CHICAGO — In the second act of Arthur Miller’s 1949 Death of a Salesman, a distressed Willy Loman laments, “Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.” The traveling salesman goes out and buys a package of seeds, hoping to sow physical proof of his time on earth.
Thomas Kong, bodega owner and collage artist, remembers reading Miller and Fitzgerald back at university in Seoul. Almost 50 years later, and he’s sowing his own backyard — as the co-proprietor of Kim’s Corner Food in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, but also as the maker of thousands of paper collages that claim almost every surface of his corner establishment.
But Kim’s Corner Food hasn’t always been Kong’s backyard. After emigrating from Korea to the US in 1977, he jumped around, working as a gas station attendant, owning a liquor store in Chicago’s South Side, and co-owning a dry cleaning business with his wife, all before purchasing the bodega on a sleepy residential street in 2006.
After filling the store with retail products, Kong started working from the ground up, using the various products’ cardboard skins to enliven the edges of the shelves. With time, the cutouts began to inch beyond the shelves, and an entrepreneurial impulse to embellish morphed into a full-fledged collage practice that now happily consumes half the labor of Kong’s work days (the store is open 7 days a week from 8am–8pm) and means he is almost always wielding a pair of scissors. When I ask Kong about his nonstop cut-and-pasting, his reply sums up how all artists might conceive of their labor: “It keeps me going.”
In 2014, Northwestern University student and artist Dan Miller noticed the unusual, collage-decked exterior and struck up a friendship with Kong and his ever-growing collection of collages. What has emerged from this working relationship between Miller, Kong, and also Nathan Smith, the co-director of the local art space Roman Susan, is, among other things, the opening up of The Back Room, a storage space at Kim’s Corner Food that, with Kong’s go-ahead, has been turned into an explosive archive and eclectic exhibition venue.
Owing to the shared labor of Kong, Miller, Smith, and a host of others, Thomas’s collage practice continues to move around and beyond The Back Room and the windows of the bodega. In early April, a crowd gathered at Roman Susan to witness the opening of Thomas Kong: Be Happy (A Proposal), which laid out a series of Kong’s works — inspired by one of the artist’s central slogans — that he hopes, with the help of a team of painters and designers, will be transformed into a block-long mural that would run along an embankment wall along Glenwood Avenue. The proposal was submitted to the community-based public arts initiative the Mile of Murals, which launched in 2007 with the aim of soliciting 19 large-scale murals — 10 block-long walls, seven viaduct walls, and two overpasses — from artists and collectives. Situated across from Kim’s Corner Food, the mural would be a large-scale echo of the store’s interior collages, with crisp shapes and real leaves under cellophane tape.
In the cut-and-paste landscape of Kim’s Corner Food, 2D collages sit below or dangle above their 3D counterparts like mirror images and are reminders of art’s own stake in capitalist production. Like a graveyard of the American dream where the dead are reborn, Styrofoam cups become minimalist sculpture while old luncheable containers offer up cardboard snacks. In one of the clearest enunciations of this ghostly landscape, the collaged skeleton of an old cash register — which usually sits at the base of an aisle but now forms part of a Back Room installation of Kong’s work, selected by artist Jason Lazarus — is a potent container of money and art, use and reuse.
Though drawing on the visual vocabulary of advertising, by mostly reusing materials Kong resists our obsession with the new. Like a true bricoleur, he uses what’s on hand — a bottle of Elmer’s white glue, tape, staples, a thumb tack — to affix his cut outs at an astoundingly steady speed. At one point in our interview, Kong ripped open a packet of Ramen seasoning and, with powder scattered, began gluing the plastic onto a piece of cardboard; in a flash, the disposable container transformed into artistic material.
Kong also draws from the image bank of the outside world. While typically bearing recognizable signs, his collages always gesture beyond their immediate content. In one piece that hangs near the store’s freezers (now given over, in part, to display), paper fragments that run along the center all function as re-contextualized advertisements. But as the outer pieces — abstracted by tearing or, perhaps, displacement — hint at, these fragments also function as shapes and shades which find their likeness on sidewalks, in the sky, and all around if we just look closely enough. For Kong, who says he finds motivation in both the divine and on the ground, the act of looking closely reigns supreme.
Kim’s Corner Food is located in Rogers Park, which remains one of Chicago’s most ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhoods. The current murals featured in the Mile of Murals are a colorful echo of their varied landscape: one, completed in 2009 by two artists and a group of summer campers, features some of the area’s key historical figures, among them Potawatomi Chief Metea. It seems fitting that, just as Kong’s collages continue to draw sight lines between art and the scraps of our immediate environment, so would the wall draw a lasting line between the store, the people who pass by, and the neighborhood beyond its edges.
Thomas Kong: Be Happy (A Proposal) continues at Roman Susan (1224 W Loyola Ave, Chicago) through April 26.