Articles & Interviews
Artist Wonsook Kim to receive honorary degree at Founders Day, 2019
Illinois State University will hold its annual Founders Day observance on Thursday, February 21. The day’s events will celebrate Illinois State’s heritage and traditions and honor the accomplishments of faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Artist and Illinois State alumna Wonsook Kim will receive an honorary Doctor of Arts degree during the Founders Day Convocation.
For more information and event registration, visit the Founders Day website.
Events will begin at 10 a.m. as selected faculty, staff, students, alumni, and others participate in the Founders Day Bell Ringing Ceremony in the Brown Ballroom of the Bone Student Center. Displays highlighting Illinois State’s history and academic mission will be part of the STATE Showcase in the Brown Ballroom from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
The Founders Day Convocation will take place at 2 p.m. in the Brown Ballroom. The ceremony will include the presentation of some of the University’s highest awards, including the University Professor, Distinguished Professor, Outstanding Teacher and Researcher, and A/P and Civil Service Distinguished Service honors. Other awards will recognize excellence in teaching, research, service, and commitment to diversity. A reception will follow the convocation at 3:30 p.m.
An Alumni Awards Dinner will be held that evening at 6 p.m. at the Alumni Center, 1101 N. Main in Normal. The cost for the dinner is $30 per person. For registration information, contact Alumni Engagement at 438-2495 or visit the Alumni Engagement website.
Kim is renowned for her authentic, exuberant narratives in paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, multimedia, and installations, which have been shown in museums and galleries around the world. Her engaging, contemporary works result from her lifetime experiences in Korea and the United States.
Born in Busan, Korea, in 1953, Kim began drawing at a young age. Some of her earliest influences came from Korean folk stories and Christian Bible stories. She studied western traditions of art in high school and college in Korea, and arrived in the U.S. in 1972 to begin a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Illinois State. During her studies, she was influenced by Professor Harold Boyd, who encouraged her to develop the autobiographical nature of her art. Kim continued her studies at Illinois State, earning an MFA with an emphasis on printmaking.
She has maintained a strong connection with Illinois State over the years. Artwork by Kim and Boyd was featured in an exhibition, The Spirits Descending, at the University Galleries in the early 1990s. She delivered a commencement address to the College of Fine Arts in 2004. In 2015, she established the Wonsook Kim Scholarship Endowment at Illinois State.
Kim moved to New York City in 1976, and in 1980-81, was included in prominent exhibitions of new figurative art such as Episodes, at Grace Borgenicht Gallery, and Illustration and Allegory, at Brooke Alexander, Inc., where she also had her first solo exhibition in the United States in 1982. She has since had one-person exhibitions in New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Hamburg, Paris, Seoul, Bologna, Sofia, São Paulo, and Tokyo, among other cities. Public collections include the Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Brooklyn Museum of Art; Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida; University Galleries of Illinois State University, Normal; National Museum of Women In the Arts, Washington, D.C.; National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul; Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; and the Vatican Collection, Vatican City.
Kim works and resides in New York and Bloomington, Indiana, with her husband, Thomas Clement.
Lines of Enchantment, by Barry Blinderman, 2016
Whether articulating a fold in a garment, a frond in a woods, or a fork in a path, Wonsook Kim’s mastery of line was readily apparent during her student years at Illinois State University. Her displacement from her native Korea to a landlocked college town must have been a shock, and there are in fact few traces of the agrarian Central Illinois landscape in her work. Kim found her mentor in Harold Boyd, a formidable draftsman who taught printmaking and drawing at ISU. His effortless marks in ink on paper resonated with her cultural background, and his encouragement of her personal vision was crucial to her artistic development.
From the start, Kim’s landscape was symbolic and manifest in a few recurrent existential symbols: a shelter, a small craft on the water, a figure crossing a fallen tree trunk or a bridge. In Washing Hair in a Forest , an ink and charcoal drawing from 1975, two women occupy a wooded landscape, one standing and turned away, the other seated and facing forward. So suffused is this work in shadow and pattern that one can barely discern the line between field and stream that must be present in order for the women to be washing. Degas’s many scenes of women washing and drying their hair come to mind as precedents. So do Gauguin’s Tahitian women, both for the pairing of two figures and in the presentation of a primordial-looking scene. But Kim’s particular portrayal of duality is present in neither of her forebears’ work.
A smaller charcoal drawing from 1975, Feather, Feather , depicts a woman who appears to be sleepwalking through a swarm of birds that fills the entire surface of the paper. We can really only guess that they are birds through title and context, as each one consists of a mere squiggle or two. This immersion in the full force of nature is a theme extending throughout Kim’s career.
Kim’s command of space and oblique narrative is powerfully evident in her 1976 MFA degree project, Normal Experience (now in the collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul), a 118-foot-long painting on paper that wrapped around the walls of an entire gallery, nearly floor-to ceiling, encompassing viewers in a harmonic alternate world rendered in dreamlike black and white. Here, a few dozen figures, some nearly life-size, fly, bathe, frolic with animals, plant, and make love in a continuous landscape that transforms from field to beach to backyard. The simplicity of Kim’s style is deceptive: in its gentle refractions of place and time, each image involves a subtle skewing of our expectations.
By the time she left Normal, Illinois, for New York City in 1976, Wonsook Kim’s vocabulary of images was fully formed. And, interestingly enough, her playful, bucolic scenes captivated the imaginations of New York critics and gallerists alike who were yearning for a respite from the dematerialized conceptual art and stoic minimalism dominating the art world at the time.
Barry Blinderman, Director of University Galleries of Illinois State University
Un Peintre qui sommeille en nous, Hwa-Young KIM, 2016
En chacun de nous même, il y a un peintre primitif qui n’a jamais vu le jour. Il est enfoui quelque part si profondément que nous ne soupçonnons même pas son existence. En outre, ce peintre originel, accablé par notre formation artistique (art du dessin, histoire de l’art et tous ces grands noms intimidants) aurait, hélas, tendance à s’estomper dans un coin encore plus reculé de notre moi. Et pourtant, il n’a pas définitivement disparu.
