All of the arts have been refreshed by waves of painters, writers, musicians and dancers, who fled their countries of origin between approximately 1933 and the present. Often called exile artists, writers from Nabokov to Kiran Desai, and painters from Max Ernst to Man Ray, from de Kooning and Mondrian to Gorky and Hans Hofmann, have created hybrid styles in their work, reflecting their European roots and backgrounds with the raw energy that they found in America. More recent immigrants and emigrants, such as writers Andre Aciman or Edward Said, carry multiple identities in their heads, and may be said to live in an ongoing state of psychological exile which has enriched both their own work and changed the course of Modernism in all the arts. Inevitably, their creations reflect these dual or multiple identities, and their art is not only a hybrid of where they came from and where they are now, but, in straddling two cultures, their work creates a third.
The same may be said of Korean born artist Bukang Kim, whose paintings are an admixture of Asian art and American Abstract Expressionism, a style I have elsewhere called “Calligraphic Expressionism”. Since Korean art is already a kind of hybrid between Chinese and Indian art, with elements of Japanese appearing here and there, Kim is well placed to have blended different ideas and styles into what has become uniquely her own.
All of Bukang Kim’s exhibitions, over a 30 year period, have been titled Journey, including her current show at The Cincinnati Art Museum. She left Korea to make a better life, but had already been recognized, upon graduating from art school there, as one of Korea’s leading painters. Newly married, and after a three year stay in New York City, the Kims came to Cincinnati for Dr. Kim to pursue his medical career. Aspects of the external world appear particularly in landscapes and seascapes, but her interior journey seems to be the one that dominates her work. This exhibition at The Cincinnati Art Museum reflects aspects of both journeys, and shows us the multiplicity of her styles, and how she blends Eastern and Western painterly ideas and techniques, while remaining true to her Asian roots.
Combining Asian techniques and Western ones may seem contradictory or at odds with each other. For example, Asian artists are taught to paint with their entire arm, whereas in the West, artists generally use their hands and wrists only. The gestural sweep caused by the use of the entire arm makes American Abstract Expressionists’ techniques an ideal style for an artist like Kim. Since all Asian art is based on calligraphy, work as different from hers as Cy Twombly’s makes sense if you consider both of their work a kind of handwriting; hers from calligraphy, his from what is known as “automatic writing”. Conceptually, Kim intuits the similarities, and integrates Western ideas when relevant to her own work. Calligraphy is a common element in paintings like Palace Column, and refers to drawing in both Eastern and Western traditions. She often leaves drips in paintings such as Land I and Land II, which is her nod to Jackson Pollock and the other Action painters. The elements that Bukang Kim uses in her work to bridge the gaps between such disparate cultures are generally technical devices that she learned in her M.F.A. program at UC/DAAP, particularly from Robert Knipschild, who was director of the graduate program there when Kim was getting her M.F.A. For example, she understood that Western Minimalism and the reductivism of Zen painting have remarkable similarities, so she integrates the Western concept into her basically Eastern paintings.
The other major difference between Asian art and Western art are the sources of light within the paintings. Western artists are trained to notice the way light falls on an object, a figure, a landscape, and then let light define and model contours and edges and shapes; light may be said to sculpt in the Western canon. In the East, light always comes from within, which is at the heart of all Buddhist traditions, thus connecting Asian art with Asian philosophies and religions. The idea of enlightenment as an interior process pervades every painting by Bukang Kim, thus enhancing the sense of difference from all Western art, where religious leaders may have commissioned work that tells the narrative of religious tradition, but does not integrate it as Eastern artists do. A certain interior glow will appear in paintings like Morning Calm and Land I and Land II and even in Rooster I and Rooster II. Western artists consider white to be the combination of all colors (as black is the absence thereof), so that they tend to use white mainly for highlights, or as the opposite of a shadow. Bukang Kim considers white to be just another color, and thus its frequent use in her work is to enhance the inner light of her objects, figures, and landscapes. In Land I and Land II, again, she uses a yellow-gold all through this landscape diptych where a Western painter might have chosen white, and Kim sees all the land as pervaded by the glow of interior light, where Western artists use light to highlight aspects of the land. These are profound differences.
