Cindy Ji Hye Kim

Thousand-Eyed Monster, 2023, 68″ x 52″, Watercolor, graphite, charcoal, pastel on silk with shaped birch stretcher bars

Death abounds in the work of Cindy Ji Hye Kim. The paintings evoke the funerary, mourning, and the physical death of the body, while the artist describes her process as something of a psychological journey towards ego death. The muted colors and gauzy textures are evanescent, the paintings trapped in a felt process of decay, like memories trying to be retrieved at the exact moment they are fading away. Watercolor and pastel figures play across delicate stretched silk, and with the heavy use of graphite and charcoal, essential dualities are conjured: light and dark, spiritual and material, unconscious and conscious. Layered with symbolic meaning, Kim’s paintings see weighty tokens both personal and mythological haunt their corners. The late sun leans in the stained glass window as the numbers drift off the face of the clock. The porcupine aches with alienation, while the stony, smirking face of Bangsangsi speaks nothing of the evil he has seen. The artist describes her practice as one of egoic submission, a masochistic undertaking through which her conscious self is rearranged. Kim uses her paintings to transmute some of the most difficult human experiences—the passage of time, the pain and struggle of intimacy, death—into something that can be represented in a picture, and so made tangible, maybe even a bit silly. For Kim, art-making is intuitive and alchemical, a process by which we can attempt to take what weighs us and make it light. – Olivia Whittick

How do your symbols come to you?

The symbols usually make their way into my paintings in a labyrinthine way. The porcupine in my painting Mosaic Tale, for example, originates from my visit to the Freud Museum in London last October. Besides Freud’s collection of antiquities, books, and his famous couch, a strange bronze cast of a porcupine caught my eyes. The sculpture looked out of place sitting next to the elegant figurines of Egyptian goddesses and Greco-Roman heroes, and appeared menacing with its unruly quills that pierced outward. A few years prior, unrelated to Freud, I was making drawings inspired by the story of the porcupine’s dilemma: a group of porcupines in winter must huddle together to stay warm, yet their quills will hurt each other if they get too close. When I saw the lonely bronze creature at the museum, I felt a kind of a conjunction in my mind; the dilemma and the sculpture came together to form a new constellation around solitude, interiority, and the limits of human intimacy. I think a big part of my painting practice is mirroring these conjunctions, arranging stories and images as a collage to unearth symbolic meanings.

Kokdu #1, 2023, 3.5″ x 4″ x 10″, Charcoal on carved wood

I’m interested in the mythic creatures in your work, can you tell us a bit about the Thousand-Eyed Monster?

In my painting titled Thousand-Eyed Monster, a many-eyed Korean mask called Bangsangsi-tal is painted at the top of the image. The masks were worn by town priests during a traditional funerary procession as a way to ward off evil spirits. After the ceremony, they were burned or buried with the dead. The masks reminded me of Argus Panoptes from Greek mythology, whose thousand eyes allowed him to see in every direction. A detail I found interesting about Argus Panoptes is that he never slept. The ancients drew a connection between vision and conscious life, and to me the only escape from this all-seeing monster is death, dreams, or blindness. There is an interesting contrast between Bangsangsi-tal and Argus Panoptes: the former sees the hidden world of the dead and the latter sees the manifest world of the living. Art-making, for me, is about bringing appearance to things by losing sight of oneself, occupying the world of the seen and the unseen. It feels crucial, as a visual artist, that I develop a capacity to surprise myself in the world that has already been captured by sight.

What draws you to funerary objects and themes as a subject? Do you see the Kokdu as a hopeful figure or a haunting one? Are you afraid of death?

I think one of the ways I cope with the fear of death is by honoring the process of decay. I’m drawn to objects that deal with decomposition and death, like tomb murals, urns, death masks, and gravesite statues, because I see them as exercising genuine attempts at reconciling with loss and longing. Cynics might view these attempts as futile, or think that they merely exemplify human narcissism and a desire for immortality, but I don’t see them that way. I see an Oedipal impulse, an attempt to un-differentiate generational hierarchies and to collapse the linear timeline of life and death. There is a willing regression into primal urges, and I don’t mean being horny or being afraid of pain or dying, but being curious, enchanted, and in awe of our world.

