The title of Cindy Ji Hye Kim’s show at François Ghebaly, “Soliloquy for Two,” highlights her work’s dramatic overtones while alluding to the interpretive relationship between artist and viewer. In the anterior gallery hang three small birch lanterns whose decorous appearance belies their sinister laser-cut patterns of ribcages, moths, and veins. Diminutive cathedral windows painted on the walls offer tenebrous views of stark, desolate landscapes. These theatrical gambits set the stage for the scene one encounters inside the main gallery, where seven large black-and-white paintings on translucent silk are suspended from the ceiling in a rectangular formation, inviting the viewer to stand among them.
The exhibition’s press release is obfuscatory; its text is merely an excerpt from a novel by Bruno Schulz. Kim’s monochromatic, stylized scenes impart a feeling akin to a dystopian graphic novel without words. Several pieces here feature a cast of three main characters seen in her previous bodies of work: Mister Capital, a capitalist father who sports an imposing hat; Madame Earth, a housewife mother distinguished by her cartoonish bouffant; and a schoolgirl protagonist. For the artist, these characters relate to narratives based in Freudian psychoanalysis; yet the intricate symbology remains open to interpretation.
Kim’s delicate, illustrative manner of painting counterbalances her oft-grotesque imagery suffused with foreboding. The pelvic bone plays a prominent role in several compositions. An almost humorous pathos suffuses Crux Petrus: Dreams of Oedipus (all works 2021), where a lone pelvis sits eerily spotlighted. Psychic theories often posit the sacral area, the root chakra, as the center of spiritual balance, the basis of one’s energy and life itself. In Crux Quadrata: Pascal’s Wager, four schoolgirl figures cling to a wheel around a pelvic bone. Recalling M.C. Escher, the repetitive formation suggests an endless cycle of some kind: work, perhaps, or the grind of life itself. Gravity brings down the skirt and blouse of the figure at the top left, leaving the back side of her body vulnerably exposed. Each girl is anchored to the central pelvis by an umbilical cord. Behind the wheel, the ghostly form of Madame Earth looms like a monster in the background, as if domineering the quartet’s movements.
The backs of these paintings are as integral as their frontal surfaces. Walking around them, one finds stretchers idiosyncratically shaped like crosses and scorpions. Some bear small cutout motifs of the power figures, Mister Capital and Madame Earth. The rigidity of the supports versus the airiness of the see-through silk alludes to pictorial tensions between bones and viscera, strength and weakness, authority and submission. In a recent interview with Bomb Magazine, Kim describes her sculptural stretchers as skeletal structures in a painting body. Among her references were orthopedic illustrations such as a “The Tree of Andry,” a picture of a sapling being corrected by a stake, of which a similar version appears in Crux Immissa: A Story Without a Message; and drawings of 19th century posture corrective devices for children. The impulse to forcibly straighten things out could be taken as a metaphor for larger systems of control.
Explicit narrative devices such as Kim’s recurring characters present a dilemma for the visual artist and viewers alike: knowing or revealing the dramatis personae and stories can narrow potential interpretations, rendering the work less interesting; but conversely, lack of awareness of specific characters or storylines that are clearly present may lead to a sense that key elements are being missed or overlooked. Nevertheless, emotional effect wins out over logic in Kim’s mysterious imagery, which stands on its own. Perhaps attempting to affix definite meanings to her pictures is like trying to cram a spine into the orthopedic gadgets she references. Maybe it’s more interesting to let symbolism unfold organically as one experiences her enigmatic scenes. The chasm between rationality and spirituality can’t be bridged in life, so why in art?
Cindy Ji Hye Kim, “Soliloquy for Two,” June 26-July 24, 2021 at François Ghebaly, 2245 E. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90021, ghebaly.com
 See https://listart.mit.edu/sites/default/files/MIT-List-JiHyeKim-web.pdf and https://www.juxtapoz.com/news/studio-time/riddles-of-the-id-a-conversation-with-cindy-ji-hye-kim