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KANG Hyung Koo

KANG Hyung Koo, Youngeun Museum of Contemporary Art

Birth

1955, Gyounggi-do

Genre

Painting

Homepage

Callas, 2007

Oil on canvas, 259×194cm

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Hyung Koo Kang’s Portraiture: The Resurrection of Icons

Hyung Koo Kang is known for his hyper realistic portraits of iconic personalities from history, such as Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Andy Warhol. Kang’s paintings are composed of large canvases depicting facial features of his subjects, of which the most striking attribute is the stunning eyes; piercing and pregnant ciphers of the lives of each persona. The subjects’ vibrant eyes are not an abstract feature rendered by the flourishing final touches of the artist’s brush, but physiognomy embedded with adjoining facial muscles, nose, mouth, hair--all closely connected to tell a more complete story.

Kang’s unique style of illustration creates new personas from the pool of imagery of famous figures that is deeply imprinted on our psyche, as most faces are icons we have seen in numerous paintings and photographs. The painter bestows life to his subjects’ every single strand of hair, eyebrows, each wrinkle, so that they appear to be alive, breathing beings with blood pumping through veins. This vivid and meticulous depiction of each facial element misleads the viewer to imagine that Kang has painted people with whom he is well acquainted and familiar. Kang has been well known as an artist of the recent Korean Pop or Photorealism in art, but he refuses to be classified by stylistic affiliations. He insists that his paintings are differentiated from photorealist paintings, (despite having partly adopted photorealist techniques) in that he has aspired to capture the idea of each subject’s public persona, the defining characteristics of their era, as well as a nebulous conception of time. In the words of the 18th century portrait painter Jean-Etienne Liotard, paintings can manifest purity and truth by means of absolute fallacy. Kang utilizes fictitious images of universal celebrities of our age by means of the most easily understandable technique of realism, to express his subjective, true values.

His paintings are large-scale, time consuming projects that take him a month’s work to complete two to three canvases, or about 30 paintings a year?suggesting an enormous work load. Thanks to such a disciplined work ethic and dexterity, he is able to express realistically a range of images, from the mundane to the surreal, and exaggerated cartoon figures or film characters. The reason Kang has predominantly painted pictures of people stems from his outlook on life that corresponds to his artistic viewpoint. Since childhood, Kang proved he was talented by winning major prizes in numerous art competitions. In particular, during middle and high school years, his cartoon drawing skills made him enormously popular among friends. His entrance into Chung-Ang University, an institution with a strong tendency toward realism in the 1970s, nurtured him to perfect his signature style of hyperrealism. Kang happened to raise a family while in college, so for ten years after graduation he had to work at various odd jobs, ranging from office clerk to art gallery manager. It was not until he was 38 years old that he returned to painting, and anxious by his late entry into the art community, he resumed hyperrealism which was a genre he had excelled in earlier in life. He sought after images of influential social figures and individuals he respected as a method of personal testimony and social commentary.

In his portraits he attempted to reflect a range of attributes of famous figures from politics, society, culture, and religion, to capture the social standing, the tools of subversion, and the unique aura of each individual. Figurative painting was not favored by the Korean art community prior to the late 1990s, before which time Kang had the courage to begin with a series of self portraits, gradually expanding his repertoire to include contemporary political leaders such as Chung Hee Park, Joseph P. Kennedy, Doo Hwan Chun, and Young Sam Kim, for which he used a loom for a complete measurement. In Kang’s portraits, some of the politicians look powerful and charismatic in the prime of their power, while the deceased are shown as aged men. Kang has continued with his exploratory portraits by working on caricatures which unravel with depth through their extremely simple exterior. In 2007, Kang held an exhibition at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts which featured only his caricatures. Kang risked his reputation with this event, but it became a moment that helped solidify his fame as a painter. The exhibition featured over 400 universally known visages from various circles, depicted through diverse media such as sculpture, illustration, drawing and collage, which helped highlight Kang’s keen and intuitive sensibility. As a new genre of contemporary painting, Kang’s oeuvre presents his unique views that move beyond conventional social interpretation, and have succeeded in garnering great praise from the public. Through his artistic experiment, Kang attempts to gain a broader overview and continues to develop creative techniques that might mark a new epoch in art. His portraits contain not only the dual nature of painting?somewhere in between fact and fiction?but the self-contradictory nature of human existence itself. This is due to the manner in which Kang’s subjects are at once very fictional, yet simultaneously very real, breathing human beings.

