Byron Kim, “Blue Lift Sandalwood Fall” (2016) (all images courtesy James Cohan Gallery)

Everyday phenomena are hard to paint. And, in the age of pocket cameras, why would you try? If you’re Byron Kim, turning canvases into fields of city haze, skin, cloud, or shadow, you might just expose something everyone else has missed.

In his new series at James Cohan Gallery, Mud Root Ochre Leaf Star, Kim paints bruises. But, as the title of the exhibition suggests, the bruise is more than a mark — it has a life cycle. Kim was inspired by the poem “Alba: Innocence” by Carl Phillips, in which Phillips meditates on a lover’s bruise, “something like amber,” and compares it to meat, soil, and a landscape. Similarly, Kim looks for visual rhymes, making the bruise into earth, a nebula, a blossom.

It’s not the first time Kim has painted flesh. His Synecdoche series was a centerpiece of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, an infamous exhibition lauded and decried for its “multiculturalism.” Riffing on post-painterly abstraction and the modernist grid, Kim created a series of small, rectangular paintings emulating the skin tones of his sitters, mostly strangers and some of his artist friends. Hung together, the varied pinks and browns and yellows and creams were both peaceful and unsettling. Does skin stand in for the person, and does this grid stand in for America? Does the work flatten our identities into a multiracial checklist, or does it challenge us to recommit to coexisting in society?

Installation view of Synecdoche, an ongoing project since 1991

Compared to Mud Root Ochre Leaf Star, the Synecdoche paintings suddenly feel austere — those skins are flat, closed patches of color. In the new works, the skin is just a membrane, full of folds and wrinkles. Underneath, the depth of the bruise is unknowable. The paintings radiate tenderness and hurt.

The two bodies of work feel like a parable of racial possibility in the US. The ’90s promised multicultural harmony: we only needed to “diversify,” make room for many colors. Today, the resurgence of white nationalism, police brutality, and the end of the Obama years have shown the limits of that narrative. It’s not enough to see skin — can we reckon with the violence and healing it carries beneath?

Kim developed a new process for the paintings in Mud Root Ochre Leaf Star: he boiled and dyed fabrics before stretching them onto frames, and painted not with brushes, but rags soaked in glue or oil and natural pigments. The result is a set of 13 lush, pulsating works. Without brushstrokes, the stains seem to seep out from the linens and canvases themselves. The natural pigments feel earthy and familiar.

Installation view of Mud Root Ochre Leaf Star at James Cohan Gallery

Some pieces, like “Blue Lift Sandalwood Fall,” read clearly as bruise and skin: a blue-pink shape spreads from the corner of the cream canvas into the center, fading at the edges. Blue takes a different form in “Cosmos Pathos,” where it feels more like a cloud floating within the tan border that absorbs it. In “Evidence of a Struggle,” a rusty haze rises off the deep browns beneath, with no strong shapes or outlines. The title feels suggestive and ironic, perhaps pointing to the failure of official language to capture the traumas of brown skin.

Kim’s ongoing play between surface and depth shows up literally in the works. In “Distant Ancient,” the ridges of the crumpled canvas hold more blue and red than the pink around them, reading like veins. A couple of works have little drip marks, like Kim is reminding you they’re paintings. Most of the works are matte, but a couple, like “Innocence, Blue Coming Through” have an oily sheen. The painting feels eerily like leather, or recently lotioned skin.

Byron Kim, “Cosmos Pathos” (2016)

On one level, Kim makes paintings about painting: the limits and richness of medium. But the works’ mysteriousness invites more. In blurring the line between bruise and color field, Kim sidesteps into the longstanding question of aestheticizing violence. Do the works romanticize the abused body? They seem too abstract for that. Do they speak to our contemporary moment, where some bodies are destined for violence and others for survival?

Rather than answer literally, Kim responds with devotion to the work. The paintings speak of the care it takes to render something as minute and universal as a wound. That seems as good a starting place as any: care for craft, for people, and for the eternal negotiation between what our bodies carry and what they reflect.

Bryon Kim: Mud Root Ochre Leaf Star continues at James Cohan Gallery (291 Grand St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 22. 

Ryan Lee Wong is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. He has worked at the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Chinese in America, where he was assistant curator.