Reviews / June 27, 1996
365 Days of English, Contemporary Art Forum
Santa Barbara, CA
Ik-Joong Kang reconstructs the world from bits and pieces of culture. Small blocks of carved wood, cheap radios desperately expelling pop music, storms of computer and notebook paper, all become quadrants of catalogues information. Wrapped into bundles, words are scrambled into units, signs made into signals - public communications privately discovered, then offered for your contemplation.
This exhibition, entitled 365 Days of English, marks Kang's southern California premiere. Installed in the main gallery of the Contemporary Arts Forum, the show is multifaceted and complex. Organized via a network of grids that dissect as they connect, the grids act as an underpinning, providing a scaffolding to support Kang's inquiry into popular American culture. The results he achieves are not random, though; beneath the intricate construction, there are hints of impulse, of an intuition-driven exploration that makes the work exciting. Huge quantities of information pass through his hands, so much that t is hard not to notice the personal, perhaps obsessively aware dedication to detail that seems to drive him. Whatever creative spark calls Kang to this forum, he makes his point, and it is well taken.
Some artists find objects and refine them until they become numinous. Stripped of confusion and common associations, they are streamlined, clarified, and polished to transmit the essence of what they represent. Kang does it differently. Working from the inside out, he makes his mark with simple, common materials like Scotch tape, ink, notebook paper, and wood. These last two he covers with thousands of words. In both English and Korean, the artist has emptied his mind: What comes out is interesting, funny, and playfully ironic.
The architecture of his structures and the subtle nuance his materials evoke simulate spiritual destinations and transmit Kang's dominant aesthetic. A tent becomes a temple; a covering for its dormant inhabitants: pre-awakened dialogues temporarily restrained to receive the Buddhist's "light of knowledge." A wood block wall acts as a shrine of personal and intellectual contemplation. Paper and tape, ink and pastel-pale hues of green, pink, mauve, and blue are delicate and suggest non-opaque Japanese shoji screens.
The first structure you see upon entering the gallery is large enough to walk inside. Inscribed, plastic-sheathed streamers of gridded paper link to build a double column. The moment you enter the narrow opening, you discover another column of paper, this one small enough to easily walk around. Kang turned the paper inward, towards the center. From the outside, there is not much to see other than the shape of the thing itself. Inside the first column, it's another story. Words, drawings, collaged magazine pictures look like a calmed-down version of giant, chatty tarot cards: "Visual relationship, simple traces, inextinguishable source, pictorial plane, virtual reaction, bug zapper," say the walls of this paper temple-skyscraper.
Towards the rear of the gallery, reams of computer paper form a tent-like shelter. Outside, on the paper "roof," Kang stenciled printed words with red, blue, and green felt-tipped markers. Hundreds of broken utterances like "PAiNTEr" and "NAVAL," read like humorous, illogical signs directing you nowhere. Words, cut off from each other, regrouped and joined to others, as in his wall of wood blocks, are one of Kang's favored means of expressing himself. Kang settled in New York when he came to America 12 years ago from Korea. His arrival in the city and to a new culture must have sent shock waves through his entire system. If he were not an artist, perhaps he would have recoiled from the jarring. Instead, he responded with ravenous consumption. The evidence of his hunger for American culture is everywhere. English words, jargon from our contemporary pop culture, have been collected, regrouped, and juxtaposed with Korean language and architectural structures. The result of his choreography? Compositions, curious objects of integrity that demonstrate an edgy assimilation.
Tucked away in the corner of the gallery, but impassably noticeable, three hundred or so American flag decorated plastic radios, simultaneously screech out a jumble of top-40 tunes. The white noise created by them is grating and disquieting. Trying to ignore it, I couldn't help but think of Kang, hurrying along the streets of New York.
According to Yi Joo-Heon, one of the contributing authors of Kang's exhibition catalogue, Buddha Learning English, Koreans have a penchant for making and consuming soup. Soup is as good a metaphor for Kang's work as any. Like that nourishing fluid, his artist's voice is a stockpot of individual ingredients that stew themselves into something substantial. For me, this metaphor illustrates the instinctive process by which culture creates art. Kang is the product of his culture and where those origins have taken him. By playing with the ancient motifs and symbols of one, and the written and verbal communications of another, he has created a new soup, a substance that noticeably alters the way we perceive our own.