Kim Won-hee – Paintings Coming out of Paintings
By Park Young-taik, Kyonggi University Professor & Art Critic
The modern concept of ‘art’ refers to the creative product of an individual genius. This historical concept is however, all too mythical. The myth of originality, derived from avant-garde art, that is, creativeness, and original work, is all too fictitious. This conception includes thoughts, the new in art no longer exists; that all works of art, generated in the past and linked to the future, are in intricate mutual relations; and artists are educated beings, under each others’ influence, without innate power. Accordingly, artists are not creators of the original any longer, and art is not just a private world created by an autonomous subject but a public world made from a net of signifiers with infinite meaning. Work creation thus cannot be free from appropriating previous practices: The concept of artist as an autonomous subject is formed socially and historically. The subject is actually interwoven by others. All creation belongs to the past, and creativity comes from tradition. I am absent without the other. So it is a contradiction to create something new and different from others.
Kim Won-hee overlaps countless traditions in Western art history by appropriating works by Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Francis Bacon. Kim appropriates extant, readymade images, and a specific artist’s methodology, rather than exploring her own style. Kim’s work looks like reproductions of originals, but raises questions through internal changes and formative re-compositions. Kim mainly appropriates Roy Lichtenstein’s work, or overlaps others’ work into his style, into work that is no longer by Lichtenstein. Her work becomes a mixture of two or modified versions that show weird, exquisite metamorphoses. Kim’s work can be seen as an appropriation, rather than a simple copy, in that she appropriates images and then reedits and recomposes them, thus overturning their meaning.
An appropriaton is a reference, and re-composition of an original work, overturning original meaning. This process is often called ‘trans-contextualization’. It refers to the surrealist depaysement, isolating subject matter from its original meaning. Likewise, an appropriation reveals something in a work through imitation. For Kim Won-hee, a parody respects the tradition of art history and at the same time sees and reads it through an artisan’s spirit, rather than simply relying on the past. Kim creates meaning through appropriation.
Kim borrows subject matter from previous artworks, and also employs methods recalling Cubist collage in the formation of her images. In other words, her work mixes parts of the works by many artists, irrespective of their context into a sort of hybrid painting. Viewers can identify contemporary Western masterful pieces in her paintings, and then discover something disparate. They can wonder whether her paintings are a Lichtenstein; a Lichtenstein copy; or another piece produced by the artist’s special intentions and choice. Her intention is to shatter the myth, common knowledge, and generally held fixed notions of art.
The strategy of her appropriation depends on how she deviates from the myth of originality. The reason Kim partly appropriates familiar Western paintings, and reproduces them in an equivalent manner, is to challenge the concept of originality; delete the self; unveil difference through repetition. As a result, Kim makes an intervention and attains her own place, playing with and deconstructing paintings made familiar by Western art history. Through small differences, Kim poses interesting questions concerning the life and death of images and issues like art and the subject; the myth of originality; tradition and the altered visual environment. At this point, her work unfolds meaning alongside original meaning. A work of art is the rise of some ‘ontological truth’ (Jacques Derrida) in encounters with its consumers, underlining the possibility of diverse interpretations.
Kim focuses primarily on appropriations of Roy Lichtenstein paintings. The artist borrows parts of his work, then renders a van Gogh still life in a Lichtenstein style; or brings Lichtenstein’s Happy Tears into a Francis Bacon composition. Styles and techniques by specific artists that became distinguished indications of contemporary art coexist in Kim’s work. She repetitively shows the subtle differences appearing in her own personality and disposition by rendering Lichtenstein’s originality through her own appropriation work, thus deleting herself.
The artist intentionally represents other artists’ works in the Lichtenstein mode, blending a wide variety of techniques with the difference of space and time. Kim also denotes the refractive destiny of contemporary art, used as universal images or images for commercial purposes and means, thus overturning the flow of Western art history under the influence of progressive, linear time. Her work also exposes a current situation in art, caused by the loss of belief in the value of original to the flood of images; the loss of traditional creativity. It also implicitly reveals the artistic act is something to use, manipulate, and recompose given things, not create something fresh.
Kim employs Lichtenstein’s distinctive style involving Ben-day dots, black contours, and image collages, presenting all in the mode recalling a magnificent billboard. Ben-day dots are like halftone dots that appear in the process of printing. These dots assume the role of making all images understandable through one concept, by realizing an image through mechanical reproduction. These dots also bring about a sense of tension by making work look like a copy through emphasis on an object’s three-dimensional properties and its two-dimensional qualities. Kim also exploits black contours to create the independence of things. She uses such contours to generate a tidy feeling, like in commercial images, ridding her existence as the creator of pure art. The contours lend a tidy feeling to her work, and minimize a spatial depth, making its objects and entire composition look solid. These contours are not for a depiction of images but for the images themselves. Kim uses a few colors to produce her work as if editions are limited in printing. Those colors include the bright hues mainly used for magazine advertisement and commercial wrapping paper, and the colors often used in graphic design. Kim raises optical illusions, or encourages divisions through an appropriation of Lichtenstein’s various properties and a melding of other paintings with his paintings.
Kim Won-hee highlights the composition and presentation of images she appropriated from artworks. She borrows distinguished idioms and methodologies from modern art masters. Her paintings remind viewers of original works, but reveal heterogeneous elements, little by little. These are traces derived from originals. The artist thus raises key debates and issues in the art world, interpreting tradition in art history, and familiar artists’ works, then generating small differences between them. Kim’s paintings are somewhat conceptual, but in a sense rely on the magnetism of painting such as pictorial pleasure, ornamental spectacle, and visual manifestation. Kim’s paintings remain open to viewers’ interpretation and intervention. It is expected her appropriation and parody not to confine her work and life to a certain degree.