Collapsing Interior and Exterior: Cindy Ji Hye Kim Interviewed by Olivia Gauthier

Paintings that depict the hidden body and mind.

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A black and white painting of a skeleton and a brain titled, Capita: The Face and Its Name, by ​Cindy Ji Hye Kim

Cindy Ji Hye Kim, Capita: The Face and Its Name, 2021, graphite, charcoal, pastel, ink, acrylic, and oil on silk with shaped artist’s stretcher, 84 × 64 inches. Photo by Paul Salveson. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly Gallery.

Cindy Ji Hye Kim’s current solo exhibition, Soliloquy for Two at François Ghebaly in Los Angeles, features paintings and carved lanterns that continue her examination of the psychological aspects of painting and the relationship between visual language and psychoanalysis. Through a cast of characters-cum-symbols she has developed over the years—a scorpion, cartoonish male and female silhouettes, a pigtailed schoolgirl—Kim’s grisaille paintings probe the psychic state of the viewer who participates in the creation of meaning from the works’ peculiar arrangements. In their graphic quality, Kim’s paintings depict nightmarish and fantastical scenes—a pelvic bone spotlit with stage lights, a scorpion backlit by the moon, a girlish figure hung upside down reading a flaming book—that exist on a plane outside of lived reality but adjacent to it, suggesting the poignant nature of painting’s ability to scrutinize the bounds of accepted realities and logic. 

—Olivia Gauthier

Olivia Gauthier What’s been on your mind with this new body of work?

Cindy Ji Hye Kim I’m always responding to the last body of work. I’ve been fabricating the back of the stretcher bars as part of my painting practice for a while now. In the past, they were carved into shapes of human bones: a ribcage, a pelvic bone, femurs, and fibulae. I guess it’s inevitable for a figurative painter to become interested in the human anatomy, and for me that interest has bled into the physical anatomy of the painting object. I see painting as occupying a paradoxical place of interiority and exteriority, with the interior as a place where the soul of the painting resides, and the exterior as the flesh of the painting surface. I guess this makes me a dualist of some sort. 

For the new paintings in the exhibition, I wanted to collapse the interior-exterior dichotomy I had set for myself, and it’s been interesting to work with translucent silk as my main painting surface because it’s a fabric you can partially see through. Continuing to think about stretcher bars as a kind of skeletal structure inside of a painting body, I used different types of cross stakes as the support structure for the new group of paintings. The crucifix is such a charged symbol, mostly in the Christian faith, but  it is first and foremost a structure that needs to hold the human form upright, on display, and this was conceptually and materially interesting to me.

A glowing lantern with a carving of a human ribcage titled, Human Opacities, by ​Cindy Ji Hye Kim

Cindy Ji Hye Kim, Human Opacities, 2021, birch, LED candle, hardware, 12.5 × 3 × 3 inches. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly Gallery.

OG The works in your show are hung suspended so you can see the backs of the painting. 

CK Yeah. I have seven large paintings in the main gallery space, and they are installed to form a chapel-like structure. These double-sided paintings remind me of paneled windows and screens, so it’s exciting to create a kind of architectural framework as part of their display.

OG In terms of composition and imagery, some of the same characters reappear in these paintings from earlier work, but there’s also a new emphasis on skeletal shapes and the body.

CK A few weeks ago I had some time to look at all of the paintings as a whole. It usually takes months if not years for me to “understand” my own work, but it occurred to me recently that I have a real desire for symmetry. Or to be more accurate, I have a desire to correct asymmetry. One could probably argue that this impulse, a kind of longing for pure alignment, is at the heart of fascism. Not surprisingly, I look at a lot of twentieth-century propaganda posters as inspiration materials, and I find myself continually being attracted to their various visual strategies, however latent or manifest the conveyed message may be. I’ve also been looking at various orthopedic illustrations such as “The Tree of Andry” which depicts a sapling being corrected by a stake, as well as the drawings of posture-correcting devices for children invented by the nineteenth-century German physician Moritz Schreber.