First and foremost, viewers are engulfed by the hypnotic gaze of Kang’s characters. Kang’s portraiture are not mere images serving as transcendental objects of admiration and desire, but are rather evocations of emotional response from viewers, becoming icons of the rebirth of a generation’s kindness and humanity. Moving beyond hyperrealism, as Kang tempers the boundaries between soft contours and a few strands of hair, a few strands of the beard?indeed, even the boundary between the real and the ideal?he incorporates the depth of painting itself and his broad understanding of art. In this sense, his characters’ silhouette display everchanging depths set against the background, and create an abstraction of distant space and time.  The attention of the viewer shifts from the faces to the eyes. So we can feel the figures’ profound gaze fixated on us, intense and brilliant, as if mirroring the soul within. From a distance, his protagonists look like phantoms because of his aesthetic mastery, but when viewed up close, they turn out to be represented with accurately painted lines?curvilinear brushstrokes depicting texture of the skin, and special touches that produce transparent, moist pupils. Utilizing his favored utensils, such as the airbrush, iron scrubber, cotton swab, grinder, sandpaper and eraser?all of which move beyond the conventional paintbrush?Kang aspires to see every single brushstroke come to life from the background colors. And the imagery with light, wind, and smoke connects to the distant background and leads us astray into a surreal and fictional world.

Kang seems more dependent on aesthetic judgment rather than a methodical conception in his choice of personalities from a vast archive of film stills, choice of palette and facial expressions. First, he captures his favorite scenes on camera or video, then edits the scene on a computer, and finally transfers with precision the printed photos onto a grid on the canvas without even a millimeter of error. Kang’s painting does not reveal the invisible to the human eye, nor admire or critique the camera lens that supersedes human vision. Kang uses mechanical methods to pursue perfection in visual expansion, but he has experimented with various painting methods to communicate with all the senses, moving beyond the question of visibility or invisibility. It is ironic that his monochromatic color scheme makes his characters look far more real alongside surreal shapes imprinted in our memories, and not recognized as illusory images. His figure, rendered in a single color scheme against a plain black or white background, better draws the audience’s attention as human beings. 

Kang occasionally depicts figures from his imagination. For example, in his “Women” series from 2009, Marilyn Monroe appears as a live celebrity, overlapped with today’s women walking around the streets of New York and London. In this series, Monroe is depicted blowing a puff of smoke from her open mouth, her blonde hair covering one of her eyes, or wearing sunglasses, she makes a puzzled look toward us, her long hair flowing smoothly around her shoulders. Through Kang’s imagination, we experience Marilyn Monroe as if alive in our times, attractive and adorable with pretty features, in her unique style that still looks sophisticated.

Familiar transcendental elements often appear on his canvases as well, including the tiger, moon, and cartoon characters or Jesus. The painting that depicted the moon, painted in 2010, depicts the moon’s cratered surface with more meticulous precision than a camera could capture. Quite different from any mythical object shining faraway, or familiar lunar images seen through optical lenses, the moon in Kang’s painting looks like an organism of life and death, like a human skull, depicted with a precision that would only seem possible if he had visited the universe in person.

Kang is an iconic artist of the 21st century who is capable of mixing various art forms from popular genres such as illustration, cartoons, painting, sculpture, photography and print, to classical fine art, and makes harmonious use of both conceptualization and technique. Beyond imagined heroes or mythical beings represented by digital technology, Kang’s works help the audience experience a fantasy that remains alive and well in this artist’s subjective sensibility and technique. That’s why he is regarded as an outstanding artist who knows how to evoke the sympathies of viewers living in a super-connected and multi-faceted era.

