I believe art is a powerful universal language that has the ability to convey concepts and emotions that people from any culture or background can “read” and interpret based on their own perspectives and experiences. The inspiration for my art comes from patterns found in century-old Korean Buncheong ceramics, silk fabrics, and the Korean alphabet.For me, these patterns convey timeless narratives that remain relevant even in modern day America.The range of patterns found across these various media provides me with raw material that I transform into my own language through my work.Painting and “writing” become one in the same.And through my painting I communicate what I hope is a powerful, yet soothing, and universal series of messages for my audience. My work was shown in the “Poetry in Clay: Korean Buncheong Ceramics” exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, along with five other Korean artists, to demonstrate the vitality of contemporary art influenced by Korean Buncheong ceramics, and how this art form is still alive today.This exhibit showcased fifty-five masterpieces, including six Korean national treasures, from the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, Korea. Most recently I was one of fifteen U.S. women artists to participate in “Half the Sky: Intersections in Social Practice Art, Cultural Exchange and Exhibition,” at the Luxun Academy of Art in Shenyang, China. The purpose of this exhibition was to create a forum for cultural exchange between women artists from all backgrounds. Kay Kang
Kay Kang: Resonances By Terri Cohn
I use words because they speak out to the viewer. Words come from us. We can relate to them. They bridge the gap between the viewer and the piece. Robert Barry, 1983
Many people have claimed the language of art to be a universal one, a point that is both plausible and debatable. The experience of painting and sculpture is infinitely mutable, colored by an understanding of artists' intentions, and our perceptions of the feelings and meanings communicated by line, color, gesture, shape, form, and space. The proposed and professed connotations of a work of art create an engaged dialogue between it and the viewer, and by extension, with the artist. Text-based paintings also have exceptional powers to create this sort of rich exchange, a quality clearly demonstrated in Kay Kang's work over the past decade. Kang has largely worked with Korean and pictographic languages as means to narrate stories and concerns that are simultaneously personal and universal. Her consistent use of Korean text as a primary visual and narrative form forces viewers to consider the work from a purely aesthetic perspective, and to reflect on the conceptual obfuscation she experienced as an émigré to the US. As she describes it, "in my own experience trying to read a foreign language, pages of text often looked more like decorative patterns than individual letters and words with absolute values." This mirrors my early encounters with Kang's works like Conversation with My Father (1997)--a two-panel painting comprised of elements from more than 100 letters Kang received from her father after she left Korea—and my attraction to its minimal, methodical rows of linear symbols that rest on a textured, jade-colored ground. The rhythmic regularity of the painting's constructed narrative is contextualized by the underlying spectral forms, intimated by tonal variations in its celadon surface. In tandem, these elements create a sense of intimate relationship between past memories and stories that exist in the space of the present. By contrast, Kang's Conversation with My Mother (Regret/No Regret) (1998), a small scale painting created with a more austere palette, visually suggests the duality of her feelings about her mother. This quality is reinforced by Kang's framing of the work with an assertive black border painted around its perimeter and down its center, and the ghost image of text that seems to float behind the window of the picture plane in hazy space. Kang occasionally uses text in sculptural contexts, motivated in part by a desire to comment on the contradictory Korean practice of announcing the births of boys with charcoal and red peppers hung on the front doors of their homes, and the births of girls with just charcoal, similarly sited and suspended from hemp ropes. In some of Kang's works like It's a Girl! (1999), she reframes the sexist nature of this practice with peppers and charcoal, which she has used to reclaim the symbolism attached to a female birth. In related ways, First Born Son Daughter, 1999, and Jungwhan (For the Girls), 2002-03, are tributes to the many women that were given male names by their families as an expression of hope for future sons rather than daughters. For First Born Son Daughter, Kang wrote the names of the 576 women in her graduating class from Ehwa Women's University in white on a black ground, as a tribute to them. While she has visually animated the picture surface by intermittently painting names a brighter white, the political subtext of the work (hidden for those who cannot read Korean) is that almost one-fifth of the names are typically considered to be for men. With similar intent, for Jungwhan (For the Girls), Kang wrote the names of her classmates on pieces of charcoal, which she then embedded in a mixture of sand and pumice and mounted on wood panels. Kang brought her interest in such personally charged issues into an expanded context in her publicly sited work Waiting Room (1997), an installation she wallpapered with layered and repetitive Korean medical texts. Kang designed the installation to emulate the type of room where individuals sit while waiting to see a doctor, suspended in the liminal space of their anxiety and fear, hope and anticipation. Her desire was that "the words should resonate on a very subtle and deeply personal level…[and] to use the power of art (the visual) to soothe the mind (the spiritual)." These qualities also characterize other works like A picture…a thousand words (1993-97), a wall mounted series of 221 small paintings on wood that suggest a cryptographic journal. The progression of color (reading left to right) from warm and bold to cooler and more contemplative, creates the mood of this visual diary and suggests Kang's interweaving of the personal and the meditative. As anticipated by A picture…a thousand words, in her recent work Kang has moved away from specific content, toward greater visual minimalism. This is elegantly manifested in A Solitary Being (2003), where she has alluded to text with rows of ink-drawn horizontal lines on individual pieces of rice paper. The alternating gray and black pages covered with lines of nominal text and vertically mounted to suggest unrolled scrolls, have a subtle voice that resonates as both subjective and collective. Kang seems to express Robert Barry's notion that "the words come from us," enabling these works to communicate in a language that can be universally understood.
