Philippe Hyojung Kim has a love/hate relationship with plastic. In the artist’s statement for his current exhibition, (Un)Earthly Delights, he describes it as “always ready to shine and allure us into the present with its diaphanous illusion of permanence, reproducibility, and of course, plasticity.” At the same time, he acknowledges the environmental damage it causes.
“[T]he lifespans of plastic products are often extremely short, and once purpose served, they turn into a kind of ‘living walking dead’ among us. Despite, and perhaps because of, this uncannily idiosyncratic yet duplicitous nature, plastic continues to be a source of curiosity for me.”
The works that make up (Un)Earthly Delights stem from Kim’s time as an artist-in-residence at a city of Seattle recycling facility in 2018. Earlier pieces incorporated actual trash as found objects, but he wanted to give these discarded fragments their own identity, while dramatizing the true lifespan and lasting impact of the things we casually throw away. Seen as whole, the show is a fanciful environment of colorful objects mounted in frames, gathered on tabletops, and stacked into towers, some several feet tall. The colors are the unnaturally bright neons and pastels of children’s plastic toys.
Kim’s use of color is very intentional.“Color can make something look familiar and recognizable, and it can also make something totally abject and/or otherworldly… I wanted to emphasize the ever-so-cloying nature of plastic and our addiction to it by using colors that are just as saccharine and artificial with a hint of toxicity.”
Most of the individual objects are of a size that would fit in your hand and many look vaguely familiar: foods, plants, creatures, toys and gadgets from an alternate universe. Some are household items playing unfamiliar roles: Jell-O molds and a baby bottle dryer are incorporated into sculptures. Many of these not-quite-recognizable objects are the packaging of consumer goods from electronics to cosmetics: bubble wrap, corrugated cardboard, various kinds of sheet or foam molded to the shape of their former contents. Painted or cast in plastic, they have taken on a second life as ghosts of the objects they once held.
In a 2021 interview, Kim said, “I wanted to celebrate all the discarded packaging materials found at the local recycling center in their variety and beautifully sculptural nature of the forms. Each and every one of those packaging was at one point designed and manufactured to protect and house something presumably more precious and desirable. Once they served their purpose, they were discarded… many of them got broken, misshapen… I wanted to showcase these amazingly unique and beautiful ‘trash’ as something worthy of being on its own, existing in the world as precious as the thing that it once held onto.”
As a student, Kim studied painting. In graduate school, he became fascinated with paint itself as a material, researching its chemical make-up and properties. Today, most paints contain plastic to make them malleable and durable. Kim uses that plasticity, turning paint into a sculptural medium. His website contains a description of his work process, a sort of poem describing how he manipulates paint in its liquid and solid states. Recently he has begun working with ceramics and resin, which he casts into solid objects and uses to make multiples of the same object. (Un)Earthly Delightsincludes wall-mounted pieces that are very three-dimensional and use the same palette of colors and materials as the free-standing pieces, eliminating the boundary between painting and sculpture.
Confronting the ubiquity of plastic in daily life and his constant use of it in his art, Kim jokes that he is “accepting toxicity in my life.” But more seriously, he presents (Un)Earthly Delights “with a hope that it will be an opportunity to imagine an alternative to the relationship we have with this material, both as a remedy and as a practical caution.”