L’étonnement qu’éprouve celui qui regarde pour la première fois les tableaux de W. Kim Linton ne vient pas seulement de leur beauté plastique: il viendrait aussi, et surtout, d’une reconnaissance inattendue et heureuse du peintre assoupi en chacun de nous que réveille ses tableaux si simples qu’ils semblent très faciles à dessiner. Ce réveil soudain nous rend si familiers cet arbre ou cette maison étonnants qui surgissent devant nous. Ou plutôt, c’est ce peintre naissant qui en se réveillant en nous, découvre avec émerveillement cet arbre et cette maison. Et déjà, les doigts immaculés de ce peintre primitif apparaissent en commencent à bouger en nous. Sur la surface blanche, le pinceau met un point, trace une ligne et se retourne, puis commence à courir lentement ou rapidement. A peine ouverts, ses yeux naïfs s’élancent, tracent des traits et projettent les couleurs. Traits qui déferlent et s’élèvent en flammes.
L’émerveillement que nous ressentons devant les tableaux de W. Kim Linton n’est autre que celui qui nous provient du soudain réveil de cet artiste premier qui dormait jusque-là enseveli au plus profond de nous. Tout se passe comme si cet artiste participait, sous nos propres yeux, à la création de ces tableaux toujours simples et « faciles » ; ainsi leur charme est-il fondé sur ce qu’ils sont en quelque sorte le produit de ce peintre caché que nous gardons au cœur de nous-même.
Dans notre enfance, nous étions tous peintres, des peintres qui ne se connaissaient pas réellement comme tels, mais toujours sans crainte ni hésitation, toujours prêts à s’épanouir. Il suffisait de nous demander : « Que vais-je dessiner ? », et naissait immédiatement, au bout de nos doigts, tantôt une maison, tantôt une fleur, tantôt une allée ou un visage.
Enfant, nous dessinions sans nous tracasser, de manière si simple et si facile.
Ces dessins étaient spontanés et authentiques. Mais sous le poids de l’éducation et de l’institution a cédé cette force vive et familière que nous appelons la liberté.
En donnant vie de nouveau et comme miraculeusement à cet artiste refoulé, exilé et quasiment disparu, qui existe au plus profond de nous, W. Kim LINTON réussit à nous émerveiller.
Extrait d’Une maison qui contient les vents de Hwa-Young Kim
Painting, Writing, Longing, by Lee O Young, translated by Wolhee Choe, 2000
The root for painting in Korean is the same for longing and writing. Wonsook Kim has brought this very root alive in her works in all of its form as one. This collection of paintings allows us to recall yearnings and stories of our youth with such clarity and vibrancy as to rival any form of narrative. No wonder then the shoes of the narrator, who appears as a girl in her paintings, are always bigger than her feet. They are her father’s shoes.
Children who love to walk around in the shoes of grown-ups fill them with dreams of the future, but that dream, when childhood recedes into memory, will have turned into a space of longing. The feeling of absence characterizes this space whether it is longing for the future or for the past, and it is writing and stories that try to fill it. Stories can be heard from Kim’s paintings whether they emanate from a crescent moon or a figure with a tilted head, and we quietly listen.
Was it the ancient Greeks who believed that the opposite of truth is not falsehood but oblivion? People do not forget what is felt to be true. The truly beautiful can’t be forgotten even if one tries. Whether it is a longing or a story, Wonsook Kim’s painting is born on the edge of oblivion. To put it a little more precisely, she discovers a live coal in the ashes of oblivion. As Korean mothers have done in olden days, she kindles a flame with her own breath like a miracle.
As a child who holds a brush for the first time and paints unselfconsciously, we rediscover illuminations and events which we might have forgotten. These may come from the sheen of a simple object or the monochromatic black and grey where the false have been forgotten and only the true, the essentials, remain like white lined charcoal fire just before turning into ashes.
If one could transform a Wonsook Kim’s painting into a sentence, it would be one without punctuation as in e.e cummings poetic lines. The subjectivity in I in lower case is buried throughout, having dissolved the dividers of consciousness and offering a space where the real and the surreal sit together in harmony. A bird that sits on the tip of her finger does not fly away, and the moon hovers above her head.
Wonsook Kim the painter is neither separated from objects nor dominates them. The objects in her painting appear disparate and yet playfully linked, for they begin to play hide and seek in front of your eyes. Still perhaps because of the changed self in time, they appear a little sad without volume, in their flatness. Her writing has in the process become an oxymoronic poem.
Korean words for writing, painting, and longing are all derived from the word ‘to scratch’. To write a piece, to paint an object, or to long for something is to leave a meaningful mark on memory by scraping the hard surface of a wall. But this act of scraping or scratching is far from the Western notion of ‘inscription’, which is suggestive of an instrument somewhat like a beast’s canine tooth that tears the object apart analytically, so to speak. With a soft calligraphic brush that places her in a thousand year old tradition of writing, she paints figures which flow like flames.
When the genie, whose finger has turned a leaf of grass into a gold nugget, tells the woodcutter to return home now that his wishes are fulfilled, the woodcutter shakes his head, saying “I want your finger, not the gold nugget.”
Wonsook Kim’s painting evokes this finger, the spirit of stories we heard as children. It is not a thing painted but a thing being painted, not existing but constantly regenerating. We enjoy looking at her work and let out a sigh of recognition because we catch a passing glimpse of the finger flashing across her painting.
Lee O Young
Translated by Wolhee Choe
Flowing to Happiness, by Yi Jooheon, translated by Wolhee Choe, 1998
Let us take the view which regards every object to be a sign: a person, a cow, an apple, a car or a cloud. Each thing comes to have a meaning as a sign. And then there is the position which argues that no phenomenon, sign, or word has or arrives at a final meaning. Things have no fixed meaning. In this view, meaning endlessly drifts and flows. These two views taken together tell us that the world is made up of signs whose meanings cannot remain fixed.
