A rising art star who draws on her Korean past
LONDON – On a gray spring afternoon, artist Hun Kyu Kim welcomed a visitor to his tiny London studio, a curtain-walled enclosure filled with pigments, brushes and tools. Resting on an easel was a half-finished painting of a menagerie of cartoonish creatures – a dog wielding a gun, a dragon biting a cell phone – all meticulously drawn and painted in a profusion of color.
Visitors to Art Basel Hong Kong can see a selection of other works by the 34-year-old South Korean at the booth of the Parisian gallery High Art. His paintings are part of the Discoveries section of the show, dedicated to emerging artists.
Unlike other young talents whose careers take time to take off, Mr Kim was spotted early: he was featured in a gallery as soon as he graduated from the Royal College of Art in London in 2017, and three months later, he exhibited works. at the Frieze Art Fair.
Mr. Kim’s paintings are both fun and disturbing, executed in a blend of two contrasting aesthetic styles he was immersed in from an early age: traditional Korean silk painting on the one hand, and pop culture. Japanese and animation on the other hand.
“My work is a combination of the fantasy world and the real world,” Mr Kim said in an interview at his studio, at a joint artist space in the East London area of Bow. “Everything we see in my painting – the past, the present, the future, the East, the West – is very chaotic. I try to put everything inside, like Lego blocks, and I say, “Let’s play”. “
Mr. Kim said he wanted to be an artist since he was in kindergarten. His mother, a high school literature teacher and aspiring writer, encouraged her son’s artistic inclinations. She came home from school with sheets of paper printed on one side and about to be thrown away. His son used them in his drawings and watercolors.
As a young boy, Mr. Kim had a revealing moment when he was taken to a museum and first saw 14th-century Buddhist paintings made in Korea during the Goryeo dynasty. He was fascinated. “I could see the very fine lines and the very delicate colors,” he says. “I could feel the time and the work that went into it, and it really moved me. I was like, ‘I want to do that kind of thing.’ “
Another major turning point in his formative years came in his teens, when South Korea, until then under strict rule and a conservative, closed society, he said, suddenly decided to open up. to the culture of its historical enemy: Japan.
“So many Japanese animated films and pop stars have come to South Korea,” Kim recalls. “I am from the generation that was very influenced by Japanese culture.”
The great Japanese animation filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki has been a major source of inspiration, especially his “Princess Mononoke,” a 1997 fantasy epic that features gods and other heroic types in a forest, battling against them. humans using natural resources.
On the recommendation of his mother, Mr. Kim attended a high school specializing in the arts. There, he began to learn traditional Korean drawing and painting on silk, as well as art restoration. He continued his studies in oriental painting at the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University, where he also studied art theory.
“The training was really strict,” he recalled, noting that it sometimes took more than a decade of education to become a conservator of traditional painting. “But I really found a kind of beauty in oriental painting, and I liked applying it to contemporary art.
South Korea at the time was a politically and socially stifling environment, Kim said. But he was able to save enough money to move to London in 2015, where he enrolled in the Royal College’s Masters in Painting program. He was suddenly in a completely different atmosphere than he had left in Korea. Britain was “a center of contemporary art,” he said – the place where members of the group known as Young British Artists, like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, still ran the roost and where people lived more freely. At the Royal College, for example, he saw his comrades shed centuries of artistic tradition and engage in a dizzying mix of disciplines: painting, sculpture, performance, installation.
When the director of the Approach Gallery in London saw Mr. Kim’s work in his class’s graduation exhibit, the gallery immediately signed it. Mr. Kim went on to organize a series of personal exhibitions and now has a small but growing base of international collectors.
Mr. Kim has described himself as a “workaholic” who spent 10 hours a day, seven days a week, in his studio, and only took three days of vacation last year. He admitted that his work “makes people uncomfortable”; his own wife said she didn’t particularly want to hang one of his paintings at their house. Yet he maintains a connection with his training in Korean silk painting, cluttering his works with supernatural and phantasmagorical figures.
His ambition, he added, is to show his art in “super chic galleries” in London and around the world. But the pleasure Mr. Kim takes in his work exceeds this ambition. “I love my job, I love to draw and I love this kind of little life,” he said. “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing.”