Exhibition Catalogue, 2003

Ik-Joong Kang at Sabina Lee Gallery, LA, CA

By James Glass




Upon his arrival in New York, Ik-Joong Kang enrolled at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. There, he developed the 3x3-inch format during his days as a student. The format was made primarily outside of the classroom in response to his practical necessity at the time. That is, as an impoverished student, he worked twelve-hours a day at a Korean grocery store in Manhattan and also as a watchman at a flea market in Far Rockaway, Queens. Looking for ways to effectively utilize time spent on the long subway rides, he fit 3-inch-square canvases easily into his pocket and into the palm of his hand. His lengthy commute was transformed into work time in a mobile studio.

These miniature canvases functioned like pages in a diary upon which he recorded his immediate responses to life in a foreign city.  By showing thousands of these memories as a single installation, he intends the viewers to see the installation as a whole and then invite them to come closer to see the individual "3x3" of moments of his life.  

It is by these miniatures that the artist frees himself from the traditional confrontation and struggle of full-size canvases. He feels liberation by the small scale and an openness to express the tiniest of ideas.

The overall mood of Kang's installations is meditative. Their intent is personal and directed toward self-reflection, rather than social commentary. Kang's ideas are intuitively expressed and suggest a "process of adopting, rejecting, and merging cultural heritage with cultural environment."1)

Kang wants viewers to embrace different cultures. He says, 'Learning is a two-way street and in the twenty-first century, we need to give and receive'.  Awarded a citation for special merit at the 1997 Venice Biennale, Kang's  In 'I Have to Learn Chinese', 1997, the title's imperative tone urges the viewer to join the artist in memorizing its cloisonne-like strips of Chinese characters. Comprised of ninety poplar panels, the elongated rectangular forms epitomise Kang's desire to 'grow into a big tree that does not fall'.  The panels join together to form a trunk with roots deeply embedded in the past, a past that: 'both the individual and the nation should know about. People talk about globalization, but in order to accomplish that, we have to really plunge ourselves into the past. It's sort of like trying to jump when you're in a swimming pool - you can't really jump unless you push yourself from the pool bottom.' Throughout the 'Learning' series, Kang notes that 'people are uncertain about the future and restless when it comes to the past'. The purpose of his work, then, is 'to eliminate both that uncertainty and restlessness'.2)

Though many of his earlier works were produced from the perspective of the newly arrived immigrant, it is evident in his later work that Kang is a first-generation Korean-American and a voracious consumer of all cultures, but it should be noted that he is especially concerned with the children's voice from around the world.

In December 1999, Kang worked with children from South Korea to create the "100,000" Dreams." Thousands of children's miniature drawings styled in his signature 3 inch x 3-inch canvases were displayed inside a one-kilometer vinyl tube in the wasteland near the South Korean demilitarized zone. At night, the gigantic tube lit up like a fat glowworm, hoping to attract North Korean children on the other side to come out and play. And more recently, in the visitors' lobby of the United Nations in New York, nearly 34,000 children's drawings from over 136 countries are incorporated into Kang's installation.

Kang often compares his own work to the Korean dish of 'bibimbap', a hodgepodge of vegetables and meats mixed with rice that is an everyday meal found on any street corner in Korea. He believes that like bibibap his art improves with each new element. As if to prove it, he has created over 100,000 works-three-by-three-inch drawings, paintings, woodcuts, and ceramic tiles-since 1984. "My motto," says the 43-year-old artist, "is to throw everything together and add." 3)



1) Louis Grachos, 'Ik-Joong Kang, exhibition catalogue, Queens Museum, 1992.

2) joan Kee, 'Living on the edge', Art Art Pacific, November 19, 1998

3) Carol Lutfy, ART NEWS, March 1997