By Ellice Park

Byron Kim is a contemporary Korean-American artist. In the early 1990s, Kim made his debut in the art world with his artwork “Synecdoche,” a large group of monochromatic field paintings of various people’s skin tones. It was featured at the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which was also known as the ‘identity’ biennale or ‘multiculturalism’ biennale. Due to the fact that Kim is an artist of color, and having started his career with such artwork, people automatically assume that his work is only about race. Certainly, Kim’s work is often described under the category of identity art–but we learned through his visit to MICA that his work is about that and much more.

Byron Kim visited MICA for a couple of days in October 2008 and did a public lecture that filled up the Falvey Hall at the Brown Center. He also extended his visit by meeting senior undergraduate students, an art history course on contemporary Asia, critiquing graduate students of Hoffberger School of Painting, and talking with Asian students working on this publication, which included getting interviewed. There was certainly a great deal of hype that accompanied this Asian art star’s appearance on campus.

This is an important and tense situation for us to all ponder. Every Asian artist has to deal with being and not being Asian enough. Issues surrounding race, ethnicity, and identity always linger… Whether or not the artist intends to create artwork directly about it or not, somehow the discussion is still there.

Synecdoche: a term that is not use commonly. The word suggests parts to a whole.
Can one man’s art piece (part) suggest all of Asianness at large (whole)? Is there some sort of heterogeneous Asian image that consists of the well-known potent and pungent smells of Asian foods, the ching chang chong sounds of Asian languages, immigrants’ work ethic bearing fruit of Asian intelligence, the golden undertone of skin, and physically smaller features in comparison to Western brothers and sisters? There are visual and sensual signs that are deemed “Asian,” but some of them contribute to creating stereotypes. Not all of this applies, not all parts create the single Asia whole, since there is no such thing.

This is why the ‘part’ is important, sometimes more important than the whole. Kim talks about how the human interaction of every one of the people he painted was significant to him. The process of the work was more important than the whole product.

Byron Kim, originally from California, resides and works in New York. His artistic life began with no formal training during undergraduate years.  He explored paint, found it to be extremely difficult, and decided to do minimalist work. While he is known for his “Synecdoche” piece, he has worked on many projects that do not refer to race. For example, with his “Belly Paintings”, Kim aimed to discuss something else on a theoretical level that had nothing to do with body discourses; however, due to the paintings’ physical similarity to a major component of what every possible viewer has on their torso, they have become known as ‘belly paintings’. Kim also has been working on a series of paintings he calls Sunday paintings since 2001. The marriage between his intent and audience perception is closer with this piece. He tries to record every Sunday’s sky because he is attracted to the idea of the ‘amateur’ artist–someone who does something out of pure interest. This was inspired by a book of Daoist thought he chanced upon.

Every artist has to deal with the problems and opportunities that come with contextualization during the viewing reception of his pieces. Byron Kim’s “Synecdoche” piece was featured in the Whitney Biennial when racial identity was a hot topic. There were other artists featured at the time who also made pieces directly referencing ethnic identification and stereotypes, such as Michael Joo. Thus Kim was featured at a time when colonization and contextualization framed his work in a racial, micro manner. That Kim is known as a Korean American artist with racial work is somewhat unfortunate but also fortunate–it gives him ground to talk about his experiences as a person with a diverse identity. It is interesting to note that despite the lapse of fifteen years since that exhibition, many people still receive “other” artists’ work as if it pertains only to “otherness” in subject matter. “Other” refers, of course, to artists who are not white, male and of secure socio-economic standing. Perhaps it is because the general public receptors learn slower than artists’ output of new ideas, or because of the necessities of public relations.

Even so, we cannot refuse Byron Kim the verity of what he claims–he certainly is more than just an artist working with race. MICA certainly recognized him as more; he was invited to give a lecture on his work and converse and critique with students and faculty whose interests are as various as their backgrounds. Being an artist of color does not limit his perceptions, understandings, and interests–just like the rest of us.

Little pieces of a puzzle build up an image. Inspired by Byron Kim, what are the pieces that create various images of being Asian today? What is our collective history, but more importantly what is our new story of difference? Tell a tale and be a part of this publication. Not all parts fit perfectly as a whole but we can certainly try to put some pieces together for a publication to voice your thoughts. Contributions in the forms of text, image, and illustration are all welcomed. The next deadline for second publication is March 15th, 2009. Please contact microcosmmag@gmail.com for details.

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