This seemingly uncanny notion is not so strange, in fact, to most of us. First of all, the world of our dreams resembles this world. signifying flux. All objects in our dreams are signs, and they are always ambiguous, never designating a clear meaning. In dreams I often observe myself as an object because the I which appears as a sign is no longer a subject but an object. But the I as a sign does not reveal an unambiguous meaning. What is its reality any way? We raise this question, though largely unconscious of our questioning. Moreover this question is repeated in our waking state. This suggests that the ambiguity of our dreams reflects the ambiguousness of our reality, for objects in reality are also signs without fixed meanings. Thus we cannot help asking what is the real of this reality?
Such questioning of reality does not, of course, imply that we live meaninglessly or without any understanding. We live according to our customs, traditional practices, experiences, knowledge, and common sense, which provide meaning. Neither permanent nor certain, these nevertheless provide significance to our experience for the moment. Needless to say, it is possible to symbolize the power that imparts permanent and comprehensive meaning, which belongs to a domain discontinuous with, and separate from, the world of perception and knowledge — the domain of faith. We build our house using these temporary fixtures of meaning as building bricks. Since these fixtures are of limited space and time, we cannot expect any sort of permanence. There is no way of avoiding wind and rain unless we build even with these impermanent bricks. We build a house that is bound to crumble in time. Our desire to settle into this temporary shack, as though it would last, is the trouble. The world challenges us again and again with new meaning. With each challenge, we must let go of the meaning we have held in our grasp. Each challenge has new meaning, new significance, which comes to us like spring, the light and messenger which enlightens us, as though for the first time, that the world is ceaselessly in flux.
Wonsook Kim paints with signs as compressed as the images of dreams. Her paintings are equally vivid and vague, and, for that reason, they take possesion of the vivid reality of our world, whose meaning is forever indeterminate.
Wonsook Kim’s figures in a field, forest, waterfront, or a house are about the passage of life, transforming each space into a road. Her figures, which help define spaces as passage ways, walk, rest, sleep, or dance in her dreamscape. It is not the landscape that characterizes her figures, but her figures that determine the character of the landscape. Her landscape is neither a starting place nor a destination, but a place to pass through, to float on. The floating universe is disturbing to people who desire home. Home is nowhere in these works. The wanderer is forever on the road.
Do we or don’t we understand ourselves? Are we the whole world or a mere fragment of the world? Must we conquer nature or submit to it? Should we turn the other cheek? Should we give or receive? Have we received countless blessings or suffered inordinately? Are we fortunate or condemned? The traveler moves to the rhythm of an undulating net of conflicting thoughts. The coordinates in the net may tell us where we are but not whether it is the center or the circumference. We, forever on the road, can’t know the beginning or the end of our world, from which we can not extract truth or even answers to our questions.
Wonsook Kim’s figures, which exist in a state of being thrown into uncertainty, whether submerged in the depth of thought, walking alone in the forest, staring at the wall, whispering into a donkey’s ear, walking on the pile of needles, or shadow-boxing, signify a flowing moment. The solitary figures may caress a bird, smile with a dog, bathe in a stream, squat and wait for a bud to sprout, but they are all to vanish like overheard soliloquies. Her hope is that an external force may rescue us all from uncertainty. In the cheerful tranquility of her figures, incongruous with the state of their uncertainty, we find the painter’s spirituality. As she says, the traveler’s heart is light, not because the world moves according to her will, but because the master of her fate is not herself.
At any rate, these images, far from being mere adumbration of meaning, have multilayered meaning and a unified structure like dreams. For that reason, we recognize them without knowing their destined statements. This recognition is indeed an affirmation of life, which relates her painting to poetry. Poetry that resembles our dreams resembles our life. Her painting has that poetic quality.
Painting as poetry is deeply rooted in the Eastern artistic tradition. Dongpa Soshik, one of the eight masters of the Tang-Song period, said in praise of the poet/painter Wang Yu. “There is poetry in Wang Yu’s painting, and painting in his poetry.” The aforementioned poetic quality in painting was then a constituent of painterly excellence. Unlike the analytic/scientific mind of the West, the East has evolved a complex but “vague” network of poetic understanding of reality, which may be inadequate for describing knowledge but proficient in expressing wisdom. This Eastern proficiency of poetry is evident in her painting. She speaks of life and wisdom in this language.
What is then the nature of consolation the viewer experiences from the pictorial poetry of Wonsook Kim? Is it not something like the happiness of dreaming the butterfly dream with Chuangtse himself?
Wonsook Kim’s art reveals not so much the object world but its other side, not so much the part that is filled but the part that is empty. It uncovers the hidden roots rather than the skin of the quotidian. Living in overly vivid virtual reality, provided by technology with super abundant information, material comfort, and travel beyond cultural boundaries, we mistake life to be only of the five senses. We mistake life to be only a question of adjusting to present conditions. Her pictorial reality tells it otherwise.
We have built a castle of desire, the desire that wants to fix meaning. This seemingly solid castle collapses like a sand castle as meaning leaves with the flow of time. The very flow of meaning in her work suggests the butterfly’s dream of Chuangtse, not just Chuangtse’s dream of the butterfly. In this perspective, her painting serves an ethical function with a distinct voice regarding the practice of living, which echoes “empty the self.” Not to fill the self is not to fix meaning. Endlessly emptying the self is the only possible way to live with the flow. Inevitably and ceaselessly confronting the world, I
live it and the world lives me. This inseparable relationship appears in From the Dust of the Earth which depicts the meaning of the wind and earth, through an image of God breathing into a man at creation. By emptying us we allow others and the earth to flow in and flow out. That way we can be happy, blissfully emptying the self.
