Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Interview with Sky Kim: Repetition, Reincarnation and the Sensual

Interview with Sky Kim
Repetition, Reincarnation and the Sensual
(originally posted on

Sky Kim is a New York City-based artist originally from South Korea. In her pieces she often repeats basic patterns, possibly investigating the need, possibility or hope for spiritually emergent qualities appearing through this process. Kim also approaches sensual energy as an essential part of the human experience – sensuality as a type of energy or vibrational waves.

I discovered your work at a 2014 group show at Garis & Hahn called ‘Leaps into the Void: Shamanism, Meditation, Transcendence, Oblivion’. This was an amazing show featuring artists who referenced alternative belief systems, many of which were grounded in ancient religious or philosophical systems. I was attracted to your commitment to pre-modern ideas like 'cell memory' and reincarnation. How did you develop these interests/beliefs?

My inspiration comes from my philosophical belief in reincarnation and, on an unconscious level, my work is largely influenced by the loss of my twin sister at birth. This early separation is probably the source of emptiness that I always feel inside. Growing up, it was tough for a little girl to deal with this uneasy feeling. I had to find a way to fill the hollowness in my heart. I tried to figure out why I was here, in this lifetime. There were so many ‘whys’ in my little head and this made me look everywhere for an answer. I began to dig into spiritual books, religions, new age beliefs, etc. I finally found a partial but critical answer to most of my questions in reincarnation, which I thought explained many incomprehensible phenomena in life. This realization influenced my work a great deal. I began to use the repetition of circles and lines to create patterns that represent the wheel of life: reincarnation. I believe that remembering my twin sister in my art is the only way for me to complete my being, as every old and new cell of my body remembers every minute I was with her in the womb. My memory of her in the long but also brief time we spent together in the womb, which was the only time that we were together, has entirely prevailed in my unconsciousness.

What about folks who do not believe in reincarnation - can they derive anything meaningful from your work?

Whether they believe in reincarnation or life just being one-time thing, they shouldn’t have any problem appreciating the meditative patterns that are both optically three dimensional and still at the same time. I’ve encountered a number of viewers who don’t consider themselves spiritual but told me they sensed an enormous energy emitting from my work which had a soothing and healing effect on them.

That Garis and Hahn show also partly highlighted the cognitive/emotional processes involved in the creation of works requiring time-consuming repetition. Can you tell me a bit about your mental state as you create?

My work comes from stillness and everything within. Out of that stillness, a certain impulse comes, like every sound comes from stillness. I meditate on the nothingness and then something wants to be born and expressed. I honor that quiet space. It’s a deeper space where your mind is no longer operating, but just being in your consciousness. I create a sacred space, a place where I can have a dialogue with my true self--my higher self underneath my humongous ego. I own that moment and that uninterrupted time and space is one of the key ingredients of my creation. You can’t rely on your thinking to produce something powerful and original. You simply focus on the energy of your present moment. It’s natural for negative thoughts to crawl into your mind but you don’t fight with them because whatever you fight against, you make it stronger. Doing isn’t enough, BEING is necessary. Artists need a lot of time alone. I simply BE in the present moment and enjoy whatever I have. Presence isn’t an old pattern. Instead, it’s eternally new and timeless. I complete my life at each moment in my studio since I have nowhere else to go but within. When I’m fully present at the moment, there’s enough of everything. When I know that everything is provided, I stop competing for love, power or whatever I wish to obtain. Then I experience abundance, a pool of energy and inner peace. That is when I’m ready to pick up my pencil. My studio practice is very meditative but also labor intensive as it requires both undivided focus and raised vibrations which create the work. Repeating patterns is like citing a mantra over and over again.

Your visit to the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation influenced a whole series of your pieces. How did that visit affect you?

I’m very sensitive to the energy field in places, especially when I visit sacred spots where there is believed to be a strong vortex. I feel the energy with all my senses and I even physically get affected sometimes which is not always pleasant. I felt the presence of strong energy from the red rocks in Sedona, Arizona and the Chichen Itza Pyramid site in Yucatan, Mexico. Since I try to contain condensed energy in each circle and fluid line in my work, I’m genuinely drawn to those ancient sites and natural formations which have become a source of my inspiration.

There was a time that your work was considered to be too sexual. Can you tell me about this event?