Speaking of skeletal shapes, the pelvic bone appears several times in my new paintings. I’m not sure why, but I became fixated with the shape over the course of making this series of paintings. It looks like a butterfly, or a pair of wings, or maybe a womb that I want to go back into. It also reminds me of some of the Rorschach inkblot cards. I guess it feels like I’m making my own Rorschach tests in reverse: instead of abstract inkblots being perceived and analyzed into knowable symbols and meanings, my paintings start with recognizable symbols and result in unclear scenes. I never really know where the narrative or the meaning lies within my work.

A painting of a series of girls bound to a wheel with a human figure looming behind them titled, Crux Quadrata: Pascal’s Wager, by Cindy Ji Hye Kim

Cindy Ji Hye Kim, Crux Quadrata: Pascal’s Wager, 2021, oil, acrylic, ink, oil pastel, charcoal, graphite on silk with shaped artist’s stretcher, 84 × 64 inches. Photo by Paul Salveson. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly Gallery.

OG Your paintings have a graphic quality, especially with the grisaille palette. You also have a relationship to printmaking, especially with your combination of different forms of mark-making and the intense theatrical lighting. It makes me think of someone like William Hogarth. And there’s a more cryptic message in your work related to political or societal control but in an abstract way. The wooden figures you use, the man and the woman, are those meant to symbolize the father and mother? 

CK Yeah, they are recurring characters in my work along with the schoolgirl child. I project the child-parent dynamic onto the relationship I have as a painter to the painting object, and this subject-authority dynamic very much fuels how I go about making my work. I think of the painting object as a parental figure who holds authority over me, and I approach the act of painting as a form of submission. Freud talks about parricide in an interesting way in that the “killing of the parents” is at the base of all social evolution; some theorists see the child’s fantasy of the murder as a tool that enables them to accept the concept of death. Going back to some of the themes from my last show at François Ghebaly where I explored depictions of ritualistic sacrifices, I’m thinking about painting as a site of death and destruction, and the act of metaphorical killing as an important aspect of painting.

OG The painting Crux Quadrata: Pascal’s Wager (2021) really struck me. It has a schoolgirl figure tethered to a wheel that looks like a torture device, and the shadow of a mother figure looms in the background. There’s an inherent tension, and it’s maybe an unnameable emotion being portrayed, kind of the way dreams dig up emotional states.  

CK I think that’s so important to remember—the unnameable emotion. Dreams are representations in that they don’t necessarily have a hidden meaning, but they themselves are unconscious manifestations. Another way I try to think about the act of painting is the act of dreaming, which is an intuitive expression without a narrative goal. The practice of psychoanalysis is interesting to me, and even helpful, in that it sets up a kind of grammar to the wailing that is our psyche. As an image-maker, it’s tempting to refer to the indexical relationship between an image and its corresponding meaning, but I constantly have to restrain myself from doing that when I’m painting.

Installation view of the fronts and backs of paintings in the exhibition Cindy Ji Hye Kim: Soliloquy for Two

Installation view of Cindy Ji Hye Kim, Soliloquy for Two, François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly Gallery.

OG The word indexical seems so antithetical to what your project is. When talking about authoritarianism or fascism, or other forms of social control, something that’s indexical is a tool of an oppressive force. Indexicality was a tool of colonialist imperialism. 

CK Yes, or trying to find God in symmetry. I think it’s more important for me, as an artist, to sit with my conflicting desire and repulsion toward this idea of total alignment and indexicality than to simply write it off as wrong or dismiss it as the true face of Satan or something along that line. Last year during quarantine I watched Donatella Baglivo’s 1983 interview with Andrei Tarkovsky, and it seems appropriate to quote him here as a way to think about this inner conflict:

The artist exists because the world is not perfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.… Some say that art helps man to know the world like any other intellectual activity. I don’t believe in this possibility of knowing…. Knowledge distracts us from our main purpose in life. The more we know, the less we know: getting deeper, our horizon becomes narrower. Art enriches man’s own spiritual capabilities, and he can then rise above himself….

Cindy Ji Hye Kim: Soliloquy for Two is on view at François Ghebaly in Los Angeles until July 24.

Olivia Gauthier is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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