His paintings are large-scale, time consuming projects that take him a month’s work to complete two to three canvases, or about 30 paintings a year?suggesting an enormous work load. Thanks to such a disciplined work ethic and dexterity, he is able to express realistically a range of images, from the mundane to the surreal, and exaggerated cartoon figures or film characters. The reason Kang has predominantly painted pictures of people stems from his outlook on life that corresponds to his artistic viewpoint. Since childhood, Kang proved he was talented by winning major prizes in numerous art competitions. In particular, during middle and high school years, his cartoon drawing skills made him enormously popular among friends. His entrance into Chung-Ang University, an institution with a strong tendency toward realism in the 1970s, nurtured him to perfect his signature style of hyperrealism. Kang happened to raise a family while in college, so for ten years after graduation he had to work at various odd jobs, ranging from office clerk to art gallery manager. It was not until he was 38 years old that he returned to painting, and anxious by his late entry into the art community, he resumed hyperrealism which was a genre he had excelled in earlier in life. He sought after images of influential social figures and individuals he respected as a method of personal testimony and social commentary.

In his portraits he attempted to reflect a range of attributes of famous figures from politics, society, culture, and religion, to capture the social standing, the tools of subversion, and the unique aura of each individual. Figurative painting was not favored by the Korean art community prior to the late 1990s, before which time Kang had the courage to begin with a series of self portraits, gradually expanding his repertoire to include contemporary political leaders such as Chung Hee Park, Joseph P. Kennedy, Doo Hwan Chun, and Young Sam Kim, for which he used a loom for a complete measurement. In Kang’s portraits, some of the politicians look powerful and charismatic in the prime of their power, while the deceased are shown as aged men. Kang has continued with his exploratory portraits by working on caricatures which unravel with depth through their extremely simple exterior. In 2007, Kang held an exhibition at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts which featured only his caricatures. Kang risked his reputation with this event, but it became a moment that helped solidify his fame as a painter. The exhibition featured over 400 universally known visages from various circles, depicted through diverse media such as sculpture, illustration, drawing and collage, which helped highlight Kang’s keen and intuitive sensibility. As a new genre of contemporary painting, Kang’s oeuvre presents his unique views that move beyond conventional social interpretation, and have succeeded in garnering great praise from the public. Through his artistic experiment, Kang attempts to gain a broader overview and continues to develop creative techniques that might mark a new epoch in art. His portraits contain not only the dual nature of painting?somewhere in between fact and fiction?but the self-contradictory nature of human existence itself. This is due to the manner in which Kang’s subjects are at once very fictional, yet simultaneously very real, breathing human beings.

First and foremost, viewers are engulfed by the hypnotic gaze of Kang’s characters. Kang’s portraiture are not mere images serving as transcendental objects of admiration and desire, but are rather evocations of emotional response from viewers, becoming icons of the rebirth of a generation’s kindness and humanity. Moving beyond hyperrealism, as Kang tempers the boundaries between soft contours and a few strands of hair, a few strands of the beard?indeed, even the boundary between the real and the ideal?he incorporates the depth of painting itself and his broad understanding of art. In this sense, his characters’ silhouette display everchanging depths set against the background, and create an abstraction of distant space and time.  The attention of the viewer shifts from the faces to the eyes. So we can feel the figures’ profound gaze fixated on us, intense and brilliant, as if mirroring the soul within. From a distance, his protagonists look like phantoms because of his aesthetic mastery, but when viewed up close, they turn out to be represented with accurately painted lines?curvilinear brushstrokes depicting texture of the skin, and special touches that produce transparent, moist pupils. Utilizing his favored utensils, such as the airbrush, iron scrubber, cotton swab, grinder, sandpaper and eraser?all of which move beyond the conventional paintbrush?Kang aspires to see every single brushstroke come to life from the background colors. And the imagery with light, wind, and smoke connects to the distant background and leads us astray into a surreal and fictional world.