Bukang Kim’s journey as a painter has taken many forms, but her style has remained relatively consistent over the many years she has been painting. Her journey began as a nearly entirely interior one, where we sense her longing for home, and her sense of loss of home and identity pervades her early work in America. The journey became more of an external one as she began to enjoy the landscape and mindscape of the West. At her finest, as in paintings represented in this exhibition, she would learn how to combine elements of Eastern and Western art, which culminates in a fascinating blend of Zen Buddhist painting and American Abstract Expressionism. Both traditions allow for her great passion to flow into and over her work. Expressionism is known for its distortions and elongations and attenuations, and is used to heighten emotion: Action Painters became famous by combining Abstraction and Expressionism, while Kim combines calligraphy and Expressionism to more subtle effect.
In 1988, Bukang Kim created a series of paintings of interiors of Korean houses and one of a temple, focusing on its bell; the house interiors are 84” x 66” (all are acrylic and mixed media on canvas). These are some of her finest paintings. They represent the beginning of her journey as a painter in America. Palace Column shows the basic outlines of an upper class Korean house, but the painting is really about memory and loss. Hushed browns and blacks dominate the painting, with whites hovering on the lower fourth, which represents the floor. The floor is represented by swirling gestures of white, thus appearing to emerge from the mists of memory, ghostlike forms that emerge and dissolve, as memory does. Two doors and/or windows are depicted, with the barest of black outlines; these linear elements cleverly refer to the Western grid, which so dominates modern art, as well as to the entries to this house of her imagination and memory. The entrances, thus, are closed, but we are in the interior with her. A wooden column is depicted two-thirds of the way to the right in the interior, thus reminding us of how asymmetry dominates in Asian art. Calligraphy is written all over the column, and near the ceiling and on a shadowy structural column slightly to the left rear of the dominant column, allowing the composition to seem balanced. Geometrical elements which frequently define architecture in Western art, both emerge and dissolve in front of our eyes in this loveliest of her paintings about her homeland, her home, and the house of her memory.
Subtle purples and oranges enhance the painting’s subtlety. It’s as if this house is being constructed to remind her of her origins, of what she left but exists in memory, while combining a number of elements from Western painting. That interior light about which we spoke earlier, suffuses the left side of the painting, and makes the interior glow, while speaking to the idea of deconstruction and reductivism, and how they interplay between East and West. In this series of paintings, some of which are owned by The Richmond (VA) Museum of Art, Kim sets the stage for combining elements of Eastern and Western art throughout her career, while also underpinning her overarching themes of memory, loss, and her lifelong journey. Her ability to both create and to dissolve form concurrently is an amazing feat, as color hovers in and out, and reminds us of the great Chinese landscape paintings from the T’ang Dynasty, to which much of her work refers, along with its underlying metaphysics. The calligraphy on the column also refers to the poetry which appears in all great Asian art, and is usually the source of the painting itself, so Kim gives a nod, here, to that great tradition as well. (I once asked her what the calligraphy said in this painting, and, as I recall, it was her thoughts and memories about that specific house). This early use of what we in the West call “text” is an excellent example of calligraphy’s dual nature, as both “writing” and “art”.
In Morning Calm, another painting from this series, Kim has one door/window dominate the painting; it, too, is placed about three-fourths of the way to the right. A couple of beams emerge and dissolve on the ceiling of the room, which she has explained to me is an inexpensive summer house in Korea, or, in contemporary Korea, might be what we in America often call “a starter house”. The inner light in this painting is stronger than in Column, as it probably is a time of day when the sun would pour into this room. She uses whites and oranges, and negative spaces, to create the inner light. Something like a window seat is rendered under the window, with household objects sitting on it on the far right. But the real glory of this painting is how she adds Abstract Expressionist technique, where layers of paint, in oranges, whites, reds and browns are slashed all over the canvas. Elements of decorative intent also emerge and dissolve, one or two of which may be swords, along with other symbols of Asian art and culture. To Kim, everything in this painting is alive, and speaks to her holistic view of art itself. The more you look at this painting, the more it glows with that interior light at which she so excels. It’s as if these houses are never empty, because, to her, they are not: they exist forever in memory and in paint: such is her achievement.
