The Village Voice / December 11, 1990

Throw Everything Together and Add

Montclair State University, NJ

Arlene Raven



Boats, airplanes, a fish and bird, each rendered in a three-inch square, shit declining, equidistant dots.  Elsewhere among the 7,000 tiny canvases that cover the art gallery at Montclair State College, 30-year-old Ik-Joong Kang scrawls, graffiti-like.  ¡°I saw Borovsky¡¯s shit.¡±  The emperor-has-no-clothes appraisal is also pointed at David Salle (whose name labels a reclining woman with legs spread split-beaver style) and other (slightly) elder (male) artists.


While unmasking the manure of the more mature by intermixing imitation and criticism. Kang exonerates his own excrement: ¡°I shit good.¡± As evidence, a umber of modules are packages already wrapped and addressed to the permanent collections of major New York museums.


Observing the long-standing affinity between artists and their feces. Kang¡¯s concrete fragments contain the germs of literally thousands of personal narratives of creation and waste.  A woman¡¯s bare ass.  Flowers and dragonflies. A fleet of bombers flying over a mountain toward a metropolis.  Seeds for protean configurations of far-flung, thoroughgoing self-portraits, these small squares are, appropriately, rudimentary and incomplete, but also clever and concise.


Kang always carries a blank canvas in his pocket.  Cupped in his palm, a painting may be made with anything at hand.  More than one completed work outlines the artist¡¯s hand itself as well as its movements across the surface.  Clay, metal, rice, plastic, ballpoint pen, and paint are among the media scaled under the shiny varnish.  Afoot anywhere, Kang can work while walking on the street or standing in subways.  In fact, the official and unofficial decorations of subways, accompanied always by noise, provided a model for Kan¡¯s pictures in their environment.  And the tiles lining station walls influenced the size of the individual units within the overall structure of ¡°SSOUND PAINTINGSS.¡±


One thousand of the works exhibited are wire for sound.  A small speaker is attached to each little square or block and together they are placed on the center wall of the installation.  Below the large rectangular composite, masses of slender red and black wires connect every speaker to one of 10 sound-generating monitors.  From each monitor, a single sound issues.  This audible element sends birds chirping and asses braying in their cells.  


The monitor is the heart animating an exposed circulatory system of sight and sound that (according to the exhibition catalogue) is a metaphor for the center of being.  Central, too, are the compositions of numerous breast and target motifs scattered throughout the three walls.  But the center seems also to be every point at which tones and images intersect.  And the locality of an observer can, likewise, be anywhere in the midst of the ¡°SSOUND PAINTINGSS,¡± while s/he remains at one with the heartbeat of the body/ system.


The tuneful din interweaves Western popular music, street sounds, the ebb and flow of an ocean, and traditional Korean rhythms.  Kang, born in Seoul, now lives and works in New York.  His audio choices evoke his birthplace, its history, world-wide natural phenomena, and his current society. Random and irreverent, his eclectic chorus comes, with time spent listening, to resemble euphonic hymns indigenous to sacred music.  But the geographical and temporal origins in his harmonies are deliberately diverse.  As such, they expand the territory of the spiritual and the designations of its potential audience.


The cross-cultural milieu in Kang¡¯s work can be seen as well as heard. His images suggest the process of adopting, adapting, rejecting, and merging cultural heritage with cultural environment.  To convey the uneasy juxtaposition, he consistently uses humor and irony.  In one frame, for example, ¡°America¡± (sic) becomes the caption for a distinctly non-Western text written in the sky surrounding a toweringly un-American architectural monument.  In another, a red heart badge carries the logo ¡°white love.¡±


Kang views the modular structure of ¡°SSOUND PAINTINGSS¡± as reminiscent of a Japanese Shoji screen – a Zen art form in which the whole is made up of numerous smaller segments and in which the entirety can be envisioned from the tiniest part.  But the arrangement of vast numbers of subway tiles in very long rows, a framework that seems to Kang to measure time and space, equally affects his construction.


The grid that organizes ¡°SSOUND PAINTINGSS¡± also appears in an artist¡¯s book Kang recently produced with his 1990 tax return.  Here it is likened visually to the facades of contemporary American skyscrapers and verbally with the U. S. mentality toward economic growth.  American flags often fly fully unfurled in front of gigantic office buildings whose uniform windows fill the page.  Accompanying a picture of Kang¡¯s 1988 Broadway Windows installation is the directive ¡°throw everything together and add.¡±  Under the photograph of another previous installation of large numbers of small works, the analogy ¡°Many is like money¡± makes the socioeconomic point.


Abundance in these terms refers directly to Kang¡¯s art production but also to the assumption that despite this country¡¯s woeful economic forecast, Americans expect ever more prodigious production as the primary cornerstone of well-being.  Kang¡¯s emphasis on counting canvases adopts a traditionally American method of self-evaluation, arrived at by tallying how far we have moved from where we began.


The critique of and affinity with American social philosophies and conditions in Kang¡¯s work may explain many of its contradictions.  Although diaristic, the personal moments stilled for split seconds within the rhythmical continuum of the artist¡¯s arena seem dispassionate.  ¡°Art,¡± he writes, ¡°is good for killing time.¡±  Even the confession ¡°I don¡¯t know what to paint¡± or observation at close range.  ¡°She just fucked/ will fuck again,¡± can be denied in the next block or applied to someone else.


The distanced quality of even primal or highly intimate subjects may result from Kang¡¯s conception of creating paintings as ¡°transferring¡± images.  These visual ideas are grabbed ¡°from the air,¡± digested as quickly as possible, transmitted to canvas, then discarded.  Via equal space to cultural icons like Micky Mouse, household items such as clothespins, and symbols including crosses and pyramids, all are positioned as similar, if not identical.


Kang has the voracious appetite of a Pop artist for schematically absorbing and imprinting the world. ¡°EAT ART¡± occupies a focal position in its tiny environment and is spelled out with the same large block letters as ¡°GOD IS POWER.¡±  The all-out desire in ¡°SSOUND PAINTINGSS¡± emanates from Kang¡¯s genuine zest for the physical world, its pleasures and presence.  And desire characterizes his work most fundamentally.¡¯


A deliberately artless art, Kang¡¯s work is itself of nature and a participant in the life of the artist.  ¡°For a dancer who was killed in a ceiling collapse at an Upper West Side croissant shop,¡± he writes on one of his paintings.  Was Kang with me at Broadway and 75th Street that day last spring?  Did he see, as I did, the dead woman taken from the wreck?  Does he contemplate the fates that slow our steps toward safety?