Kang seems more dependent on aesthetic judgment rather than a methodical conception in his choice of personalities from a vast archive of film stills, choice of palette and facial expressions. First, he captures his favorite scenes on camera or video, then edits the scene on a computer, and finally transfers with precision the printed photos onto a grid on the canvas without even a millimeter of error. Kang’s painting does not reveal the invisible to the human eye, nor admire or critique the camera lens that supersedes human vision. Kang uses mechanical methods to pursue perfection in visual expansion, but he has experimented with various painting methods to communicate with all the senses, moving beyond the question of visibility or invisibility. It is ironic that his monochromatic color scheme makes his characters look far more real alongside surreal shapes imprinted in our memories, and not recognized as illusory images. His figure, rendered in a single color scheme against a plain black or white background, better draws the audience’s attention as human beings. 
Kang occasionally depicts figures from his imagination. For example, in his “Women” series from 2009, Marilyn Monroe appears as a live celebrity, overlapped with today’s women walking around the streets of New York and London. In this series, Monroe is depicted blowing a puff of smoke from her open mouth, her blonde hair covering one of her eyes, or wearing sunglasses, she makes a puzzled look toward us, her long hair flowing smoothly around her shoulders. Through Kang’s imagination, we experience Marilyn Monroe as if alive in our times, attractive and adorable with pretty features, in her unique style that still looks sophisticated.

Familiar transcendental elements often appear on his canvases as well, including the tiger, moon, and cartoon characters or Jesus. The painting that depicted the moon, painted in 2010, depicts the moon’s cratered surface with more meticulous precision than a camera could capture. Quite different from any mythical object shining faraway, or familiar lunar images seen through optical lenses, the moon in Kang’s painting looks like an organism of life and death, like a human skull, depicted with a precision that would only seem possible if he had visited the universe in person.

Kang is an iconic artist of the 21st century who is capable of mixing various art forms from popular genres such as illustration, cartoons, painting, sculpture, photography and print, to classical fine art, and makes harmonious use of both conceptualization and technique. Beyond imagined heroes or mythical beings represented by digital technology, Kang’s works help the audience experience a fantasy that remains alive and well in this artist’s subjective sensibility and technique. That’s why he is regarded as an outstanding artist who knows how to evoke the sympathies of viewers living in a super-connected and multi-faceted era.

 

 

 

Mijin KIM (Prof. of Hongik Univ., Art Critic)

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The Punctum in Synthetic Realism

A man in the painting glares at the audience. The portrait of this Dutch man is eminent, but his photograph is probably unknown to most people. This photo of Vincent van Gogh is an artist’s transformation from a painted portrait, but Van Gogh has never left such a photograph of himself. The image of Van Gogh exhaling smoke is probably a figment of the artist’s imagination, yet this painting by hand is as real as a photograph. Can it be that perhaps the artist possesses a photograph of Van Gogh that no one else in this world does?

The audience detects Photorealism in Hyung Koo Kang’s work, but Kang is not a photorealist. Even though he admits that Chuck Close left an impression on his work, Kang’s work is fundamentally different from Photorealism, which transfers the photo into a painting. This is because Kang’s work is devoid of a preexisting photo of what is represented. In the case of Photorealism, the photograph is developed into a photorealistic work, so there is a certain subject that is represented. On the other hand, no matter how realistic Kang’s images are rendered, the subjects of his portrayal do not actually exist.

This also makes a difference in how the work is produced. Using the reproductive technology of silkscreen, Andy Warhol employed the capitalistic society’s method of mass production even to the final process in the making of his paintings. After Pop Art, the photorealists also used such mechanical procedures as the grid or slide projection. However, Kang’s images lack indexicality. There are no such subjects to testify, photographs to transfer from, or film on which to trace. Therefore, one can say that his work is a craft.

His realism is achieved in the manner of absolute craftsmanship. Clearly, copying from a photo or a slide is more useful or essential in order to give a hyper-realistic rendering in an image. However, Kang clearly states that if he employs a mechanical means of reproduction, “the reason for the work’s existence will disappear.” The limited tool like the pinsel[1] is not enough to give a photographic effect. Therefore, his work mobilizes all sorts of informal tools, such as airbrush, nails, drill, cotton swabs, toothpicks and erasers.

Photorealists subvert the relationship between the original and the copy, and claim that the photo is more real than the reality itself. Conversely, Kang’s hyper-realism claims other objectives, because “to actualize things that do not exist, one needs the power of making it hyper-realistic.” He does not strive to achieve reality, but attempts at the latency, possibilities and potentiality. His works do not portray the reality more real than it actually is, and his photographs are no more real than the reality itself. Like what Lev Manovich said about computer graphics, it is just “a realistic representation of a different reality.”

