By Ellice Park, Leslie Morgan Frederick

Brooklyn based artist Byron Kim visited MICA in 2008. He gave a public lecture, visited the Hoffberger School of Painting, seniors in the Painting and Drawing departments, and students in the Art History Course “Contemporary Asia”. He also found time to give Microcosm an hour-long interview. His visit was made possible by the Cultural Expansion Committee, the Hoffberger School of Painting, and the Mixed Media lecture series sponsored by the Painting, GFA and Drawing departments.

Q: How do you feel about being considered an artist who transcends multiculturalism, and do you agree with that notion or not?
BK: I agree with that. I think in the very beginning I very much was a part of the multicultural and I don’t know how intentional that was. I subsequently transcended that… I think that maybe my work has evolved from that. My work has always been somewhat personal,  and so it’s inevitably part of a number of different cultures. It’s part of an art culture, it’s part of a culture of my family. Its particularly part of the art world, but it’s also in some ways a part of the culture of New York. I’ve evolved from multiculturalism if by that you mean some sort of illusion of different, culturally informed content. Maybe I don’t find that model that useful any more.  It was useful for a moment.  It seems less useful now because once that happened, when we got through that, it no longer seemed necessary.  That’s not to say that everything is working perfectly…

Q: How does the press or contact with the public influence you?  Also, you say that multicultural work is no longer necessary. Yet our publication has been formed under this idea of the need to express certain ideas having to do with Asian-ness..
BK: I didn’t mean to say that it isn’t necessary at all. I think it is necessary to the extent that people need it. So if you need to be together in that way then it’s useful.  But that category in the larger culture has been worn out.

Q: You no longer need it yourself.
BK: I’m not sure how much I ever needed it.  For some reason Asian American artists get pigeon holed less than other artists of color.  I don’t know if its because of that model immigrant thing; maybe it is.  I have thought that African American artists are often saddled into making identity based work and I find that regrettable. But in some ways, I also envied that because there’s this lack of culture in America.  (The African American experience) is such a deep well to draw from and there’s always a lot of content there.  As for the press and the public, thinking about my audience actually has influenced me a lot.

Q: In what kind of way?
BK:  The ways that people think about my work. A good example was trying to make these paintings that just have too much paint on them. The way that I made them they ended up really being these kind of these bulging sacks of paint.

Q: The belly pieces?
BK: Yeah, everybody calls them belly paintings, and I didn’t want them to be belly paintings because I wanted them to be more theoretical. I didn’t want them to be about the body really. I always thought they were smarter than that. Back then I didn’t really have much of an audience in number, just my few friends to talk to about work. They came in and said, “oh, a belly painting”. Each friend said that it was a belly painting, and so I eventually learned a really good lesson in listening to them instead of stubbornly sticking to what I thought.

Q: So you became more driven by your audience?
BK:  Not really… that sort-of implies a little too strongly the value that I place on what other people think. What I would say is a little more accurate is that I just don’t privilege my own view.

Q: You have said that you paint about only the things that you know.
BK: It’s almost like I don’t know anything except the little things I encounter every day and the relationships I have with people. I can only get at that in art by concentrating on very small things. I’m in awe of artists who can approach large subject matter really largely. I don’t want to make straight abstract expressionist paintings or color field paintings… but I’m also not welcomed to do that anyway. I feel old fashioned saying this, but white male artists and eventually white female artists can do that.  But artists of color aren’t looked at in that way. So for my part, I’ve avoided going straight into abstraction and so have ended up sort of meandering around it.

Q: How did you start out becoming an artist at 22?
BK: Well, I didn’t start utterly from scratch. I had taken some art classes in college. I had taken as much art as I had anything else. I just started painting in a very naive way. I was making figurative work, mostly. Once I was exposed to conceptual art, as a senior at Yale.  We took a field trip to the Wadsworth. It was one of the places where Sol Lewitt gave his whole collection, and Sol Lewitt turned out to be a really important artist to me.  I was astonished that was considered art. It just seemed impossible. I didn’t understand how he could get away with it, and so I thought that I could do the same and that it would be even more interesting and more poetic, in a way, than being a poet. I had some sense that I was a visual person.  So, to answer your question, I graduated from college and just started painting. I made bad work for three years, and I made pretty bad work for another three years, and then at that moment, when I starting to make those belly paintings, that’s when things shifted. The belly paintings to me, I still feel that that’s my student work, but it’s the last of my student work.

Q: What’s your most successful piece for you?
BK: These paintings that I make of the sky every Sunday.

Q: The Sunday paintings.
BK: Yeah, they’re called Sunday paintings. That’s my most successful project. It was such a relief that I came up with that idea because now I can be an artist for the rest of my life. Because no matter what–I’m not even speaking financially; just in terms of an occupation–I can make a painting every Sunday. Actually, in 2001 and 2002, I just couldn’t make any work. For almost two  years, I couldn’t make work, but at least I kept making those. So I have a little taste of what it’s like to not be able to work. Psychologically, I was blocked. My work is related to humility, but it seems presumptuous. Being an artist is presumptuous. I do believe that art is necessary.  I would not want to live in a world without art. But any given artist is expendable, even Picasso.

Q:  Is the artist necessary? What is it that we need from art?
BK: That’s a good question. I should at least be able to answer that. Without art, or without the possibility of art, life would just be hopelessly dry. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t separate it from life. Maybe I’m making too grand of a statement, but life without art wouldn’t be worthwhile. It just would be absurd.
Q: Why don’t you like most of your work?
BK: It’s necessary for me to think that my art is not successful in order for me to go on. That’s just me.  A piece is bad until I convince myself that it’s good, and then that doesn’t last very long. So maybe, more accurately, some of my work is good some of the time. It’s all subjective anyway. Maybe if I took pills or something, I would think that everything was great.  And then, it’s my guess that my work would get worse. It’s sort-of like having money. Countries that give their artists a lot of support usually don’t have a lot of good art.

Q: You rely of your art, and you rely on what your receivers think, their take on your work. And yet you say that everything is subjective. What’s the scale of objective and subjective?
BK: There’s nothing objective. If you say, this weighs 25 pounds, that’s objective. But this weighs 25 pounds, therefore it’s pretty good, that’s subjective.

Q: so good and bad are subjective things, and yet they still matter?  Would you say that there is something objective about art, that there’s something universal in art?
BK: I don’t know if that’s true.  I think that it’s all learned, except maybe we do have some innate appreciation of nature, or some awe for things in nature, about the world.  And maybe that’s why art is so compelling. You’re not creating something in the scientific sense or creating something from nothing. But it seems that way. It seems like when you read a great novel that that really adds something to the world. But it hasn’t literally added anything. It’s only added energy to the world.

Q: This is our first publication, and so we’re wondering if you had any ideas about the theme of our first publication.
BK:  One thing you could address is the so-called 1.5 generation. The way I understand that terminology, I would be solidly second generation because I was born here, and my parents were first generation… It’s interesting because to me they’re like a synecdoche for everyone.


Download Interview with Byron Kim