Ahrong Kim, "Bittersweet" (2020), porcelain, luster, metal, 14 x 9.5 x 6.5 inches (courtesy the Artist and Kristen Lorello, NY. Photo: John Carlano)

In an interview with the online journal Studio Potter (September 20, 2019), Ahrong Kim made two statements that stood out to me: 

My greatest source of inspiration is my grandmother. She was the personal seamstress for the vice president of Korea before the outbreak of the Korean War. She was well known for her ability to produce sophisticated clothes and for her attention to detail and flawless stitchery. Growing up beside her, I watched her, equipped only with her hands and a sewing machine, gracefully transform fabrics of every texture and color into elegant garments.

I was inspired by Kathy Butterly after I met her when she visited RISD. […] I was making life-size figurative sculptures in graduate school. After Kathy’s presentation, I started thinking deeply about the scale of my work. I scaled-down my work and focused on details.

I read the interview shortly after seeing the impressive exhibition Ahrong Kim: i_love_myself, at Kristen Lorello (April 1 – May 8, 2021), her debut with the gallery. 

Kim is a technically masterful ceramic sculptor who studied in Korea and America. While she acknowledges Butterly’s influence, there are crucial differences between their work. Butterly’s primary form is a vessel, often in a state of collapse, while Kim’s touchstone is a young Asian woman’s head. 

Installation view, Ahrong Kim: i_love_myself at Kristen Lorello, New York (courtesy the Artist and Kristen Lorello, NY. Photo: Lance Brewer)

Although both artists concentrate on details, they work on a different scale. Butterly’s intricately detailed, beautifully glazed, open multicolored vessels are seldom taller than 12 inches, and often around 6 inches. In contrast, a number of the elaborately developed, multitiered, figurative works in Kim’s show were between 16 and 22 inches high, or around three times as large as most of Butterly’s work. 

Another important difference is that Kim is largely informed by a wholly different culture than Butterly. This is immediately apparent beginning with the women’s features in Kim’s work. Remember when the word “universal” was used as a cudgel by a primarily white art world to suppress cultural differences, and suggest there was a large, more inclusive goal that art should strive for? 

This difference became even more obvious when I was looking at “Delusion” (porcelain, luster 15 3/4 by 7 1/2 by 6 inches, 2020). The sculpture consists of three tiers: starting at the bottom, a black and white-striped flowerpot, on which a Korean ideogram is repeated three times; a young Asian woman’s upturned head, which is “planted” in the flowerpot, her pink lips parted; and a substantial blue cloud, sitting atop the head, painted with large sunflowers. Two hands, decorated with a pattern of stylized red flowers, are attached to the blue cloud; one hand clutches a gold semiautomatic pistol. 

Ahrong Kim, “Delusion” (2020), porcelain, luster, 15.75 x 7.5 x 6 inches (courtesy the Artist and Kristen Lorello, NY. Photo: John Carlano)

For a brief instant, I connected Kim’s sunflowers with Vincent van Gogh’s many paintings of them, as well as his belief that they symbolized happiness. Prolonged looking quickly rejected that association, as I examined each one of the three separate parts, as well as what it was joined to.

I learned from the artist that the Korean ideogram on the flowerpot means “soil” and the pronunciation of it is said to sound like a sob. As the head is rising from the pot, I think it can be assumed that the soil that sustains it is marked by grief and sadness. She is gazing at what is balanced on her head, her burden. The hands holding and steadying it are hers, but they are disembodied. The sunflowers and gun become focal points without quickly surrendering their meaning. However, it is also apparent that “happiness” is not what the sunflowers symbolize. 

What held my attention with many of the sculptures, but particularly “Bitter Sweet” and “Nostalgia” (both 2020), was the way Kim arrived at meaning. It was never obvious or didactic. Rather, a nuanced and complex state of feeling arose out of the coupling of disparate parts. Each one maintains its identity while contributing to an overall meaning that Kim literally and metaphorically assembles in her multitiered works, where the head serves as a base or conduit between one thing (for instance, the flowerpot) and another (the blue cloud with sunflowers). 

It would be reductive to read “Delusion” as a portrait of the artist. I see it as being about women who are “sunflowers” — who are doomed to follow a sun (their beloved) The lustrous gun complicates this reading. Is she being self-destructive or is she aiming to shoot down the cloud? If she is in despair, her expression does not convey it. She is blithely unaware, which invites the viewer’s empathy, while underscoring our inability to persuade this person to live differently. 

Ahrong Kim, “Nostalgia” (2020), porcelain, luster, resin, acrylic, 20.5 x 13.5 x 7 inches (courtesy the Artist and Kristen Lorello, NY. Photo: John Carlano)

I also found this sense of isolation in “Nostalgia,” in which an elaborate coiffure atop a woman’s head is painted with a brightly colored geometric pattern. Two pairs of inverted legs, wearing white skirts made of scraps, extend out of the form, like horns or weapons. They seem to be diving into the woman’s brain in search of something. 

Tactile black shapes resembling traditional Korean earthenware pots known “Moon Jars” punctuate the bright pattern. According to the gallery press release, the pattern is inspired by “traditional Korean ‘Jogakbo’ patchwork used in the creation of domestic wrapping cloths.” The woman is remembering a past that cannot be reached, even as it is an integral part of her. 

It is both unsettling and compelling that the woman’s eyes are blue in “Nostalgia” and “Delusion,” complicating our reading of them. Growing up in South Korea and coming to America to earn her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design, Kim is a diasporic artist, ill-fitting for either Korea or America. I think that is what the blue eyes signify. 

Ahrong Kim, installation view, Mickey B series (2021), porcelain, luster, faux crystals, each 6 x 6.5 x 4 inches (courtesy the Artist and Kristen Lorello, NY. Photo: Lance Brewer)

This awareness of slippages and misalignment marks her wall-mounted sculptures of Mickey Mouse heads, each of which is painted differently, some embellished with either flowers or bananas. “Mickey B” (2021) consists of nine identical heads arranged in three rows of three. One is blue and bears the red and yellow insignia of Superman; another is gray and bears the black and yellow Batman symbol. 

The 19 differently colored and decorated Mickeys that comprise “Mickey S” (2021) form a diamond shape on the wall. Three have bananas stuck to their faces. Surely, Kim is aware that “banana” is derogatory slang for an Asian who is yellow on the outside and white on the inside. By mixing these heads with others, including an orange-red one painted with green cacti, and two geometrically patterned ones, Kim presents us with a complex vision of what it is like to be a foreign-born Asian living in America. It is a vision that I think other Asians and Asian Americans can identify with as it underscores that one’s daily life is fraught with misperceptions and a sense of melancholy. The fact that Kim includes some signs of cheerfulness adds a sense of optimism. 

Ahrong Kim: i_love_myself continues at Kristen Lorello (23 East 73rd Street, 5th floor, Manhattan) through May 8.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...