I was showing my work with the Victory Arts Project in Jersey City. My watercolor paintings and marker drawings were displayed on 5 tall wooden panels in the large glass windows of the building. Since the show room was located in a financial district, my work became controversial. To me the images were subtle and not provocative, but to some people they were too sexual to show in public. This was all happening while I was in the UK. Upon my return, I discovered that 3 of 5 works were covered with sheets of blank paper. I didn’t understand why I was getting such reactions when there were gigantic billboards nearby that exposed half-naked blondes in embarrassingly seductive poses that never seemed to bother anyone. I was amazed by their double standard.

Art and sex have always been tied together, probably because sexual desire seems the perfect analog for spiritual desire and the beauty of sexual union mirrors the beauty of the union between desire for something more and its fulfillment. Can you tell me the extent that you are exploring sex or desire in your work?

Images in my work are often feminine, delicate, untouchable, venerable and sensual with a strong sense of sexuality. I explore the similarities in the scope of birth and life with the images of flowers and seeds that are associated with a fertility, germination, growth and evolution. I create these images to get a sense of uncanny sensuality but in a more playful, teasing way. As a result, the organic, metaphoric images are not overly but they are obviously sexual, and at the same time they are somewhat enigmatic, elusive and ambiguous; just enough to stimulate your imagination.

I often use the symbols of stamen and pistil to illustrate what we once were in the womb, the beginning point of life and of my personal memory of my twin sister who shared my time in my mother’s womb and with me relied on a single umbilical cord. The image of seeds, flower petals and blood on the surface, whose personality also implies both the principles of Yin and Yang, the male and female energies, co-exist in one body. They shouldn't be interpreted as a neutral gender; instead they should be understood as the life energy that a fertilized egg newly acquires, beyond the visual, sexual differences of the flesh. There are two different energies that co-exist, but their essential natures don't blend together into a total stranger.

I have explored issues around the representation of sexuality within a personal and emotional context. I focus on developing new aesthetics to represent a female body with the inclusion of the masculine point of view. Working together with drawing, painting, performance and sculpture, my work has often played, not without humor, on the ambivalence of the feminine and masculine relationship in terms of sexuality. In my constant work on the interrelationship between the masculine and the feminine, I manage to render the interchangeability of sexes and of sexuality by deceiving conventions. The complete, vital form is favored not in order to discover who I am, but to create myself anew.

Do you still enjoy using scrolls? Why did you start?

I try to produce at least one scroll piece a year. It’s a time consuming process which requires serious commitment and dedication. One day, about 10 years ago, I was going to cut the paper after I finished a regular sized painting on a paper roll but didn’t want to stop the flow I was feeling. I decided to paint the whole 30 foot-long paper roll just to record the whirlpool-like creative energy I was having at the moment of creation.

Were you influenced by other artists who use repetition and/or alternative belief systems? With which artists of the past do you identify with?

Oddly enough, if there’s anyone whom I feel connected to, it would be Basquiat. Our styles are totally different, almost opposite from each other, but I’ve always thought that he is like my soul mate in my creative practice. Many people think that my work is precisely calculated and meticulously planned and controlled but that’s not the case at all. It’s all done by free hand, automatically drawn without knowing where to go next. My only belief system is my own sense of intuition which is the strong driving force of my creation from start to finish.

During a time of social crisis, do you think an artist should attempt to make some type of social statement? Do you consider aspects of your work political? Are you interested in politics?

When wasn’t there a time of social crisis in the history of mankind? Somewhere around the globe, innocent children, women and men are suffering from horrendous violence right this moment. I’m interested in both politics and social issues and I believe that artists should always be alert. Whether or not they should make political, social statements in their work should depend on how literal they want their voice to be heard. I strongly feel responsible for all the issues we’re facing today because we’re co-creating every moment, every reality together as one massive collective consciousness. My work shows who I am, every inch of me, but it’s not necessarily showing any particular social issue in a literal context. All the issues that I want to address are rather dealt with energetically. I’m a transmitter that generates and transmits vibrational waves carrying messages and signals through a constant tug of war embedded in the organic undulations in my work.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Norman Lewis at the Chicago Cultural Center (September 17, 2016–January 8, 2017)

(Norman Lewis - 1909 - 1979)
{{{click on images to enlarge them}}}

The first big problem for Norman Lewis was that most of the Abstract Expressionist painters were drawing from their cultural capital as white, male and middle class to purportedly create art which was ‘universal’ to the human experience and which gainsaid the concept of gender, economic or racial difference. At that time the white, male, middle class perspective was dominant and taken for ‘universal’ – everybody was supposed to benefit from it and get on board that train (and some black and women artists apparently even tried to get on that train). It was Lewis’s goal, however, to draw upon his experiences as an African American in situations of oppression to create his pieces. His depth of insight coming from struggle and resistance was deeper and, ironically, more universal than that of his buddies in the Abstract Expressionist movement, but he was marginalized due to this orientation.

