It is becoming increasingly difficult to describe a contemporary artist in a single genre or a trend of the times. By and large, an attempt to exclusively confine a freshly-created artwork in a category fails sooner or later. Nonetheless, I have set my mind to write about Kim Jin Soo’s work by labeling him as an Asian painter, which possibly fails to give the most accurate description of his work. That is because Kim has been pushing his realm, continuously carrying out his experiments with different materials and media in the scope of Asian painting. I am still pursuing my approach even if it is bound for failure, in the same manner that Kim presses on his experiments despite their likelihood of failing. This also means that both the artist and I are tenaciously looking for the silver lining from the potential losing turnout.
Kim Jin Soo translates the sense of “Natural fear” on canvas. He often encounters the presence of nature living in Jeju, which gives him the fear of infinity and unknowable beings. While Kim delves into the source of the fear as a means to cope with it, and he reaches the absolute and fundamental human concept of beauty. “Natural fear” is largely portrayed in two series, From nature and Produced scenery. From nature is a set of modern Korean paintings of traditional coloring techniques. It falls under the category of a typical Asian landscape filled with the beauty of Jeju. This landscape adequately utilizes reflections and colors to visualize the sense of uncertainty and anxieties along with ambiguous expectations. A familiar scene, such as Sae Island in Jeju, arouses a strange feeling by the mirroring effects and repetitions, perhaps the portrayal of the fear that Kim experiences from nature. Delicate strokes of ink, layers upon layers, in a single red or blue tone creates a landscape of the familiar fear, a feeling of “uncanny.” The term uncanny refers to strange and anxious feeling created by familiar objects, which resembles the unknown fear, or natural fear that the artist continues to bring in his work. In academia, the commonly known factor of uncanniness is cognitive uncertainty, and it indicates the old yet dreadful feeling such as déjà vu and a doppelgänger. Freud explains the sense of uncanny in that the sense of familiarity is the most fundamental factor that induces this psychological fear. The relationship between nature and human, so familiar yet odd at the same time, may be one of the most uncanny pairs of all. A large tree that drapes shades under the strong sunlight turns into a figure of monster the moment sun sets and light fades. Nature is an insurmountable mystery that comforts us at one moment and instantly become a subject of terror. “The different hues underlying in each canvas represent the atmosphere, the gap between human and nature packed with tiny particles and unknown beings. They are also the materials with which I illustrate my emotions,” Kim said. He used to wear red hand-me-down clothes and underwears that he did not care for in his childhood. The unpleasant feeling still lingers in his head. It was an internalizing experience that the color gives the sense of both agitation and comfort, and Kim now mainly explores colors as the primary way to project feelings. He, in a composed manner, transfers the fearful object on the canvas, filling it with the color of conflicted emotion. It is also his coping mechanism to face this intimate sense of fear.
The other series Produced scenery is a digitally printed work. What appears an ordinary natural landscape, in fact, is an artificial painting comprising numerous layers of “copies-and-pastes” via multiple computer programs. Through this “fake” landscape built on the copy-and-paste process, Kim poses questions about the time of superfluous information, often instantaneously distorted and exhausted. From the view of an industrial goods maker rather than a creator, Kim makes his work on the computer from the beginning to the end, “consuming” the output through the most common and cost-effective banner printouts. The artist explains that it is “an illustration of the idea and philosophical shifts while interpreting multiple meanings of information produced and consumed in modern society.” For example, Korea fantasy is a landscape painting loosely reconstructed based on the current affairs and fantasy of the future Korean Peninsula. In this series, Kim focuses on the productivity of realistic expressions in the process of drawing the landscape and social issues. His work materializes the social phenomena, the public’s perception of the media authority and consumption of false information, also offering the fun of noticing hidden metaphors and symbols like a spot-the-difference. Let’s look at his production process. Digitally altering the photograph of a landscape, in which multiple copies and pastes occur, yields an ambiguous image that resembles either a scenery, a specific structure, or an abstract painting. The primary result from this process is digitally printed on the paper screen, linen, or laminating films. Kim adds an ink-based image with social messages on the original display of black and white. The primary output of real-life illustration and the second output with social issues and information are combined. Coloring takes place with different materials such as red ink, clay color powder, or acrylic, depending on the texture of the canvas material, and it is settled with glue and gold dust. An artist is ultimately a creator, but he emphasizes the idea of a manufacturer who produces sceneries. For instance, Kim’s creative activities are to the minimal, and the printing and retouching process produces images and information using the popular and mass-produced medium such as banners. The Produced scenery series is ready to be mass-produced by the demand, and its value is determined by the level of need as well. It is similar to the nature of real industrial goods. His industrial products are, based on the consumer tastes, available as a tapestry or a piece of artwork on canvas. They are to be reprinted if the color fades or discarded when the owner loses interest in them. It reminds us of the news media which are produced continuously, consumed, distorted, and eventually forgotten.
What Kim Jin Soo wants to communicate in the two series From nature and Produced scenery is a conceptual story that applies reproduction as a tool. Therefore, it is considered a conceptual work that adopts the form of representation in Asian painting. Also, his work often mirrors an abstract art, sometimes digitally printed rather than painted with ink. Kim only chose the black ink and paper to properly channel his emotions and concepts. In the core of what looks like a landscape at first indeed delivers abstract and conceptual contemporary narratives, irrelevant to the scene itself. Humans sometimes exist and sometimes not in the narrative, and they seem like hidden tools and only a part of nature. People, in the first place, are only a small part of the natural system. As my writing advances, I realize the critical error has occurred which I was worried about from the beginning. As stated in the encyclopedia, “a landscape painting in the East is both a reflection of nature and the human’s view of nature.” Asian painting is a type of abstract painting and a platform to express conceptual images, and perhaps Kim has been working as an Asian painter with expressions of Asian painting all along. Call it a power of suggestion; I have concluded that my challenge to categorize Kim’s work anything other than Asian art by the liberty of contemporary art is unaccomplished. However, I would like to finish this writing by saying that the uncertain genre of Kim’s art opens up the broader scope of interpretation for his future work. Reserving a sense of certainty can be one of the best attitudes in witnessing the artist’s journey into the unknown.