered patchworks of line, texture and geometric form that evince visible traces of the artist’s intervention: namely, the irregular and discolored periphery of each individual strip of burnt paper. Kim’s perpetual production of nearly-identical paper fragments – and their ordered accumulation when glued onto full-size sheets of hanji – yields works that are as much about the artist’s labor as the imagery she renders.
Gallery Hyundai’s recent exhibition, Minjung Kim: Timeless, presented more than a dozen disparate bodies of new and recent work. Some of the most striking offerings were those from Kim’s ongoing Sculpture series (2019- ), where the layering of bulbous forms at progressive intervals creates an illusionistic effect of imagery that appears to advance or recede from view. Her precise trimming of each piece of hanji is achieved through a novel technique: repeatedly touching a thin stick of burning incense to a piece of paper to create linear incisions that give rise to the desired form. The same method is used in her Order and Impulse series (2017- ), in which myriad coin-sized circles of hanji are laid down in a single layer over a piece of colored paper. Rather than adhering to a predetermined compositional scheme, however, the arrangement of these shapes is entirely improvised by the artist. Moreover, the uniformity of the circles themselves is also undermined when Kim attaches them to the substrate: after affixing glue to the surface of a given cutout, she folds over one of its edges onto itself, configuring a field of two-toned crescents that manipulates viewers’ perceptions of flatness and depth.
It is the exhibition’s eponymous series, however, that most keenly manifests Kim’s nuanced approach to image-making. The works from her Timeless series (2019- ) are deceptively simple at first glance, and only reveal their intrinsic visual logic upon closer examination. The enigmatic quality projected by these works is enhanced by their unique materiality; despite comprising innumerable individual strips of hanji paper that are tightly arranged into parallel lines, each composition appears as a single, integrated plane. This effect is particularly notable when Kim layers the strips along a vertical axis, positioning them so closely together that the entire surface resembles an endless array of hand-drawn threadlike lines, rather than an intricate collage of constituent components. Works in this series can take anywhere from six months to several years to complete, with every step of the process necessitating the artist’s singular and uninterrupted focus. Whenever Kim introduces a piece of paper to the flame, she first regulates and synchronizes her breath with the movements of her hands, fully immersing herself in the moment in order to successfully precipitate a perfect balance between charring and igniting her inflammable medium. Not only does this repetitive methodology constitute a meditative practice, it allows Kim to enter into a transcendent state of flow and completely lose track of time.
A solo exhibition at the Hill Foundation offered a comprehensive survey of Kim’s output, from the gestural lyricism of Cries (2001) to the disorienting spatial perspective of The Room (2007) to the playful reverie of The Street (2019). Some of the most prominent works on view here, however, make use of a traditional ink wash technique rather than fire. Kim’s Mountain (2008- ) series deploys undulating horizontal strata of monochrome color that gradually transition from dark to light as they fill each sheet of paper, creating the illusion of an infinitely unfolding mountain landscape. The pseudo-figuration of these works engages with the materiality of paper in a completely different manner than that of her burnt hanji works, asserting a representational impetus fundamentally at odds with the abstraction that dominates her oeuvre. Outwardly, the Mountain series seems to be suffused with a distinctly “Eastern” aesthetic of the sort that she resolutely sought to escape by emigrating to Europe in the early 1990s. Today, however, these works are highly sought-after by collectors, regardless of the cognitive dissonance they may induce when considered in the context of the artist’s biography. Notwithstanding, the minimal sensibility that pervades Kim’s Mountain series remains consistent with her contemplative approach to art-making; regardless of formal differences, all of her works are endowed with an arresting material presence that transcends distinctions of medium and technique.