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The inquiring mind of a restless, energetic spirit

Works from 1990-2004 suggest Byron Kim asks good questions, though answers may not stick.

June 21, 2005|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

LA JOLLA, Calif. — What would happen if the surface of a painting were thicker than its support? How about covering a painting with fingerprints and titling it "Please Do Not Touch"? What would it look like to paint a view looking straight up into the sky? Is it possible to make a key to all the colors occurring on a child's body? What if the memory of a person or place could be represented by a single color?

Each of the works in Byron Kim's variably satisfying show, "Threshold, 1990-2004," stems from just such a proposition. "Untitled (Thick Painting)" (1990) is a chunky thing, a small panel about 1 inch deep supporting a slab of pigment twice that thick. The waxy surface of "Please Do Not Touch" (1991) has been enthusiastically fingered. Kim's "White Paintings" (2001) are large, pale meditations hosting a subtle hum of blue. Each small panel in the 25-part grid "Emmett at Twelve Months" (1994) is painted a different color -- eggshell, putty, warm black, cocoa, taupe. "Mom II" (1994) is a large monochrome canvas covered in a single "flesh" tone.

One reason that Kim's show, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego's main facility in La Jolla, doesn't engage more thoroughly is that questions endure longer in the mind than answers. Questions open things up; answers tend to close them down. Kim's work emerges from a range of inquiries, some straightforwardly empirical, many of them philosophical sparklers. At their best, the paintings generate more questions and resist resolution. Often, though, they read as physically bland answers. Kim has a restless, energetic mind that idles high, but he hasn't found vehicles to consistently match that power.

The relationship between idea and object feels especially paradoxical in Kim's case, because many of his works address the questionable reliability of appearance. They point to both the limitations and the possibilities of distilling complex identities down into unitary forms, surfaces or colors.

Take "Synecdoche," for instance. Considered one of Kim's key works, it presents as a vast grid of modest-sized panels, a minimalist mosaic in brown and pink tones. Actually, it's a group portrait. Each of the nearly 400 panels corresponds to the skin color of an individual sitter, either an acquaintance of Kim's or a stranger. The panels (which he's been adding to since 1991) are arranged alphabetically, according to the sitter's first name.

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part is understood to refer to the whole, or the whole to a part. Kim celebrates the rainbow coalition of humanity through this broad spectrum of flesh tones, but at the same time he calls attention to the absurdity of defining individuals by skin color, one small part of their identity asked to carry the weight of the whole. This ambivalence makes "Synecdoche" a provocative work, lingering and open-ended.

Kim has also produced subsets of the piece, on commission from museums, including MCASD.

In 1994, he painted a grid of 25 panels, each matching the skin color of one of the museum's trustees. (The piece is not displayed separately in the exhibition, but duplicates of its panels are incorporated into the larger work.) Needless to say, the rainbow didn't arc nearly as broadly in the smaller, specific sampling. Instead, its slimmer spectrum illustrated, quite pointedly, a lesson in the politics of race and power.

Kim was born in La Jolla in 1961, grew up in Connecticut and now lives and works in Brooklyn. He attended art school in the '80s, when interest in multicultural expression and identity politics surged. Focusing on skin color must have come naturally, but Kim, a Korean American, dispatched with race issues fairly quickly to take up other, more visceral and psychological aspects of color.

In the mid-'90s, he made a series of paintings (including "Mom II") exploring the way color corresponds to memory. A small canvas striped in olive and black -- "Miss Mushinski (First Big Crush)" (1996) -- is a mnemonic link to the shirt Kim wore for three weeks in a row after being complimented on it by his first-grade teacher. Other, monochrome panels displayed in twos and threes refer to a favorite public pool and the artist's old Dodge wagon.

For "46 Halsey Drive, Wallingford, CT 06492" (1995), Kim sent a sheet of pink paint chips to his parents and sister, asking them to identify which shade came closest to the color of their family home. Naturally, each chose a different color, and Kim painted their selections in stripes across a large panel. The tenderness of the effort comes through, even though the piece ends up feeling like a middle school science project on the variability of memory, its hypothesis suggesting its own obvious answer.

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