LOS ANGELES — Two concurrent solo painting shows on view at Helen J Gallery offer quiet and introspective spaces for reflection. Both shows demand slow, close, in-person looking and are reminders of how radical that experience can feel amid a culture of urgency and sensory overload.
For her work in In Stillness Like a Mirror, Korea-based painter Kim Mikyung uses a sparse geometric language consisting of vertical or horizontal bars, overlapping rectangles, and lines. The edges and sides of the paintings hint at the artist’s process of slowly obscuring the darker and more saturated colors underneath several layers of progressively lighter paint that has been sanded and burnished. Because the resulting multilayered surfaces are matte, they hold the light so that it bounces around within the multiple layers before returning to the viewer, giving the paintings a deep, luminous glow. The sanding also leads to subtle variations in these off-white fields, as in “Summer Rain No. 2” (2022), where the cooler white rectangle in the middle of the canvas reveals variations in temperature, and space, as your eyes adjust to the painting.
Three square works from the artist’s series Skin of the time are hung as a triptych for the show. In these pieces, the layering of the rectangular forms is more pronounced, and the slight relief along their edges catches the light as the viewer’s gaze moves across the paintings. Each of these paintings also contains a horizontal colored pencil line. A thin neon-yellow pencil line traverses the surface of the central painting, “Skin of the time (2022-5)” (2022). The loud vibrancy of this yellow is jarring amid the painting’s hushed grays, and it is a genuine surprise to realize that it was hiding in plain sight. In “White on white (2022-5)” (2022), three horizontal graphite lines sit on different planes: one on the surface, one buried beneath a few layers of paint, and one barely perceptible, creating an almost infinite sense of depth. Small details like this feel monumental within Kim Mikyung’s sparsely populated painting world.
Where Kim Mikyung’s process suggests an obsessive burrowing into the self, Kim Hyung-dae casts his gaze upward and outward into the sky. Now in his 80s, Kim Hyung-dae was one of the younger artists from the dansaekhwa group that emerged in postwar Korea, where he still lives and works. His approach to painting, although grounded in the styles and techniques of his elder dansaekhwa artists, differs in its use of vivid colors and direct references to the outside world. Appropriately titled Five-Colored Light, the show is a continuation of Kim Hyung-dae’s five-decade Halo series. The halo has long been seen in various folk traditions and religions as a premonition of future occurrences, a herald of significant events, or a sign from the spiritual world, and this sense of quiet wonder permeates these artworks.
The way that the light bounces off and in between the texture of the paint, which has been mixed to an icing-like consistency and applied in vertical or horizontal stripes with custom rake-like tools, combined with the optical contrast between the different colors, creates a stunning shimmering effect, mimicking the way light might be seen under the specific atmospheric conditions that would create halo-like effects. A particularly successful example of this is “Halo 17-0920” (2017), in which the pinks and blues optically mix to create a buzzing visual effect. In a newer work, “Halo 22-0309” (2022), the artist creates an almost prismatic effect by replacing the mostly monochrome grounds of past work with horizontal bars of different colors. Because our binocular vision allows us to read slight differences in surface texture and depth, these effects are impossible to capture with a flattened digital image created by a monocular camera.
With these two shows hung in neighboring rooms at the same gallery, it is natural to consider how they work together. Kim Mikyung’s paintings draw the viewer in for a close, careful inspection of their surfaces. Her process is subtractive, slowly obscuring the contrasts and paint layers through a lengthy process of sanding and burnishing. The resulting surfaces carry the ghostly vestiges of the labor-intensive process and yet project a refined grace, never feeling overworked. They require the eyes to take a few minutes to adjust before revealing the rich contrasts and discoveries within each piece.
Kim Hyung-dae, by contrast, has a more additive process, relying on optical mixing and shadows cast on thick impasto paint to achieve their rich visual experience. They are best appreciated at a distance, with a relaxed eye that allows the elements of the painting to visually mix. The paint application is more direct and literal on the surface — the viewer can follow along to read the different levels of pressure that the artist used when dragging his rake-like tool across the canvas. These paintings refuse to be properly read by the quick, scanning glance with which we have been conditioned to consume images through the over-saturation of digital content via social media and gallery emails. They demand that the viewer be present, literally and figuratively, before they reveal themselves fully.
After spending time looking at these paintings, armed with a level of awareness and attention to detail that the work in these two shows demand of the viewer, I found myself noticing things about the gallery space that I hadn’t before. In the process of looking at these paintings, viewers become acutely aware of the relationships between material, color, form, and image. These artists remind us of the importance and power of slow, deliberate, in-person looking by rewarding us with quiet moments of beauty, discovery, and even inner clarity.
Kim Mikyung: In Stillness Like a Mirror and Kim Hyung-dae: Five-Colored Light continue at Helen J Gallery (929 Cole Ave, Hollywood, Los Angeles) through April 1. The exhibitions were organized by the gallery.