Asian Week, 1994

Mosaic of a Mind in Motion Modern Art as a Way of Life

The Capp Street Project, San Francisco, CA

Gary Gach



The first thing the visitor coming through the door of the New Capp Street Project notices is the wall immediately to the right, totally papered over, floor-to-ceiling, by hundreds of sheets of paper covered with words written by a young Korean immigrant learning English in America, en route to work. "Good luck" is repeated over and over on many. Others are of more suggestive phrases: "deserted writing table," "capricious tyranny," "inconspicuous greatness." In the center of each sheet is a doodle or sketch.

There are two doorways through this wall. The first leads into a triangular room covered wall-to-wall, floor-to- ceiling, with small woodblocks, 3"x3". Abstract shapes mingle with natural forms. It begins to form a language all it's own. The second doorway leads into another triangular room also totally covered with 3"x3" varnished squares ~ with drawings and/or writings and, sometimes, small objects pasted onto them. One is a drawing of a pregnant fish. Another simply bears two words: "Flat surface." Another: "Uncle died." Another is a portrait of a woman.

A clothes-pin. Mickey Mouse. A bare ass. Flowers. Dragonflies. Bombers cruising over a mountain towards a metropolis. One tile's black, and captioned: "I don't know what to paint." Another is a picture of that day's lunch: a bowl of noodles.

The artist, freed from the traditional confrontation and struggle of stretching canvas, has been liberated to being open to whatever comes, whatever he's given in the immediate set of circumstances. The viewer's eye is is likewise free to make its own discoveries, without coercion, to begin to create its own "mind's-eye movie" of this universe of small squares.

The creator of this installation - entitled Throw Everything Together and Add - is Ik-Joong Kang. Mr. Kang has created not only a feat worthy of Guiness Book of Records - 20,000 works in ten years! It's simultaneously too a diary of its own creation. He writes, "When I emigrated from South Korea to New York City in 1984, I began making paintings and drawings that reflected the daily experiences of my life in a new culture with a new language."

Through March 19, noon - 6 p.m., Tuesday - Saturday, visitors to the new Capp Street Project are transfixed by this remarkable installation. They later move on to Mildred Howard's tough, contemplative installation, and Donald Lipski's creation out of razor blades. But Ik-Joong Kang's piece is the most interactive, provocative, effervescent.

Mr. Kang gave generously of his time to AsianWeek, while in town for his first west coast exhibtion. We learned that he descends from a line of artists, going back to the Li Dynasty, nineteenth century. His great grandfather's court paintings are still found in today's Korean textbooks. His grandfather was a doctor-painter. Mr. Kang exhibited his "art gene," early on. "To be an artist in an Asian country," he muses, "is almost a shame. All parents want their children to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer. But I was encouraged by my family, so I was confident in my mind about being an artist.

"I didn't have any problem about what kind of job to take for the rest of my life. I knew that I had to do fine art."

With that fire in his belly, the rest, including finding a market, came later. "I started selling my work only three years ago. Coming to America with little money, I had to work like crazy: at a grocery store 12 hours a day, six days a week, and on Sunday at a flea market - or peddling watches on the street in Chinatown." Being a peddlar of watches on the streeth in Chinatown, he learned too about working for himself.

Why New York? Because of the art scene. "I didn't even know where the Statue of Liberty was. I thought it was in San Francisco. But I felt from the media it was a cool place to be an artist. A bigger aquarium. "I didn't know anybody, or what was going on, actually. I'd seen the Kojak TV-show: downtown, uptown; really interesting. But if you can swim well in New York, you can go international.

"I don't paint with a constant consciousness of being Asian. I just paint as me. But I'm sure that, growing up in Asia, that flavors on my dish are Asian, while others are American. I love to cook, and sometimes I think being an artist is like being a chef." Continuing the food metaphor, he has learned to reject the idea of any presumed "melting pot" under a banner of multiculturalism, much less a fickle appetite for a new Flavor-of-the-Month. Continuing the food metaphor still further, he says, "You cannot mix spaghetti with kim chi." Rather, he thinks each flavor has to stand on its own, like individual panes of a stained glass.

He has also learned from a further extremism in a phenomenon back home. He was initially impressed by the enthusiasm and bravery of the young Min Jung ("General Public") art movement, but saw how, over time, it became "absorbed in the system, as by a sponge." And so he has learned balance. "I think my work was influenced by both American and Korean cultures. In America, I sensed the assembly line - a color, a cigarette - the idea of mass production." (One of his tiles reads: "Many is money.")

"I'd already begun small canvases, and began wondering what was the most efficient size. And I chose the 3"x3" size because it could fit in my palm, and was the perfect distance without my having to move my eyes.

"Then I saw a Japanese movie, The One-Armed Samurai. He goes hiking with his friends, and sit down on top of the mountain and just puts together his wooden sandals, forming a little box, through which he looked out at the scenery. Then he paints." As a first-generation artist in America, the search for identity or roots is not an issue for him. His work is multiple in its influences. And herein is the key to what makes his work so fascinating to the viewer - the creative equipoise between his canvas and his world. Again, balance.

"Maintaining my balance is the most essential part of my life. To do that, every day I have to listen to body. Before that, to listen to my breathing, "I paint, but I observe what I'm painting. I paint, but at the same time I look at what I'm painting and the person, myself, who's painting. I try to maintain that. I try to see myself painting, not just see the world as paint. That, I think, is the ultimate practice. When I do that, I realize I'm just one of billions of grains of sand in the ocean.

"I'm just very small. Under the superpower, whatever it is ... Nature ... maybe you can call it God. "I kneel down, empty myself, let out all my anger. Then I can communicate. That's the best way I can maintain balance. People ask me about being an artist, but I don't know exactly. "Last year, when I was making woodcuts, I almost cut off my finger. I kept trying to deny the pain. The more I denied it, the more it came to my finger. So I stopped denying, and accepted the reality. I embraced the pain as part of me. Total embrace. Then, somehow, the pain got smaller."

His art is thus a continual process. He practices his self-discovered mental awareness moment-to-moment, continually - from exercising his tongue in the morning before speaking English, to cooking one of his avant garde recipes (such as noodles with peanut butter and mayo). Or going to the country, or waiting in line at the post office. Or ... painting. His openness to the world his work out to us.