The current exhibitions of Wonsook Kim at three separate galleries include only black and white painting: Awaiting and People Who Eat the Mountain two large works, which come from her visits to North Korea, medium size drawings, and small mountain series inspired by Midang Suh Jungju, who, in order to prevent memory loss, recites by heart the names of one thousand mountains each morning. She has long used black and white, but her black and white paintings have not been highlighted until now. The center of her experimental work has always been in black and white, which relates her poetic pictoriality to Eastern tradition. Furthermore her attempts at reaching beyond the visual surface represented by color seems to have required black and white. Here we may be reminded that the most poetic of paintings in the Eastern tradition, paintings of the Korean literati, shunned color. The showing of her work in an unprecedented scale gives us a chance to view her world in a comprehensive way. Those who are familiar with her small works of color will find a new vision here in contrast to her previous essaying in color. Here the viewer will find dreamlike atmosphere. Some claim to dream in color, but when we recall a dream, the images tend to be in black and white, signs devoid of color. The compressed dream images meet us in black and white and transform our experience into a dream. With an eye of a traveler in the dream we look at our own life. What do you see?
Director of Art Space, Seoul, 1998
Translated by Wolhee Choe
Balancing Act, Whitney Chadwick, 1993
The reflection of a bird in a pool of water, the gnarled trunk of an ancient tree, a flowering bush springing from an otherwise barren cliff-face, two bundled figures asleep under the stars. It is images such as these — deceptively simple but never naive — that make up Wonsook Kim’s painted universe. They are sketched in broad strokes of black and white oils, their surfaces filled in with charcoal, graphite, and thinned paint: or painted in rich hues that cling to the contours of their reductive shapes. They appear on canvas, linen and wood, their relatively small size no barrier to their almost limitless scale. Sometimes, as if to underscore their intimacy, their link to the domestic world and to images evoked while dreaming, they are painted directly on the wooden pillows traditionally found in Korean households, or on panels in the shape of gabled houses.
Wonsook Kim is a poet at heart, schooled in the poetic and calligraphic traditions of her native Korea, and wise enough to have found her own way to figuration and narrative despite the abstract and theoretical orientation of her graduate training in the United States. Determined to avoid the extremes of both theorization and sentimentality, she has rooted these paintings in the ordinary. They convey a serene belief in the value of personal experience and daily life, but their meanings are never restricted to the anecdotal, or the descriptive. Like Mexican retablow – with their small size and their reliance on unstudied images to initiate communication with the divine – or like the many Korean stories and poems in which a few images conjure up a universal truth, Wonsook Kim evokes boundless worlds through a few bounded images. Her figurative style takes its place alongside that of the “new image” painter of the 1970s. But her point of reference may be closer to the simplified forms of Korean folk painting than to the personally expressive gestures of a post – Abstract Expressionist generation of North American painters. Indeed it is precisely her insistence on structures of meaning that are not exclusively personal that marks these paintings off from so much recent art of autobiography and personal exploration.
To Wonsook Kim, art is always about life, about the importance of lived experience, and the ordering functions of language — both visual and verbal. Life is not always what we expect. Sometimes it is a mixed blessing, she seems to say, but it is always worth living for the truths which we can extract from its jumble of signs and events, from its parade of the unexpected and the unintended.
These paintings divide into broad themes marked by recurrent images: the journey with its figures wandering pilgrim-like through otherwise empty landscapes; the pleasures of fishing with its multicultural references to the traditions of rural life in Korea and the rituals of American leisure; the bird bathe with its feathered talisman observing the world from above. Paintings like The Blind Fortune Teller and His Wife and The Useless Tree convey very large truths through very small forms. The former recalls the futility of searching for something that is always somewhere else; the latter, based on a Confucian story in which a tree’s ability to provide shade is discovered only after the tree is cut down, tells of the limitations of understanding. Others, like Asleep on a Cliff, are based on actual experiences which turn out to contain hidden dimensions of meaning as when Wonsook and her husband while on a camping trip select a site for their sleeping bags in the dark, only to discover at daybreak that the spot which seemed so safe is, in fact, at the edge of a precipice. Still others, as for example, My place and Night Bird combine more than one point of view and frame more than one scene at a time, so that we think at once of the microcosm and the macrocosm.
In this visual world in which less is always more, and in which images are always signs pointing toward larger structures of meaning, Wonsook Kim displays a powerful control over her medium. The untutored look of these paintings, with their cursory definitions and apparently artless surfaces, is possible only because of the highly sophisticated paint handling and the first-rate ordering intelligence of a painter who has consistently refused virtuosity in favor of communication. In so doing, she has taken us one step closer to what the French call peinture-poesie, or the ability of the image to signal its meaning in more than one language.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993
Blowing Wind: Kim Wonsook’s House, by Kim Whayoung, translated by Wolhee Choe, 1990
There is an unborn painter in each of our hearts, whose dormant existence, in the deepest recesses of our mind we do not even suspect. This unborn artist becomes more and more intimidated and hidden away as we grow older and more familiar with the names of great artists and the language of art; nevertheless the nameless artist has not disappeared.
What surprises the viewer coming upon Kim Wonsook’s painting is not the beauty of her work alone but the unborn painter who is suddenly awakened by the simplicity of her make-believe tree. The newly aroused painter’s innocent fingers come alive and make a point or twist its tail with the brush slowly or, at times, quickly running across on white paper. No sooner opening eyes with
penetrating transparency, trembling and rippling flames of color dart in front of them.
A sudden birth of a forgotten painter within the viewer is intoxicating, as it makes the painting the viewer is encountering. That is the charm of Kim’s painting and the intimacy felt by the potential painter within the viewer. When young, we were all painters who were innocent of doubt, hesitation, or fear. The intention of “What shall I paint?” was enough to turn it effortlessly into a house, a flower, a road, and, of course, self-portraits. Painting was as simple as that, and then one day it became an impossibility. Kim’s painting miraculously revives the dreams that learning about rules and judgments has vanished.
