Duk Ju L. Kim’s paintings burst and seethe with life. She’s called her current show at the Chicago Cultural Center “De-skinned,” and indeed there’s a raw, exposed feel to many of her pieces. Though nominally abstract, they are full of limbs, eyes, blood, and other uncharacterizable but obviously organic elements, all in furious motion. It may not be clear where these loose masses of flesh are headed, but they seem desperate to get there.
Some of Kim’s human or animal subjects look like they’re in a state of transformation. They have wheels and gridlike structures growing into and out of their flesh. Are they becoming machines? Has living in Chicago made them into what they have become? Over e-mail and text messages, Kim generously answered some of my questions while stressing that what artists do is make things rather than talk about them or explain them away.
She doesn’t start her paintings from a single idea but aims at an open back-and-forth with her canvases that she calls “an honest conversation.” She sees all the pieces as part of a continuum, a greater whole. The architecture of the city has indeed had an impact on her work. One can see a loose sort of grid in many of the pieces, perhaps a mirroring of Chicago’s street system.
Kim’s titles don’t betray much information, though names like Bach and Beethoven’s Driver and Interdepartmental show a sly humor and are evocative in their own way. She told me she believes in giving the viewer a hint rather than controlling his or her experience with explanations. One painting has a Korean title; it turns out to be her mother’s name.
Kim’s not a fan of wall labels either. Aside from the show’s title, there’s just a paragraph with some cursory biographical information and something about Kim’s work being shaped by geopolitical events she’s witnessed, and not much else: not what materials were used, no dates completed, no grand artist’s statement. Kim prefers viewers just react to her paintings, and that’s as it should be.
I see a lot of Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning in Kim’s work, particularly in the way she merges abstract and figurative elements into a whole. De Kooning used to talk about how putting facial features into otherwise nonobjective pictures gave him a point of contact, a way to organize the chaos. Similarly, I imagine the eyes that appear in several of Kim’s canvases, though seemingly unattached to a head, engage the viewer with their gaze; an eye of the storm, literally and figuratively. She confirms Guston’s influence and adds Chaim Soutine and Käthe Kollwitz as well as writers like Toni Morrison, James Joyce, and Dostoevsky as having major impact on her development as an artist.
Kim’s paintings are obviously the product of a serious reckoning with the world around her. When I ask whether she feels like a part of an artistic community in Chicago, she says she knows many creative people, that most of her friends are artists, but that her art is her own. “I don’t belong, nor am I active with a group of artists that share a vision—I never have. I consider myself a soloist when it comes to making work.”
“De-skinned: Duk Ju L. Kim Recent Work.” Through 7/29: Mon-Fri 10 AM-7 PM, Sat-Sun 10 AM-5 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, 312-744-3316, cityofchicago.org, free.