For Cindy Ji Hye Kim, image-making is a means of reckoning and rebirth, of surrendering to the buried parts of her own psyche to re-examine her past. Through both medium and content, her latest body of work at Casey Kaplan gallery conjures her personal history and mines tensions between the visible and invisible. The engrossing realm Kim constructs in In Despite of Light is populated with her signature archetypal figures in dreamlike tableaux, in which the remembered and imagined are tinged with darkness.
Towering sculptures occupy the gallery’s main hall; they are both a striking and an unsettling introduction to Kim’s tense visual vocabulary. Four birch easels have been painstakingly adorned with imagery that recurs throughout the show, including trees, wheels, spinal vertebrae, and a pair of silhouetted, cartoonish characters: a man with a top hat and a woman with coiffed hair — the prototypical Mother and Father. Emphasizing their largeness, each easel displays small graphite drawings rendered on handmade paper incorporating pressed flowers and trimmings of the artist’s hair. Although these drawings are literally embedded with elements of life, the images depict haunting domestic scenes that border on nightmarish.
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Shadows as symbols of absence and erasure feature heavily in Kim’s work and are intensified in an installation of paintings and woodcarvings hanging from the ceiling. Viewers enter the chapel-like space via archways, thus revealing the images atop exposed stretcher bars to be double-sided paintings reminiscent of windowpanes — Kim’s tribute to Janus, the two-faced god of gateways, dualities, beginnings, and endings.
Each of these paintings is set in a bedroom, which the artist likens to the enclosed sanctuary of a womb through cropped compositions that suggest confinement. And yet, within these refuges, danger lurks and darkness reigns. “Nameless Hour” (2022) shows a schoolgirl cowering under her bed as a ghostly, winged Mother hovers in the blackness, hunched and watchful like an ominous guardian angel. In “Feign’d Vestal” (2022), a slightly ajar door provides a voyeuristic view of Father figures encircling an empty bed like a chain of paper dolls performing an occult rite.
Both canvases are backed with skeletal structures that produce additional layers of shadows and expose even more sinister interpretations of Kim’s scenes. Accentuated by her use of grisaille, traditionally a monochromatic layer intended to be covered up, the artist likens the exposure of the underpainting to the uncovering of her repressed memories. In the same stroke, she raises disturbing questions about what peculiar characters may be skulking out of sight, shrouded in shadow, forever forgotten in bygone dreams, or inscrutable in the recesses of her memory.
Finally, Kim presents four circular paintings that evoke phenakistoscopes, Victorian-era animation devices that create the illusion of motion when spun. They perfectly encapsulate the feeling, at the heart of the exhibition, that the past is as nebulous as a dream. In “Last Syllables of an Echo” (2022), Mother, Father, and the young schoolgirl are repeatedly presented in poses that suggest movement while hastily scribbled numbers melt off the border around them, indicating that they are trapped in a disintegrating clock. As mere ghosts of the artist’s past, they are frozen in time, uneasy in their stillness and rendered helpless against the shadows that threaten to consume them. Darkness, their old friend, is here to stay, in despite of light.
Cindy Ji Hye Kim: In Despite of Light continues at Casey Kaplan gallery (121 West 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.