A Bruise is the Momentary at Ease with the Continuous: Byron Kim at James Cohan
Byron Kim: Mud Root Ochre Leaf Star at James Cohan – Lower East Side
December 9, 2016 to January 22, 2017
291 Grand Street, between Eldridge and Allen streets
New York City, jamescohan.com
What is skin color detached from a body? What is the residue of trauma disambiguated? Such questions came to mind in Byron Kim’s recent exhibition at James Cohan – Lower East Side. Of these stained, dyed and pigmented canvases Kim has said:
The thing that became analogous to me was how much the bruise can look like something celestial. Like photos of deep space taken by telescopes, or from satellites. I am always trying to relate the very small and the vast.
The inspiration of the bruise itself initially emerged from a poem by Carl Phillips (Alba: Innocence), in which Phillips describes sunlight illuminating a bruise on the body of his sleeping lover.
Kim’s work has often taken on subject matter which brings together the macro and the micro, translating the encompassing into a single color or corresponding abstraction. His ongoing series Synecdoche, included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, places 10 by 8 inch painted panels of the skin color of friends and strangers into an ever-reconstituting grid of monochromes. Another body of work, largely from 2010, attempts to capture the exact color of the night sky.
Despite a similar use of abstract imagery to conflate scale, it would be easy to read the physicality of process and distinct materiality in the works exhibited in Mud Root Ochre Leaf Star as somewhat of a departure for Kim, who has traditionally worked in oil paint. Coming out of a group of paintings using pigment on steel, in this new process Kim dyes and stains raw canvas, sometimes many times, with natural dyes and pigments such as indigo, sandalwood and ochre. The paintings, which range in scale from chest to body size, are then rubbed with rags soaked in hide glue and oil.
By negating a distance between the hand and the canvas, Kim gives the paintings both a sense of their own physicality, and a memory of being touched. In Distant Ancient, for instance, the dye has sunk so deeply into the fabric that the weave of the canvas has become as striking a presence as the colors applied to it. In Innocence over Blue, the wrinkles are preserved like veins, emphasizing a relationship to a woundable body. Throughout the installation, one becomes aware of how the unexpected smears – marks of blue, brown, and magenta – speak to an activity of the studio, revealing that these works have emerged from an environment that was neither sterile nor segregated.
It is in how Kim negotiates a response to the activity and unpredictability of process, as well as through his relational subject matter, that I locate these paintings not as a departure at all, but as a translation of a continuing discourse. As a conceptually driven painter, Kim often directs our contemplation to how close looking at specific imagery can begins to intertwine with an endlessly unfolding, often unbounded subject matter. I see this within his efforts to paint the sky, or in how Kim’s paintings of his children’s hair whorls – for example, Whorl (Ella and Emmett) (1997), not in the current exhibition — could easily be mistaken for galaxies.
In his new works, Kim’s compositional response to material happenstance functions similarly, emphasizing both the literal matter of pigment, and the possibility of something celestial. In Blue Lift Sandalwood Fall, for example, the dye is allowed to fall back on itself, leaving the radiating color to resemble either the haloes of Renaissance saints or the residuals of radiation. When the paintings are installed together, each corresponding stain begins to pulse like the nimbus of a star.
Taking influence from Robert Smithson’s writings on deep time, as well as Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu’s The Inner Chapters, Kim interweaves intimacy with vastness to encompass both the specific (the bruise, the exploding supernova), as well as qualities of non-referential abstraction. A bruise, like the instance at which we are reached by starlight, is the momentary at ease with the continuous. A mark of traumatic happening that is, simultaneously, a sign that the body has begun to heal. When I look at these paintings I feel as if I am able also to diminish the conditions of dichotomy within my own body.
I am given permission to experience the mark of my trauma as trauma, and simultaneously to celebrate my own ability for transformation. My ability to be bruised is a reminder that I am in constant reconfiguration, as is my world, as is my universe- it is our living bodies, not our corpses that visually transform the vestiges of collision. Without simplifying or pacifying violence (just because it is complex, doesn’t mean it isn’t painful), Kim’s paintings bring me to a more empathic understanding of impact.