Art Spiral / winter, 1991

Ssound Paintingss, Montclair State University, NJ

Byron Kim



This installation is like a mosaic in which each tile is a discreet object.  On his constant palm-sized format Kang attaches anything that occurs to him as he walks around, looking to make art. Subsequently, his art comes in the form of plumbing fixtures, dried cat shit, used erasers, advertisements, photographs, dirt, food, glass, you name it.  Kang uses some of the paintings to scrawl notes in his native Korean and in English.  Many of them have cartoonish images in paint, ink or pencil.  His work is the visual equivalent of free association: each painting is a visual entry in the diary of an obsessive young New York artist, like any young New York artist, who wants to get ahead.


The artists has compared his work to the tiles on the walls of New York city subway stations and to Japanese Shoji screens, but his installations have more the visual immediacy of storefronts on Canal Street, where hundreds of items are crammed into a window space, each of them winking and blinking for one¡¯s attention.  It¡¯s a dizzying task trying to look at the paintings individually, and in an effort to escape sensory overload, one¡¯s eyes tend to rest on those with bits of text.  Upon examination there are about a dozen or so motifs or categories with which Kang is especially obsessed.  The most telling are the paintings that have simple depictions of mountain landscapes, usually consisting of two outlined humps with a small caption.  Three of them are captioned in Korean script:¡¯

1.      ¡°The mountain is good¡± 2. ¡°Mountain Road¡± 3. ¡°Faraway mountain¡±.  

Another says in English, ¡°I want to live in the mountain.¡±  These paintings could be seen as parodies of Oriental landscape, but their persistence and simplicity betray a strong sympathy with their Buddhist models.  The scribbled longings for the life of an ascetic coincide well with the audio part of the installation which combines the sounds of traditional Korean music with heavy thunder and rain.  These references to the pastoral and to a ¡°proper¡± spiritual life can be seen as an antidote to the actual spirit of the exhibition, which is additive, kitsch and all New York.  These few Zen-like references also bring up the possibility that these works are themselves the manifestation of a crazed, peculiarly urbane kind of devotion.


 Some of the paintings serve as conventional acts of atonement, for example on says, ¡°I repent.  Amen.  God. ¡° Many others come in the form of idiosyncratic confession or resolutions: 1. ¡°I don¡¯ts know what to paint.¡±   2. ¡°I want to make paintings that last forever.¡±  3. ¡°I have to be a strong boxer.¡±  4. ¡°I will never go to Atlantic City again.¡±  5. ¡°I ate white ginseng = I will be somebody.¡±  Kang will not treat to the mountains presently; he is busy trying to make sense of life in the big city.


Of course, in Kang¡¯s oeuvre the double-humped mountains can also be read as breasts, to which the artist seems equally devoted.  Having sex and thinking about sex run a close third behind eating and shitting in a world of priorities dominated by art or, more to the point, dominated by making 3 inch by 3-inch paintings.  Kang never leaves home without a blank canvas or two in his pockets.  This modus operandi or two in his pockets.  This modus operandi endows his art with utter immediacy.  His work can be seen as a kind of Beat enterprise for the nineties.  A couple of the paintings propose an interesting purpose for art: ¡°I paint for memory.¡±  Such a comprehensive and particular endeavor can lead on to suppose that beyond acting as souvenirs, these little pictures actually comprise the artist¡¯s memory.  For instance, one canvas announces, ¡°I sold paintings to Prudential today.  I want to eat sushi tonight.¡±  Another depicts a somber male face (presumably the artist¡¯s, possibly his father¡¯s)  captioned by the lament, ¡°Dad died.¡±  To another the artist has affixed a sharp metal object and written, ¡°It made my tire flat on a rainy day.¡±


Kang¡¯s is a maniacally democratic memory, like a computer¡¯s, where every bit of information, whether life altering or inconsequential, gets equal weight.  However, little revelations about art get more than equal time.  Art means many things to Ik-Joong Kang: 1. ¡°Art is Masturbation¡± 2. ¡°Art is Energy¡± 3. ¡°Bad Art = Good Art¡± 4. ¡°I want to paint is for Fun.¡±


A number of Kang¡¯s Asian-American counterparts in the art world make cameo appearances.  One canvas says, ¡°Martin Wong,¡± beside a long-haired portrait of Wong himself.  Another seems actually to be made by Bing Lee, simply stating, ¡°Bing 1990.¡± Nam June Paik, a fellow Korean-American artist appears numerously, once associated with the sign for infinity, symbolizing Kang¡¯s hero-worship.  Others are also deified.  Joseph Beuys¡¯ last name is spelled out in Korean letters.  A miniature copy of a Francesco Clemente self-portrait states, ¡°Clemente looks like his paintings.¡±  Another says, ¡°I think Clement has a sense of humor.¡±  One canvas epitomizes this hero-worshipping tendency, ¡°Good Artist likes me.¡±  Transposing one letter in this happy boast would get closer to the point, ¡°Good artists, like me.¡±


On the most practical level these canvasses are instruments for positioning Kang among these good artists.  3 x 3 inch paintings can fit-in anywhere, and along with their amusing posturing, they can be seen as a strategy for wedging Kang into the art world.  Like a disease his work uses persistence and omnipresence as a survival mode, and, barring a retreat to the mountains, Kang may yet infect us all.