Kim desires to return to that primal point, the point of freedom; she wants to return to the first stroke of gesture, where the forgotten painter is aroused and begins again, eyes wide open. That Kim began drawing with brush and ink is significant. First of all, this tool and this material are those of her childhood, where people are keenly sentient of the power and speed of passing gesture that a single brush stroke leaves on paper, and where the expressive world of immediacy, openness, and regeneration prevail. The shape that brush and ink leave on paper is of the moment and not retouchable. It demands each moment the control of mind and movement.
Unlike the idea of design in Western painting, brush and ink drawing is not a preparatory work. It records the flow of the mind, not so much a movement toward composition; it endlessly denies, at least in part, the factuality of the form it is creating. Thus what the viewer witnesses is primarily a stroke, its movement and speed before it is a tree, a stream, or a person. Therefore Kim’s ink brush drawings are more forms in the process of becoming rather than painted objects – not the trees that have been standing but that are just standing up at the tip of her brush. The numberless portraits of women (perhaps self-portraits) depict women awakening from the quotidian: a painter being born with her hair or skirt blown in the wind. She does not proffer a painted woman, but offers rather, while her brush runs, the emergent aspects, hair, skirt… of her being.
These figures are, of course, meaningful in themselves, but more important than figuration is often their frenetic dance, their dynamic motion and the flow. Strikingly ubiquitous is the wind as in Wonmi, Daily Affair, Night Drive, Looking inside, Man’s Will and Woman’s Wind, Flowers in the Wind, Stone Wind. The dishes swirl in the air, and people fly. People whose running sweep them away, a bowl of water turning over, the scissors threatening to cut a flower, a vase falling and the scattering cut flowers, swirling curtains and tablecloth, tremulously rising flames, stirring leaves in thunder and lightening-all these relate deeply to the dynamism unique to brush and ink drawing.
Not limited to her brush and ink drawings, Kim’s dynamism touches her artistic life profoundly and contagiously throughout her work as her favorite subjects: water, fire, and wind prove it, and as Embrace, and Man’s Will and Woman’s Wind illustrate it. The moon, an island, or a boat floats on a stream or sea; tremulous flames rise upward or shoot up. The degree of dynamism is lower in paintings on canvas or on wood than that in brush and ink drawings on paper. With its dramatic element controlled, the painting has a calming effect. The sensuousness of the color and turbulent water result in tranquility. However, as though the soft curves and mild speed of oil paint were too temperate, Kim returns frequently to brush and ink drawing, appealing to its direct power.
A direct expression of such dynamism — the wind — does not make a work of art unless it reaches a level where it acquires a unity by containing itself within its own limitations and control. The running stroke needs to be arrested at the appropriate point, where a trace of speed acquires another possibility — the function of the boundary, the controlling fence.
The first stroke of black ink acquires its initial meaning as confined by the paper. From this point of view, Kim Wonsook’s paintings are all the receptacles of stasis which control, contain, imprison the dynamic states of water, fire, and wind. The house is one of such receptacles she frequently uses as her typical frame. The house is a receptacle of life, and her painting is a house that contains the subject, stroke, color and the dynamism of the mind. The simple house which we used to draw in the forgotten past (with a black roof and square outline) is the origin of Kim’s painting, which is the source of the awakening painter within us. Our House (1984) suggests the ultimate in simplification. The house as a boundary and receptacle appears as variations of the square like a curtain in the Giselle series, a window, a mirror, a painted frame, a box, a wooden pillow. Recent works show a further extension of such variations, curvilinear limits of Lady Suro, Divided Country, which seemed to move away from the square. At any rate, the relational tension that exists between the dynamic content and static receptacle suggests both her method and theme, which establish the endless relationship between inside and outside, content and form, suppression and liberation, wandering and settlement.
Women in Kim Wonsook’s paintings are often sleeping inside the house, while the wind blows or a fire burns outside. If there is sleep inside the house, there is outside a more and more distancing road and the dangerously inflamed dreams. At times as in The Bride, the seawater, the moonlight, and the wind move into the other side of the red curtain, flooding into the room. But not all people, not all moment could be enchanted like the bride and her moment. The self imprisoned in My Place merely dream of the flame and the wind in the outside. The pair of Looking Out from Inside and Looking from the Outside, The Mirror, Night Drive, and Sunchun reveal directly such a relationship between inside and outside. In recent years, she has intensified the relationship in a more complex format where a color painting in a window like frame is inserted in black and white drawing or a paired painting which are placed in juxtaposition. Related to this, one may note the dynamic poetic tension which Kim’s sense of balance and detachment generate. The distant fire on the mountain, viewed from the inside of a room, suggests the unbridgeable distance between the woman and the fire. But her attitude, deduced from her hands behind the back and the title Not My Business, suggests the opposite of tension with the distance, but that indifference paradoxically reverses itself. The distance between the golden ax that is sinking to the bottom of the river and the hand that reaches for it transforms the entire picture into a moment of tension.
The moon in the water that can’t be reached by the stretched arm over the edge of a boat, the old man’s reaching for the flower on the cliff for Lady Suro, the girl’s arms striving for the hanging fruit, the filial son climbing to pluck a peach for his ailing mother, the boat finally reaching the edge of the water but unable to climb up on land, the broken bridge… all these aim for the distance and tension that transform her work into aesthetic space.
These paintings as simple as those painted by the mind’s new born painter convey the movement of life through an eternally unbridgeable gap and vibrant tension between inside and outside, form and content, and dynamism and confinement, as in the stretched arm and the flower on the cliff. In practicing this aesthetic tension, Kim demonstrates her boldly abbreviating interpretative skill that directly links to the primal mode of painting. Her painting manifests the simplicity itself without a trace of excrescence, her brush stopping at the precise point where it ought to. But in that simplicity is the compressed density of surprise that awakens the painter in each of us. Thus we associate her work with a child’s work, subjective work or art naif. But her simplicity and innocence are products of extreme tension and inner control. They are perhaps not something inborn but something acquired through fierce struggle of a personality. However, the innocent simplicity that has been so acquired with discipline appeals to the viewer like longing.
