Cindy Ji Hye Kim’s Verses From the Apocalypse

Written by Tatum Dooley

Photography: Charles Benton
Courtesy Helena Anrather and Foxy Production, New York. 

According to urban legend, Stanley Kubrick was purposefully cruel to Shelley Duvall while filming The Shining, so that her insanity on-screen would read as real. The same music from The Shining plays in the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut, which took 400 days to film. Did both films happen in the same twisted world? My mind cycled through these conspiracies about Kubrick’s perfectionism as I walked through Cindy Ji Hye Kim’s exhibitions at Foxy Production and Helena Anrather, a few blocks away from each other in Chinatown, New York. 

It’s not so much that Kim’s grayscale paintings and drawings invoke Kubrick’s films literally (though the circular cult-like paintings come close), but that the meticulous process lends itself to conspiracy. The imagery in Kim’s work does nothing to discourage this notion—a mural of a giant wheel of pig-tailed girls in school-girl skirts is nothing if not ritualistic. The monotone colour palette is rendered with a variety of expertly mastered techniques, simple images become more complex the closer you get to them, creating different viewing experiences depending on your proximity to the work. Images of contorted schoolgirls with engorged body parts—the image, or perhaps feeling, of breasts spilling out of a too-small bra—repeat throughout the two shows. Not only are the figures spilling out of clothing, but their bodies are fighting against the confines of intricate theatre sets. The architecture forces the body to contort, creating an image that’s almost too easy to make a metaphor out of. 

At Helena Anrather, the viewer mirrors the drawings, becoming a contortionist themselves. Thin wires thread across the gallery, requiring you to duck and swerve through the space—art world praxis! Clumsily, I backed into one of the wires, causing the suspended drawing to swing dangerously. During the opening, the precarious set up did cause one of the drawings to come crashing down. The installation introduces the possibility for chaos into the typically sanitized world of art galleries—mimicking Kim’s works that pair clean lines and forms with anarchic vignettes. 

The physical layout of both shows adds to the suspense of the work, furthering their cinematic quality. Kim’s compositions have all the equations of a blockbuster: Cults! Perversion! Sex! Schoolgirls! One ticket, please! At Foxy Production, sculptural puzzles made of wood are built into the stretchers of two paintings hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room, like little easter eggs holding up the canvas. The subject matter of the two shows can be split into four categories: starlets, theatre sets, workers, and voyeurs. The starlets and voyeurs entertain, while theatre sets and workers elicit the feeling that we’re being granted a behind-the-scenes look at the world Kim has created—and implicated in it.

Kim’s focus on appendages is fetishlike, evoking Robert Crumb’s exaggerated vixens or John Currin’s ample maidens—but if these (male) artists use the female body as a comedic trope, funny like a lurid fantasy, Kim’s depictions are more grotesque in their abstractions. The twisted bodies, limbs astray and perhaps coming undone, are closer to Picasso’s mutilated bodies in Guernica. The effect of experiencing Kim’s work is similar to watching Eyes Wide Shut, you want to be turned on, but are too distracted by the dark undertones. The images of voyeurism and naked bodies don’t so much excite as they do unnerve. 

Looking out the window at Foxy Production I could see the outline of scaffolding through the window covers—the same criss-cross patterns of  Kim’s paintings. I began to feel like I was on a set myself (Eyes Wide Shut, which was set in New York, was shot entirely in London). I started to wonder if Kim’s drawings were set where I was standing, but as I said, the work is prone to conspiracy.