******************************************************************* Note: Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from conversations with the artist or from written statements about her work.
An artist’s canvas consists of layer upon layer of precious intent. Art is an intentional and historical epic containing the imprint of the artist with a potential to remain in perpetuity. Kay Kang’s works are contextualized cocoons that speak of her life experiences. It is not an exaggeration to describe Kang as unstinting in sharing her vulnerability and expressing her innermost sentiments in her work. For the past several decades Kang has immersed herself in the wellspring of inspirational sources of her life to create a visually diverse body of work.
From the beginning, diaspora was a seminal point that flavored Kang’s artistic journey. The perspective of a displaced immigrant in America coming from the restrictive Confucian environment of Korea was that Kang was at last able to expand her horizon to include formerly forbidden career as artist. “My work reflects assimilation into American culture and the tension I experienced as a Korean-born artist living and adjusting to a different culture…avoiding conflict between traditional Korean culture and my westernized aspirations.” Kang rejected the restrictive expectations and the gender limitations in Korean society which was still deeply imbued in Confucian way of thinking in the early 1970s. Despite the numerous hardships as a displaced immigrant, she found the freedom to express her creativity immensely liberating. Not surprising then that the ethos of diaspora is reflected poignantly in her work, plucking at our sentiments and nostalgia. Like many artists of her generation Kang works from her experiences. Kang’s work resonates often in quiet restraint or in vivid spontaneity, harmoniously exhibiting extreme artistic control and complex nuances.
The use of bold colors and even bolder brushstrokes are often supported by a background painting that could easily stand on it’s own in many of Kang’s works. Evocative and effervescent the under painting in Kang’s work seamlessly supports the bold gestural brush strokes reminiscent of a traditional calligraphy. Kang’s classical calligraphy training is visible in many of her work. In recent years Kang has begun to use abstraction of Korean Hangeul or Korean writing system as in the Four Strokes which is a partial component of a character. Hangeul lends itself beautifully to abstraction and Kang extrapolates specific components of Hangeul for it’s maximum calligraphic visual impact, delighting the eye as it follows the direction of the brushstrokes resulting in all it’s spontaneity and simplicity as in the Six Strokes. One need not be fluent in Korean Hangeul to appreciate the visage of the brushstrokes.
Celadon is a color that Kang was drawn to from the beginning and the color appears prominently in many of her works. The celadon color conjures the ceramic jars much beloved by Koreans for more than a millennia and the viewer is given a glimpse of an artistic inspiration that defined Kang’s culture. Not so subtly, vivid orange is found in many of Kang’s work which connotes for her a specific emotions of aspirations and hope. The resulting art work when thus combined is vibrant with positive movement and energy and tangible connections to accidents of nature. Inspired by nature like a fossil embedded rock picked up during beach walk gave rise to a much more significant art work that evoke organic shapes in thick bands of black brush work. Kang commits the fossil shape created by nature to exist in immortality with just a few brilliantly placed brushstrokes.
Kang’s mixed media work involves painstaking experiments like working with Hanji (Korean mulberry paper). She discovered Hanji to have infinite capacities as a medium. Through a fluke of accident in a neighboring studio, Kay’s own studio became flooded with several inches of water. “A Solitary Being" was the result from soaked paper strewn on the floor to view as a larger piece. “I got the idea from the shimmering drawings in the water that I saw. I mounted the drawings on the painted canvas with celadon color to show the color underneath which made a shimmering effect (similar looks when the drawing were in the flooded floor).” The resulting effect delighted Kang who appreciated the accidental discovery and created some of her best ink and Hanji paper. Hanji has been one of the medium Kay has utilized in many of her works along with bold and powerful brushstrokes that demonstrate her classical early education in Korea where writing calligraphy in both Korean and Chinese were part of the curriculum. With one gestured motion bold brushstrokes are made a dominant statement on many of Kang’s work.
The painting Genesis was created when Kang discovered knotted black plastic strings in a Korean fishing village discarded from oyster farming. Without a clear understanding of why she brought them home she began experimenting with the strings. It was the fluid shapes of the strings that appealed to Kang. The resulting inspirations are the numerous paintings that depict the knotted brushstrokes appearing to be simultaneously familiar and abstract.
Kang’s creativity and the execution of her craft is achieved through much deliberation and a disciplined practice. Kang’s studio in the Hunters Point Shipyard complex is a testament to the hard work and hours dedicated to the obsession of her chosen life’s work. The scores of sheets of papers piled here and there testify to the endless search for the exact gesture, shape and color. Kang continues to strive to find the next inspiration in any number of mundane sources. I can sense even at this very moment she is in her light filled studio busily moving about experimenting with a gestural brushstroke, dabbling on some bold colors...
Linda Inson Choy Contemporary Korean Art and Asian American Art Curator