Professor of French Literature
Koryo University, Seoul, 1990
Translated by Wolhee Choe
Where Worlds Collide, by Laurel Reuter, 1990
Can one make a case for tenderness in art?” “No! how terribly unfashionable. Contemporary art made today and judged in America is only important when it hovers on the cutting edge.” “What is the cutting edge? Could not an artist working in the spirit of humanism make art from tenderness? Is not that another cutting edge?” “No! How dreadfully sentimental. Art must be tough.” “But is not the whole human condition available for visual life?” “Of course not. Every era has its conventions. Maybe the Scandinavians would allow it; they seem to believe that the purpose of art is to bring beauty into life – but not in the United States. Never!”
Oh, the critics. They have followed me all the way uptown to this old brownstone in New York’s Spanish Harlem. Entering Wonsook Kim’s studio set them off in my head. Previously I had seen only two small paintings by her in one of the international art fairs and was struck by their self containment, their timelessness, their beauty. They spoke to that region of my psyche where I permanently store works of art, the home of the likes of the large Goose Pagoda in Xian. Those two small house-shaped paintings washed in glowing reds did not belong with the thousands of others I had seen at the fair, and since forgotten. Who is this artist who makes these gentle, un-New York paintings which speak to me so clearly?
She says, “I went to art school and I made art that was important. Then I would come home and make my own stuff, whatever I pleased – never showing it to my teachers of course. Today I just make what I please. Art is a simple activity. ‘Go to the store and get some milk.’ ‘Go to the studio and make some art.’ Adopting a child is just deciding to share your dinner. Most things are not too different.”
Wonsook is a curator’s dream. Here is an artist of shining intelligence who is making totally personal art out of her own integrated but complex life. Here is the brushed line of old Chinese and Korean ink paintings describing a piano on a truck. Highly educated, she reads the poets, not the art magazines. The Pilgrim’s Progress and Brief Songs of the Kisang (courtesan poetry from the last Korean dynasty) are the bedrock of this new body of work. But the work never illustrates; it simply is. The integrity of the person is the wellspring for art that flows effortlessly, paintings and drawings that are the visual manifestation of her interior self. And, importantly the work is not naive.
Wonsook Kim is complex. This Asian woman and her seven siblings grew up during the Korean War and its aftermath in the household of a Presbyterian newspaper editor in Seoul. Her parents were not rich; instead, myths, tales and stories were the stuff of family life. Christian, Korean, the ancient Chinese, world events — all were given equal play. Early on she learned the significance of individual acts, how the single, private story grows into the collective myth, how human truths cross cultures resulting in the same story arising independently anywhere. She makes a painting of Lady Sahso riding into the forest on a tiger to bear her son, the founder of Korea’s Shilla Dynasty. Christians intuit that it is Mary riding on a donkey into Bethlehem to give birth to the Christ child.
One can make a case for tenderness in art only if one remembers that tenderness is never an unaccompanied emotion. It is the state of openness through which other emotions flow, the mouth of the river. Tenderness is the heightened sensitivity that comes after pain. I approach Half Bridge, a small shaped painting and instinctively I know that this came out of the artist’s recent pilgrimage to North Korea — for to return to the other half of Kim’s divided country is to be a pilgrim in search of the whole. This is a painting about people walled off from the world. I see the bridge that stops in the middle of the river and the tenderness deepens into overwhelming sadness. She came home to make these small icons to house her own immense sadness.
Is this not the best of political art? The place and the time were specific in her mind but the artist, with her ancient line and her modern rendition of space, creates an in-between world where the splitting of Korea becomes the splitting of all peoples in the history of humankind.
Wonsook is a person whose life experience is epidemic to our times. She is one who moves back and forth between two countries, married to one, born of the other. She raises children to become what she is not. She belongs everywhere and nowhere. In art, as in life, the twentieth century is one of those moments in history where worlds collide. Embedded in this artist’s subconscious is one world of art; trained into her conscious mind is another. In her, the result of this melding is truthfulness.
Traditional landscape painting continues to be strong in China today. Trained contemporary artists working within the Western academic tradition abound in Korea; and their work is most interesting. Here in Wonsook Kim the two come together: traditional brush painting, its flowing lines made mysterious by subtle washes, passed from China through Korea on down the centuries to Wonsook. Today Chinese artists wishing to make revolutionary statements in the face of tough censors resort to calligraphy, to the ambiguity of line. It carries for them the most potent suggestion. Wonsook has chosen this as her legacy.
From the Western world she mastered the craft of oil painting. She learned to make unrelated parts add up to more than whole. She discovered flatness. From both she supported her own predilection for spareness, for addressing huge ideas with an economy of means, for employing universal symbols — the moon, the mountain, the woman, the sea.
The artist gives me a poem, a poem centuries old, but seemingly new, about which she makes the most contemporary of paintings.
Blue stream, showing off your speed
running down my green mountain,
once you reach the vast blue sea,
you cannot choose to flow back to me.
Look, a bright moon has filled my valley;
slow your course against me, then go.
The critics are silent. I have scattered them away with my strong belief that the twentieth century will be marked by the art that comes from where the worlds collide. Wonsook Kim, an artist aware in that moment, when the waters rush against the mountain before tumbling apart into the sea, will be among the most authentic recorders.
North Dakota Museum of Art, 1990
An Interview with Wonsook Kim, by Eleanor Heartney
Wonsook Kim is one of those rare artists whose work seems inseparable from her personality.
I have known her for over ten years, and yet I can scarcely remember – did those gently whimsical, touchingly poetic paintings introduce me to this high spirited artist, or was it the other way around? The fact is that I can hardly think of Wonsook and her work independently of each other.