The Bell, slightly larger at 84” x 96”, was also painted in 1988. A temple bell from a Buddhist temple is in the process of being struck by a large wooden object which penetrates the presumed bronze of the bell. But Kim has chosen to paint the bell as it is being struck, so that all of the painterly energy surrounding it represents the echo of the bell itself. Her reds and oranges help define the interior structure of the temple, giving us a sense of both ceiling and columns that hold up the structure, and a symbolic fish is rendered in the top right. Since the bell represents a call to enlightenment and to a higher awareness, the fish, then, symbolizes the bell’s call to all life forms (humans once evolved from the sea), and thus The Bell is Kim’s most specifically spiritual painting, as the bell rings for all living things, and for us to remember their interconnectedness and Kim’s holistic approach to painting. The vibrations from the bell, which Kim has succeeded in translating into paint, echo through all living things. To the left of the bell, and under it, one-third to the left of the composition, and all the way to the lower right corner are abstract gestures, where white dominates. All three of the paintings in this series show Bukang Kim moving closer to American Abstract Expressionism; all three have elements of representation, but are both allover paintings, and the abstraction seems greatest in Morning Calm. The Bell has a purity to it that both heightens it religio-spiritual space, and allows Kim to show us what the color white can do, as it becomes the backdrop for a truly great figure/ground relationship, while adding an almost other-worldly passion to the painting.
1993 was The Year of the Rooster in Asia, so Bukang Kim virtually serialized paintings of a rooster, three of which are represented in this exhibition: two are acrylic on canvas and one is acrylic on rice paper. Although the two canvases are the same size, 40” x 40”, they are executed differently. Rooster I, the more colorful of the two canvases, showcases her strength in creating figure/ground relationships, and in painting gesturally. Powerful reds, purples and whites dominate the canvas, and she both constructs and deconstructs the rooster, mainly through gesture, rather than through geometric reductivisim. Highlighting the head, with her great white strokes, she plays back and forth between figure and ground; the rooster is mainly curvilinear, while the ground tends to be more rectilinear. The bird, thus, appears to be emerging from the chaos of the universe into animal form, and back again. Rooster II, which is almost all in white and varieties of black, grey, and charcoal, is more abstract, and she renders its head with rapid gestures of red. Most of Kim’s paintings throughout her career use some elements of representation, generally reduced to the most basic visual elements, in which she then adds increasing amounts of gestural abstraction, with the idea of calligraphy always hovering in the background.
Rooster III is part of a series of three hanging scrolls, one of the oldest of all Asian traditions. In this acrylic on rice paper (23” x 65”), the rooster is further reduced to the simplest of gestures, and represents a specifically Zen Buddhist side of Kim’s oeuvre. Zen Buddhist painting masters, at their most advanced, paint a bird or mountain or flower, but never remove the brush from the silk or rice paper. The quintessential Zen painting, depends on speed of execution and intense discipline, so the form is rendered with one gesture only. The artist, thus, must be able to manipulate hand, wrist and arm, to be able to include the thickening or thinning of the paint without lifting the hand at all. Rooster III represents one of two Zen paintings in this exhibition, and the viewer can see how few gestures she uses to create this painting: I am guessing a total of five. Thus, Kim, in her most Zen mode, becomes a minimalist and even neo-conceptualist painter, as the Zen aesthetic is extremely close to both of those Western movements, and she knows that. The Zen work is a different aspect of how Kim combines aspects of Eastern and Western painting in dazzling ways.
The Wind, also 23” x 65”, ink on rice paper from 1995, shows Kim at her most nearly abstract, most nearly Zen, and manifests her background in calligraphy to great effect. The painting, which almost looks like a hawk’s wing in motion, seems to consist of two single gestures. It is minimalist at its finest, while also being Zen at its best: these combinations throughout Kim’s work are an astonishing feat, and show the sheer amount of knowledge and discipline that she brings to every work of art that she creates. This painting also includes drips from Abstract Expressionism.
The third scroll, Ying & Yang, also 23” x 65”, and ink on rice paper, from 1995, is a complete Abstract Expressionist painting, where red and blue create the essence of the Korean flag, and the gestures of thick black paint, which nearly cover it, adds spatial dimensions to what might be a flat surface. The flag’s meaning includes the Ying/Yang, which is the essence of all Asian philosophy, and art while the asymmetry of the painting is another reminder of her Asian roots. All objects and even psychological and philosophical traits, in Asia, consist of their opposites: this painting is a superb rendering of this most exquisite of Asian concepts in its holistic nature. The three scroll paintings together refer more overtly to the Zen tradition, with nods to gestural abstraction.
