by Katherine Mann

2nd year MICA Hoffberger school of Painting student Hwa Hyun Kim at once reveres and pummels the expectations of figuration with whimsy and elegance in her portraits of men painted in ink on Korean paper.  Kim paints male figures in a style influenced by manga cartoons and traditional Asian ink painting–creating effeminate, yet absurdly desirable characters awash in a type of transgender, heartbreaking sexuality.

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Hwa Hyun grew up in Seoul, Korea, reading manga books, particularly “romance manga”.  She refers to the male characters in these novels as “highly stylized” and “not heroic or strong but very beautiful, sweet and romantic.”  According to Kim, these novels described the male figure as an object of desire, subjects of the female’s gaze and fantasy.  She claims, “These mangas show exactly what women want from men –or (Asian) girls want from boys– without having to make any kind of compromise with the terms of reality (ex. Men are stronger than women, physically and socio-politically, therefore there are limits to what women can demand.. these conditions can be completely ignored in manga.)”

Kim’s male characters glory in their very absurdity–the absurdity of fantasy.  A warrior charges into battle–but his billowing skirt reminds the viewer of a ballerina’s tutu.  One fey body crouches on a tiger skin, another displays a dragon tattoo disappearing under a carefully placed cloth covering his penis.  The two paintings are titled, “Crouching Tiger” and “Hidden Dragon”.

Hwa Hyun claims, “Giving delicate physiques to boys suggests that power and control in the viewing experience are in the hands of the viewer. I go a step further by placing them in poses and situations that women have been in throughout art history. There obviously is a switch on gender roles, but I’m not paintings these boys merely to get back at how women have been treated in visual culture. I earnestly think that the male body is beautiful, and it is worth taking the time to look at their beauty and desirability and nothing else.”  Kim’s characters are certainly beautiful and desirable, but they also question and laugh at the norms of beauty and desirability in their utter, sexy ridiculousness.  They bow to the unabashed, blatant female libido but take it to an awkward extreme.  They refer to Western stereotypes of the androgynous Asian male but infuse androgyny with sex.  With their exaggerated lashes and bee stung lips, Kim’s characters both seduce and implicate the female or male viewer, turning us on and embarrassing us at the same time.

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