ART NEWS / March 1997
In the Palm of His Hand
Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, NY
Ik-Joong Kang believes that like bibibap, a Korean vegetable and rice dish, his art improves with each new element. As if to prove it, he has created over 50,000 works-three-by-three-inch drawings, paintings, woodcuts, and ceramic tiles-since 1984. " My motto," says the 36-year-old Korean-born artist, "is to throw everything together and add."
Kang's is a story of an artist who came to the United States, worked hard, and made good. And from the look of things, 1996 was a banner year. In June, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art bought 8,000 of his diminutive woodcuts. Over the Summer, the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris in New York hosted 8.490 Days of Memory, his site-specific installation made of chocolate. Kang is also at work on a mammoth 12-by-98-foot installation for the international terminal of the San Francisco International Airport, as well as on a subway mural for the New York City Transit Authority. In his homeland, too., recognition is steadily growing: He was recently selected as one of two artists who will represent Korea at the Venice Biennale this year.
Since moving from Seoul to New York 13 years ago, Kang has reinvented himself as a philosopher-artist in the spirit of his hero and compatriot Nam June Paik. His experience as an immigrant to the United States forms the basis not only for his work but also for the folksy parables and metaphors in which he speaks: America as the unattainable major leagues; art as spaghetti or bibimbap; cultural assimilation as the transformation of an octagon into a circle.
The impetus behind his three-by-three-inch format is also a part of this mythology in the palm of his hand when he was still a struggling art student. During his long subway commutes between school and his jobs at a Korean grocery and a Queens flea market, he recorded his unfamiliar surroundings, making pictures of tokens and teacups, faces and fir trees, body builders and buildings. " The paintings were a tool for keeping my memory fresh. I thought that if I could just store the images like documents, I could repaint them at a later date," Kang recalls.
Somewhere along the way, however, he realized that his stockpile of canvases constituted works in their own right. And indeed, the paintings are remarkable for their sincerity, conspicuous absence of self-consciousness, and sheer diversity and volume. In some, Kang employs found objects, like buttons, hardware, rubber stamps, tassels, and wooden pegs. In others, he depicts himself as a forlorn, cartoonlike subject. Some are intricate studies, other doodles. "They are a diary of my transition between two cultures," he explains.
Kang's work has evolved consistently since he began working in miniature as a student. He did his first "painting performance" at Two Two Raw Gallery in New York in 1990, painting 1,000 canvases in a month. In 1990 he introduced the ides of sound to his paintings by embedding tiny speakers in their backs. He initiated a series of woodcuts in 1991, which, like the paintings, echo the ephemera of everyday life. Then in 1992 his interest shifted to "English learning drawings"-over 1,000 laminated pages crammed with comic poignancy his painstaking efforts to master a second tongue.
More recently, the subject matter of his work has reached back to his childhood. For example, 8,490Days of Memory evoked bittersweet memories with a nine-foot-tall, chocolate-coated sculpture of General Douglas MacArthur. Lining foil-covered walls were 8,490 three-three-inch squares of chocolate(one for every day he lived in Korea), each depicting a rank emblem of a U.S. army officer. For Kang, chocolate conjures up fond memories of a child's treat as much as resentment toward the U.S. army bases in Korea. The sickly sweet smell of the installation pointedly conveyed the duality of these feelings.
Despite advances in his career, Kang has kept his distance from the art world. A round-faced, bespectacled man, he is by his own account "an artist who looks like an accountant." He currently has no gallery and says he doesn't want one. "I want to make what I want to make," he says. "It's too early for selling."
His modesty is perhaps tied to his respect for Nam June Paik and to his realization to follow. "In 12th-century Korea, there was an army general who planted a small corn stalk and jumped over it every day. In that way, even when it grew to be eight feet tall, he could still jump over it," Kang says.
"Nam June is like the corn plant. People cannot jump over him right now. But I am two feet tall, so they can jump over me. That's my role: to enable the next generation of Korean artists to jump over him."