BY ANNA MARIA HONG
Byron Kim likes rectangles. Like a poetry collection that contains only sonnets, his exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery, “Threshold: Byron Kim 1990–2004,” takes a good concept and runs with it, elaborating ideas within a set structure. The formal rigor of Kim’s chosen vessel, the monochrome painting, liberates him to explore issues of race, representation, the sublime, and the quotidian with insouciantly incisive verve.
The exhibition presents four major bodies of paintings that Kim has made since 1989 including “Synecdoche” (1991-–2004), the work that launched Kim’s national reputation. First exhibited at the 1993 Whitney Biennial, “Synecdoche” consists of about 400 eight by 10-inch panels painted a particular shade of human to represent each of his models’ skin tones. Arranged into a wall-sized grid of 30 columns, the panels together form a kind of group portrait, which because of the color range (peach to black) is immediately recognizable as something having to do with human skin and thus, racial constructs.
Although conceptually driven, the work retains a creepy sensuality with each oil- and wax-covered panel resembling frosting on a layer cake. Up close, some panels seem delectable, evoking butter-cream, mocha, or dark chocolate, while others are predictably repulsive, recalling Crayola flesh crayons and lighter Crayola flesh crayons. There’s a cleverly designed randomness of ethnicity and congruent color, as the panels are arranged alphabetically by first name, avoiding the Korean American jam that surely would have occurred at K and L had the panels been arranged by last name. Instead of a legion of Kim’s and Lee’s, we have the multiracial panoply of Janet Figueroa, JaVonne Wells, Jay Patrikios, Jeff Marshall, Jewel Prince, Juan Martinez, Kareem Thompson, Katie McDonnell, Ken Chu, Ken Goldfield, Kerri Sakamoto, Kikelomo Amusa-Shonubi, and Kiki Smith among others. The model roster posted on the wall includes some art world heavies like Chuck Close and William Wegman (second from very last).
Another mid-‘90s work, “Emmett at Twelve Months,” deepens the provocations raised by “Synecdoche” about the meanings we imbue upon skin color. Like a mini-“Synecdoche,” “Emmett” consists of tiny panels painted in different shades, which here represent different skin tones found on Kim’s infant son’s person. In addition to the pinks and browns and tans and blacks, this work displays vivid red (the lips) and stark white (the nails) reminding the viewer that we are all our own little rainbow. The term “synecdoche” is a figure of speech, in which the part represents the whole as in “the sails for the ship.” Together, the two works question the choice of one shade of a person’s skin to define an individual.
The political content is delivered directly and playfully — there’s a sweetness to Emmett that makes you want to see the baby so you can pinch his cheek. Another work “Whorl (Ella and Emmett)” shows top-side views of the two children’s heads, and the adorable “Miss Mushinski (First Big Crush),” a small painting of green and blue horizontal stripes alludes to the shirt Kim was wearing when his first-grade teacher told him she liked it (resulting in his wearing it for three weeks).
“Miss Mushinski” is a variation on the monochrome paintings, as are his more recent works such as the large sea- and sky-scapes, some of which were inspired by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth but reminded me more of Rene Magritte’s cloud strewn interiorized visions. His recent series of small “Sunday Paintings” show the sky as the artist sees it each Sunday, wherever he is. This meditative visual journal with minimal text again questions how we project constancy onto surface (here the sky rather than skin) and illustrates how the everyday encompasses the sublime and vice versa. The surface doesn’t require poking, just recording. By diligently showing up and making the underlooked beauteously apparent, Kim reveals layers of meaning beneath the plane.
A resident of Brooklyn, Kim will be at the Henry Thursday, Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. Tickets: $5-$8. (206) 543-2280. www.henryart.org. The show runs through Sept. 17.