Kang asserts that “People recognize these portraits of famous people as photographs, but I do not draw famous faces. Instead, I fragment them, and then I reclaim the original through assembling.” According to Roland Barthes, photography represents death, because it captures the moment and freezes it forever. Nevertheless, Kang restores life to his subjects through fragmenting the photograph. In the ‘other reality’ that Kang creates are Warhol and Monroe coexisting with and aging along those still living.

There rests an immense difference in the quantity of information between a painting and a photograph. Finding the kind of photographic resolution in a painting is like refiguring the dinosaur through its fossilized bones; the missing information must be filled in through imagination. Kang had to visually integrate countless number of images of elderly people in order to depict Da Vinci’s wrinkles. Random faces of extras used in movies were integrated together to make Lincoln or Van Gogh’s face in his work. In this sense, we can define his work as ‘Synthetic Realism’.

Here we can see that Kang is embodying the fundamentals of computer graphics in an analogue way. Through the use of computer, the dinosaurs from the Jurassic Period take off from the state of being dead and fossilized, to live and move in front of our eyes. Using the digital technology, we can capture an individual’s childhood face or his old-age face in a photograph. Furthermore, superimposing several photographs to make one image through the software such as Photoshop, has become an everyday activity for the mass in this digital age. Kang expresses that his work is similar in theory to the inkjet prints.

Until the 19th Century, the typical method of visual communication was the painting. In the 20th Century, this method was replaced by photography and film, which appealed to the public perception. Although a painting does not really require a subject, it lacks in realism. On the other hand, photography is realistic but must be accompanied by a subject. However, computer graphics endow the same kind of vividness as a photograph even in an image without a subject. For instance, the two CGI images in a screen or monitor unite to compose one image creation. This synthetic realism will represent the visual culture of the 21st century.

If Warhol’s work resembles mechanical production through the use of silk screen to create advertising images, then Kang’s work is similar to that of the computer graphic engineers in making movies, in the sense that he puts in a tremendous amount of work to increase the resolution in his paintings. While Warhol predicted the masses’ interest in image reproduction, Kang presents the people’s interest in the fresh new image and the digital synthesis. Different from Warhol’s expectations, today’s masses create images using the computer, not reproduce images through silkscreen.

For Warhol to be a success, his work should be devoid of ambience. His work overthrows the aura in painting, and reflects on today’s masses’ inclination to “overcome the disposable nature of all objects” through intentionally mimicking at reproduction. On the contrary, Kang’s work definitely has a kind of an aura. Where would that come from? Evidently, it comes from the piercing stares of the subjects in his work. Walter Benjamin’s paper about Baudelaire reflects another definition of the aura, as the ‘meeting of the eye contacts.’

At first it seems perplexing that Kang would now draw caricatures when his previous paintings were as real as photographs. These cold images like cartoons definitely do not serve other purposes than to capture the characteristics of the subject. Caricature captures and mimics an individual in a way that at the same time does not seem to resemble the subject at all. This helps the process of capturing the subject’s most fundamental characteristics in the complex process of representation. Through roughly 600 sketches and studies, Kang realized that what determines the impression of a person is the area surrounding the eyes.

The stare penetrates the audience, and its power is prickling. The perceptibly tactile effect caused by the stare, and the resulting intimate relationship between the work and the audience define the ‘punctum’ situated in Kang’s work. According to Roland Barthes, the photograph’s punctum comes from indexicality, or from the things that actually existed. However, Kang’s work rests on fiction. It is a lie that presents what was never there as something that once was. How can an image without indexicality have punctum?

Such possibility depends on how the meaning of reality has changed. Warhol’s reality was made by reproducing. However, today’s reality does not just rest on being reproduced but simultaneously being created or synthesized. Reality is no longer something given (datum). It is already something artificially synthesized (factum), created by digital production and composition. To the digital audience, the reality itself is taken as an image that is created and composed. Hyung Koo Kang’s work illustrates that through the visual actualization, the synthetic reality can also have punctum.





*Punctum : Purely personal and individual response to an artwork which 'pierces the viewer'
[1] Pinsel is German which means a brush.



Jungkwon CHIN (Culture Critic)

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