{{{Early figurative work}}}

Drawing from the black experience in America allowed for a greater type of universalism than the type the white guys falsely asserted that they, themselves, owned, but it relegated Lewis to nearly complete irrelevance among the established and respected critics of the time. Indeed, he is still referred to as, basically, the black guy who was doing Abstract Expressionism when, in fact, the current retrospective show, ‘Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis’, at Chicago’s Cultural Center, would seem to show that he should never have even been characterized as an Abstract Expressionist in the first place. Indeed, that Lewis was not an Abstract Expressionist seemed to be the opinion shared by the curator of the show Ruth Fine in a comment she made at the National Gallery of Art this year.

{{{Early attempt at abstraction - a Jazz Club}}}

The second big problem for Lewis was that wealthy white folks who bought art would often buy what they ‘liked’ and not what had universal or humane meaning. Once, after I wrote a review of an unrelated gallery show, the gallery owner emailed me and bluntly told me that the people who buy pieces from his gallery do so primarily because they like the colors in them. He prayed that potential buyers would not read my review because they definitely would not buy pieces if they realized there were controversial ideas in them. Some wealthy white guy wandering into the Willard Gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the 1950s was probably not going to buy a work that dealt with psychological responses to racial injustice or which referenced the struggle for human rights or racial equality.
{{{Kandinsky-inspired work}}}
Indeed, the range of content and themes in art has been severely limited, historically, due to first the patronage and then the market system. The anticipated taste of art buyers often determines what gets shown and then saved in museums. What the (white, male, affluent) art buyer does not like does not often go very far – this has been a limiting parameter throughout the history of art, especially since the market system took over, and it hurt Lewis severely.
{{{American Totem}}}
The third big problem for Lewis was that in much of his work he made no pretensions to abstract art being a bifurcation from or radically divorced from representational art. Abstract art, to Lewis, seemed to be a continuation or further development of representational art just as, as an analogy, infrared radiation is a continuation of the overall light spectrum. On occasion his pieces seem to be completely non-representational, as in his overt imitations of Kandinsky (seen in his piece ‘Fantasy’), his overtly geometrical pieces of the late 40s which spoke through line and color, his attempts to mirror the rhythms of music in some of his pieces or in his ‘Sea Change’ pieces. (Yet, even in his ‘Sea Change’ paintings you see egg-like or placental images intimating, perhaps, re-birth on a social scale.) That you could often see figures and that the figures sometimes seemed to allude to Klan meetings or cross-burnings or lynchings, again, supposedly limited the universalism that the Abstract Expressionists falsely claimed as their accomplishment.
The most interesting experiment I came away with from ‘Procession’ was how Lewis uses the repetition of human figures to create geometrical or organic shapes against contrasting backgrounds. In ‘Double Cross’ we see an image that very well could have been inspired by the phenomenon of cross-burnings with a thick, blackened concentric grouping overlapping an intense fervid background. Figures seem to be running toward the two crosses, creating greater and greater density and overall darkness. 
{{{Double Cross}}}
The power of hatred to awaken the worst in us, and to link us to others as a greater and greater organic mass of blind emotion seems to be implied (and is clearly applicable to a political and social phenomenon which reared its head in the recent American presidential elections). ‘Alabama’ seems to work from the same principle of either a gathering or loosening of social density, in this case the color white possibly representing the color of Klan robes.
{{{Journey to an End}}}
‘Journey to an End’ uses a similar technique as we seem to see one large Klan figure moving forward aggressively in a violent gesture (perhaps throwing something – his arm bent back like the common image of a baseball pitcher just before he brings the ball forward) who is comprised of numerous smaller white figures marching, carrying flags and walking with guns in lockstep.

‘Ritual’, on the other hand, presents a mass of smaller human figures in colorful, African-inspired clothing, forming a crescent image below three ambiguous lines against a background of rich and soothing blue. It is as if this group - formed like a bowl or cupped hands - has come together to receive a blessing or higher influence and the implication is that this must happen as a community – a gibe, perhaps, against the lonely, alienated Abstract Expressionists who felt they each spoke for and to humanity from their isolation and individuality.