What has always struck me about both is a deeply rooted humanism, a sense of morality without moralism, and a generosity toward the world that is very much at odds with the stereotype of the egotistical, self-centered artist. Wonsook’s paintings are an expression of an inner world in which the difficulties of life with all its sorrows, loneliness, cruelties and losses are eased by a boundless sense of hope and compassion. Her works speak to us because we have all known such problems and have all sought such consolation.
On a winter afternoon just before we sat down to a wonderful Korean New Year dinner which she had whipped up in a borrowed apartment, Wonsook and I discussed her life, art and beliefs.
EH: Let’s start at the beginning with your childhood in Korea. What is your background and how did that influence your decision to be an artist?
WK: I was born 1953 in Pusan after the Korean War. On my first birthday we moved to Seoul and I grew up there. My father was a writer and musician, but that was the wrong time for that. So he became a newspaper man and was a journalist all his life. He was also a conductor in church. My mother was the pianist and that’s how they met. They secretly dated, because that was the time of arranged marriages. I think they got together because of their shared artistic interests.
EH: Was culture an important element in your childhood?
WK: We have lots of professional musicians in my family and my parents tried very hard to interest me in music. Everyone was playing some kind of musical instrument, but I was different. I liked writing and reading. My parents provided me with books, because my father was a writer. We read biographies of great writers like Tolstoy and others from everywhere in the world.
We were living with my two grandmothers. They told stories all the time. They didn’t have that much of a repertoire, so it was the same story, about a tiger and a fairy and woodcutter’s terrible life until fairy came and blessed him. I would say, “Tell me a story, tell a story” and my grandmothers would say “No, if you like stories too much you will go hungry all your life.” But I think stories make me fat.
EH: What about visual art?
WK: I wasn’t interested in being a painter. But I always made drawings of those stories, I had eight brothers and sister so there was plenty of opportunity to redo the stories with pictures for them. And I always had an eye for visual things. In grammar school I was always picked for what they called the environment beautifying committee to make the class room nice, and I helped people arrange furniture and set the table for birthday parties.
EH: When did you get into visual art?
WK: I got involved in art in my high school years. I was trained in a fairly western tradition, involving lots of discipline. You would practice drawing an egg one whole month and then two eggs the next month. You could spend a whole month drawing the side of Venus’ face. It gave me the ability to draw anything I could see. I’m glad about that because, later when I came to America, I discovered that not many American kids know how to draw. In Korean schools, things were divided into eastern and western study and I didn’t do much with calligraphy. My head was full of images of Gauguin and the Impressionists, and I was going to be a great artist like them.
EH: What brought you to the United States?
WK: I got into one of best art colleges in Korea and attended for one year, but it was a disappointment for me. The Oriental art training can seem very systematic if you are young and fearless and have an idea about what a great artist is. I loved El Greco. I was going to be a painter like that and I was going to make the sky and figures move like he did. But art school seemed like a continuation of high school.
It was all about following steps and didn’t have the personal expression you have in western art. At that time the thing to do was to go to Paris. But my uncle was ambassador to France, and if I went there, I would have to report to him. I wanted to be totally independent, so that wasn’t such a good idea. America seemed open; it was a land of opportunity. I got into Berkeley, but that was fairly expensive, so I looked around at state schools. In 1972, there was a new awareness about foreign students and diversity and I found I could get scholarships. Illinois State University offered me the most money so I went there. I stayed there all the way through to my MFA.
EH: What kind of work were you doing?
WK: I could draw anything; I had that kind of training. I did a lot of watercolors, and color compositions. In 1972, Color Field Abstraction was at its peak, it was the predominant look. So, I did a lot of that too. I was the only Asian woman student, so I felt I had to overdo. I got a bigger canvas and rolled in it and threw more sand on it, and put on boots on and walked around on it. My grades were good, but it felt empty, it didn’t fit my disposition.
EH: So what did you do?
WK: I had always kept a diary. That is another practice from school in Korea. The teachers checked it all the time. Each day you write down the date, drew a picture of the weather, and wrote down what you did. On the bottom of the page there was a big empty square where you were supposed to draw what you saw. This was in grammar school but even to this day I have a journal and write down things and doodle.
One day in graduate school, I came late to class because I had been to a concert. As an excuse, I showed the teacher, Harold Boyd, my program from the concert. The performance had been Handel’s Requiem and I had drawn my reaction on the program. He looked at it and said, “Why don’t you make art of this?” And I thought, “Wow, would that be allowed?” So I made a print of the Requiem drawing and he was very encouraging. And once I did that, it was an overnight change. But I worried, am I going to be a great artist if my drawings are about the fact that it’s raining outside? Can this kind of sentimentality pass? But once I started working this way, I realized all the other things I was doing didn’t really have anything to do with what I was feeling.
EH: That is very interesting, because the 70s were the time when feminist art emerged with an agenda of getting back to personal life, and realizing that male abstract rhetoric didn’t mean anything to the interior lives of women. Were you involved with any of that?
WK: No, not at all. In hindsight, I see there was such a thing, but I didn’t have any kind of feminist agenda. It was more of a personal awakening. There were a lot of interesting confessional poets then and a group of us reading a lot of Sylvia Plath. Robert Bly came to the school and spoke. And then, later in the 70s, New Imagist painting was okayed by the mainstream. I felt a kinship with that, but I was never part of a group.
EH: What kind of format were you working in at this time?
WK: I was using a brush. It suited my disposition. I wanted to draw like I’m speaking. It was almost like a writer jotting down certain ideas. That was easy with the brush, but wouldn’t have been with a pencil, which is used for finer details. I was also making lots of prints, and using a big brush stroke worked well with that. It fits my personality, as I’m not a very patient person.
There is another thing about the brush — it allows so much more room for surprises and accidents.
I may start with a fuzzy idea, but while I am working, chance things occur. The brush makes that kind of magic happen best.