Nameless Hour, 2022, 68″ x 52″, Graphite on silk with shaped birch stretcher bars

Boys with Machine (Toys), 2023, 68″ x 52″, Watercolor, graphite, charcoal, paste on silk with shaped birch stretcher bars

The scale of your graphite works is astounding. Is your studio practice more devotional or punitive? I know you once said painting is a form of submission and I’m interested in that.

Maria Walsh, a British psychoanalyst and art historian who wrote Art and Psychoanalysis, defines art-making as a process of “converting the sadistic impulses of the ego… into a masochistic ethics of responsibility and desire.” She further explains that during artistic creation, ego fragmentations are “…experienced at a distance, although, paradoxically, [it is] an extremely intimate one.” I agree with Walsh’s definition of art-making and see my studio practice as a form of submission: wherein my conscious self goes through a masochistic process of fragmentation and rearrangement. To me, there is a sense of authority and omnipotent indifference which painting possesses, and to paint is to willingly submit to that authority. Plainly put, intensely felt aspects of my life are made to look tolerable, even a bit silly, when they’ve been unloaded on a canvas and transformed into a picture.

What particular archetype, or inner psychic character do you feel most possessed/driven by recently?

On my last Enneagram test, my highest score was type 4 the Individualist, and my second highest was type 8 the Challenger. But according to a certain astrologer who incorporates both Western astrology and Eastern fortune telling, the inner psychic archetype based on my birth chart is: a private tutor for the children of the Habsburg family. There’s something deeply depressing and hilarious about this very specific archetype from an astrologer, but I identify with it. It illustrates some of the moral conflicts and class anxieties I have to navigate through as a fine artist. On a positive note, the archetype also illustrates the revolutionary potential of the worker, someone whose power is based on shaping culture and knowledge. I try to hold onto that.

Mosaic Tale, 2023, 68″ x 52″, Watercolor, graphite, charcoal, pastel on silk with shaped birch stretcher bars

Verso of Mosaic Tale

I’m fascinated by the Donald Winnicott anecdote from your past show, about the child who was preoccupied with string. Can you tell us a bit more about the significance of that for you?

Donald Winnicott’s writing is foundational to the way I build my visual world, and his theory of transitional objects has influenced how I write and speak about my work. Outside of my practice, his work has also allowed me to discover new ways of understanding myself and others.

In his book Playing and Reality, Winnicott describes a case study of a seven year-old boy he started treating in March of 1955. The boy was brought to Winnicott after exhibiting a series of symptoms of a character disorder. After a few sessions of talking and drawing with him, Winnicott found a curious obsession the child had with string. He later heard from the boy’s mother that the boy had a strange habit of tying random household objects together with string: joining chairs and tables in the living room, tying the mantle of a fireplace to a cushion on a sofa a few feet away. His mother found this behavior odd, but gave no special attention to it, until the boy tied a string around his little sister’s neck. After several months of meeting with the boy and his mother, Winnicott discovered that the mother had been suffering from chronic depression and was often hospitalized, leaving the boy for months at a time with other caretakers. Winnicott gave a compelling diagnosis that the boy’s behavior of joining the objects with a string was about “dealing with a fear of separation, attempting to deny separation by his use of string, as one would deny separation from a friend by using the telephone.”

I was particularly drawn to the way Winnicott explained the journey of the string’s symbolic process: its material function of joining things together comes to symbolize intimacy and connection. Then, the string’s material function becomes perverted and comes to symbolize a denial of separation. I was moved by the boy and his string, and saw aspects of my own artistic practice reflected in this case study. Making art feels very much like that of the string’s symbolic journey: underneath the material surface of longing for connection, there is a denial of the separation that has already taken place. The reconciliation of the two, and acceptance of the latter, seems to be an important task and a life-long homework for me as an artist.

Driftwood, 2023, 68″ x 36″, Watercolor, graphite, charcoal, pastel on silk with shaped birch stretcher bars

Kokdu #2, 2023, 3.5″ x 4″ x 10″Charcoal on carved wood

Interview by Claire Milbrath
Photography credit: Lance Brewer. Photos courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly Gallery