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Keun-Joong Kim at the Kenji Taki Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

A thousand galleries dot the Tokyo art map, and as such at any given time there are bound to be a few very good shows out there that somehow just sort of get missed. And so it is no reflection on his artistic merit that back on Friday, January 21, while a number of big-name shows were kicking off the new season at high-profile galleries, Korean abstract painter Keun-Joong Kim was left to stand around at his opening party with his wife, gallery staff, and not very many others.

But it is a shame, because Kim’s show at the new Kenji Taki Gallery in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward is one of the best in the city right now.

There are 12 canvases here, layered with materials ranging from oil, acrylic, and traditional mineral pigment paints to molded bronze and cutouts of tin (pig, or dog-shaped, the tin is, and riveted to the canvas). The show is both a rare look at contemporary Korean painting and a refreshingly raw exhibition that recalls some of the passion and joy which was being worked into painting some ten years ago, when a new breed of abstract artists took over the New York City scene.

The Seoul-based Kim, 44, did a post-graduate Fine Arts degree in Taiwan, where he became fascinated with the metal and stone murals of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). Upon his repatriation in 1986, Kim began combining traditional Chinese and Buddhist sculpture with Korean folk art, then spicing the mixture with a dash of the irreverence found in the prevailing art movement of the period, Neo-Expressionism. Like Julian Schnabel, a New York art star who became known for his three dimensional paint-on-crockery-on-canvas creations, Kim also works to overlay his paintings with a variety of non-painting materials. Although the results did earn the artist a place in several European and North American group shows, Kim’s work has not been widely-seen outside Korea. This is his first solo show in Japan, and it is nice to see the Kenji Taki Gallery taking the chance on a relative unknown.

Opened barely a year ago, the Kenji Taki is an agreeable, 50 square meter space located next door to Wako Works of Art, one of Tokyo’s leading independent commercial galleries. (The Wako has Belgian Luc Tuymans’ "Bad Painting" canvases up to March 18—these two off-the-beaten-path galleries really should synchronize their openings.)

Kim’s paintings are a sampling from the last seven years of his work. With the exception of a couple of dissonant high-key acrylic works on the gallery’s west wall, both called "The Nature – Communion," the works here are all titled "Natural Being." Representative of the series is one of the oldest and largest works, a 160x130cm canvas done in 1993. An Alice in Wonderland gold and blue diamond pattern serves as the foundation over which the artist has splotched white and green paint, crudely sketched the side view section of a chair, and affixed a bronze something-or-other, in the center.

"It’s meant to be Kim’s image of a sword and a man," explains gallerist Momo Kunikawa. Whatever it is, it brings the viewer’s attention in close enough to detect that the artist has not only added to the canvas, but taken away as well. In the upper left corner, Kim has scratched and dug a cigarette package-sized window through the paint and prime and right to the foundation of the canvas. Most all the pieces in this show yield surprises (geometric shapes, mathematical equations, mysterious etchings or objects buried under paint) when examined closely.

It is evident that Kim spends a good deal of time building his canvases. What is perhaps more important is that in this time of staid painters, it would appear that Kim has a good deal of fun doing what he does.

"Oh yes," laughs Kunikawa, "he loves to have fun—when the opening party finally finished he and his wife took us all out to Kabukicho."

Sort of makes one sorry to have missed it…


Notes: Until Feb 23 at the Kenji Taki (3378-6051). Pictured is Natural Being" (1993), mixed media on canvas, courtesy the artist.
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