In 2000, Bukang Kim made a number of large gestural figure paintings, such as Human, 72” x 84”, ink on rice paper on canvas. She had made a number of reductivist black abstract paintings based strictly on calligraphy for some shows she had in Prague around that time. Her interest in minimalist gesture was then at its height, and she was also attracted to German Neo-Expressionist figurative painting. Large in scale, these figures combine the gestural passion of Abstract Expressionism with similar Zen minimalism to near perfection. These paintings are as close to drawing as anything Kim has done, thus showing a mastery of different techniques. The figures often bring certain Western images to mind; the painting on the right in this triptych is reminiscent of work by Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. One of Kim’s great strengths as an artist lies in her ability to look at Western art and reduce it to the basic elements of Asian art. Her figure paintings manifest these traits well, and came as a surprise when she made them.
Although Land I and Land II celebrate both the flatness and the vastness of Midwestern land, and, in a sense are a celebration of the American landscape, Kim’s more holistic approach to painting exudes a living energy all through the land that she paints. She has told me that this painting represents a time in her life when she began to feel more American. The painting is mostly an Abstract Expressionist one, but also contains the interior light of Asian art. Because Kim’s work always celebrates the gesture, this painting is rife with them. The horizon line in this diptych is very high, making its formalist structure the opposite of J.W.W. Turner’s, and of the American Luminists’ from The Hudson River School. This diptych, however, is a first cousin of Hudson River School art, combining with just about every known aspect of Abstract Expressionism, while its roots remain in Asian art. The sky in Land I seems very much inspired by the Luminists and by Turner, while in Land II, she flattens the sky and then adds drips from the top, or sky, straight downwards in the classic allover technique favored by Jackson Pollock in particular. But unlike the work of these Westerners, Kim’s diptych possesses an amazing interior glow, as she piles gesture upon gesture in a very loose painterly style; variations of red, yellow and blue dominate both paintings, which is Kim’s nod to those three primary colors which define much of Modernism, but her more reddish-orange sky brings with it references to the Luminists, making these paintings even richer.
This show covers her career from 1988-2000. Her later seascapes and mountainscapes and reductivist landscapes are, thus, not included. She has created some of the greatest landscapes and seascapes of any artist whose work I know. Having mixed a number of colors into a deep nearly lapis blue, she has painted mountains, and/or the idea of the mountain, from the beginning of her career. Korea is a peninsula, and mountains are all over the land as it heads down to the sea. Kim is a master at combining mountain and sea, often in seemingly violent storms, which not only allow her gestural abstraction to dominate, but may also best represent her own various states of mind over the totality of her career. Every mountain or body of water thus represents aspects of her journey, and can be said to symbolize both peaks and valleys, obstacles and conquests, ups and downs. Blue Mountain manifests some of Kim’s more feathery gestures, but the mass of near black as our eye goes up the hill can also be seen as deconstructing, so that her interior journey is made manifest through gesture as well as storm.
The greatest of all Chinese painters created their work between the 9th and 11th centuries during the T’ang Dynasty. The best known of these paintings usually shows us a solitary traveler, painted in very small scale, making his way up a large vertical mountain. The painters have way stations along the way, where the figure could rest and observe the view, and, sometimes write a poem around which the painting would be created. Such paintings, thus, mirror the cyclical view of history which dominates Chinese history and thinking, as opposed to the linear thinking which defines the West. The Chinese also proposed all those years ago that man’s place in nature was small, which is why the figures are so tiny. The Asian view of nature is a holistic one, and is the diametric opposite of the Western, in which man is said to dominate. Romantic painting like the American Hudson River School work comes closest to the Chinese. Bukang Kim has chosen not to include these small figures on her journey to enlightenment, but her journey has been on the same path, on similar mountains, and along the way she has created a hybrid style representing critical elements of both Asian art and Western Abstraction and reductivism like no other artist whose work I have seen. We can call her a Classicist, at least in certain Asian techniques, and we can call her a Modernist, a Minimalist, a Conceptualist. Her understanding that Zen painting and Abstract Expressionism have much in common represents the pinnacle of her stylistic combinations and references. If we were to place Bukang Kim herself within some combined Asian and Western nature painting, at this point in her distinguished career, she might be looking out from the top of the mountain, watching all those rivers and streams and mountains that she has passed through on her way to becoming one of the great living painters of our times.