EH: Have you been influenced by Asian painting or calligraphy?
WK: I suppose there is a certain amount of that in my work just because I lived with it until I was eighteen. You could see Asian painting all over the house. In the spring, what we called the picture man came by with drawings to bless the house and to ensure a good year to come. There are certain calligraphic things you live with. But I never had any formal training and actually I hear from Korean painters that only someone without formal training could paint like I do.
EH: When did you start doing story based paintings?
WK: I guess that was always there. My paintings always end up being about human emotion, vulnerability, strength, weakness, about relatedness and unrelatedness, loneliness and aloneness.
EH: Most of the figures in your paintings are female. Are they you?
WK: You can’t avoid the autobiographical nature of art. A lot of times it is me. The paintings are about what I’ve done, who I’ve met. Even if they come from something from a book, it’s coming through me. That’s why there are lot of women and a lot of Wonsook-like figures.
EH: Your settings are generalized and universal. One never has a sense that they represent a specific place or moment.
WK: I was born and raised in Korea, but I studied in America. That makes me very “multicultural” But in fact my experience was always very universal. I grew up with the Bible. It was tedious and I hated it so much, because we read a chapter or two every morning. The Bible has such wondrous and humorous images, full of drama and violence. But I found the same things in Chinese and Western folk tales. So in a sense, as a child, I already had a whole culture that was very mixed. I think that’s where those universal images come from. I’m not interested in a certain period or political agenda or social issue. Basically my art is about conditions of everyday life.
EH: You mention the Bible. What does religion mean to you?
WK: I was brought up in a very strict Christian home, but by the time Christianity settled in Korea it had a different face. We were very orthodox. We didn’t even sharpen a pencil on Sunday. We went to church and church life was very important. I rebelled against it – any sane person would — and that is one of the reasons I came to America. I wanted to see things in a different way.
But at this stage of my life, I have a different notion about divinity. Today, my spirituality, all of that background, is very important to me. There was the idea of an absolute, even if you didn’t know what it was. Everything else is relative in the face of that one absolute. I ran away from that idea, I hid from it and denied it, I argued with it and ignored it, but it doesn’t go away. It’s comfortable for me now to accept it and have a good time with it.
EH: Your recent work is very sensual. There is a sense of female sexuality that we don’t associate with religion and Bible.
WK: I am so glad I’m now able to talk about that with enthusiasm and freedom. I grew up in a Christian family, of course. But Korean society itself is still very Confucian. All the relationships are hierarchical. They are not horizontal and of course as a woman you belong in a slightly lower place.
You are never just yourself, you are who you are related to — your father or your husband. So in both those traditions, the notion of a woman with a body of her own that she maneuvers as she pleases, these are taboo subjects.
I recently went through a divorce, which was an important experience. It made me take a leap that I knew was in me but couldn’t execute before. It was like what happened 30 years ago when I realized it was okay to make art out of a concert doodle. Now I see it is okay to make art of your own personal joy, I am fifty now and it took this many years for me to understand and digest my different traditions. Now I pick and choose. There was so much I needed to discard, and so much good as well.
It’s like becoming a child again. Children by far are the best artists; all the artists keep trying to get back there. Picasso actually made it back all the way. For me it is like going back to a childhood where you could draw and doodle and make things happen, without worrying too much about how it is going to be received.
EH: If you characterize your development would it be towards moments of freedom?
WK: I am most free when I am in the act of art making. I’m relying on that chance more than ever, and I work a lot from poetry. There is a danger of being schmaltzy, too sentimental, too feminine, I was worried about those kinds of things before, but not so much anymore.
EH: Is there anything else you would like to say about your work?
WK: Another important element is humor. There’s a lot of humor in my work. It’s a good way to talk about something difficult. Often my paintings are about contrast, about power and weakness, man and woman, shadow and light, being outside or inside, being viewer or doer. I introduce humor to soothe the contrast.
I have wondered where this humor comes from. I think it comes from faith, from knowing I’m not in total control of my own destiny. I don’t have pat answers to most of life’s fundamental questions, but I’m grateful for all the things I have received. Maybe it’s also a matter of DNA, of the disposition I inherited from my parents. I feel my faith and my disposition are such great gifts, and I feel so fortunate to have them.
Kim Wonsook’s First Show in Seoul, Korea, by Oh Kwangsu, translated by Wolhee Choe. 1976
Soon after starting her art school training at Hogik University in Seoul, Wonsook Kim went abroad to continue it at Illinois State University, where she is currently enrolled as a graduate student while teaching as adjunct professor. Like so many other art students abroad, she is a student of art, but she has accomplished a great deal in a short period of time, commanding herself as a remarkably independent painter. In other words, she is no longer just a student abroad, but an artist who has discovered her own self and who is ceaselessly developing. Furthermore, something solid in her individuality does not let her indulge in trendy experiments as so many young artists tend to do. Her unique voice suggests a recognizable aesthetic territory. The scope of her individual voice in her fresh but not unfamiliar works, gives the viewer a great deal of appeal. She is also able to maintain her direction without being swept away, though placed in the spot where the stormiest challenges of contemporary art are raging: a lesson for those of the young who may lose a sense of direction.
Kim Wonsook’s paintings strongly suggest the fundamental impulse of painting itself; that is, the pleasure of making them. Her inventions are rooted in distant childhood stories, dreams frequenting her mind, and ordinary events in daily life. Her stories energetically and triumphantly unfold like picture diaries, and their healthy dispositions may even embarrass some viewers. Linked to the desires and hopes of primitive painters, they express the impacts of their external reality. Thus her paintings evoke another vein of longing for the completely forgotten world in contemporary life.
The current show of Kim Wonsook may be regarded as a interim report prepared on the occasion of her brief visit to Korea. She’ll have a great deal to show us in the future since she is ready to run after having measured out her own course. We’ll need to watch her carefully keeping this in mind.
Translated by Wolhee Choe