Boston-based visual artist Lucy Kim paints people, objects and animals on manipulated sculptural surfaces. Her hands-on approach of mold-making and casting expands vision into the realm of touch, gesturally recording each step in a unique image-making process. She focuses her work by being present and arrives with some interesting questions.
Todd Mazer: You combine different mediums in your work to create harmony as well as discord. Did coming from Seoul, South Korea and attending an American school in Yangon, Myanmar influence your sensibility and process?
Lucy Kim: I had an incredible childhood marked by harsh differences existing side-by-side. Myanmar was very under-developed and in the early stages of infrastructure building. My family and I were part of a cluster of non-Myanmarese foreigners from all over the world who were there for diplomatic, military, or corporate reasons. Basically, there were these gated communities within a very raw, lush landscape. There weren’t a great deal of options in terms of schools, so my parents put me in this very small private American primary school that used U.S. textbooks, celebrated U.S. history, promoted a very U.S. oriented culture, so it was really at the center of all my learning, especially culturally. The pop culture coming out at the time—Michael Jackson, all those Molly Ringwald movies—was so alluring to me. Looking back, I see how odd my childhood was because I wasn’t a U.S. citizen then, and this wasn’t in the U.S.
On most days, I went from one bubble to another, and saw the rest of Yangon from inside a car, except when I managed to sneak out once in awhile. Yangon is an incredibly beautiful city, and because I wasn’t allowed to explore all that much, other than tourist destinations, it oddly stayed magical to me, even as I lived there. Generally, it was a very insular kind of life, and the national identities, diplomatic relations, and social hierarchies that bound the parents trickled down to the children. So I guess I grew up in a way where visually and socially, all kinds of differences were constant, so that was the norm. Yet, I think back and it feels so cohesive and singular. I’m sure this had an impact. I was definitely influenced by the Myanmarese traditional art that was all around, such as relief silver bowls and relief textiles.
In a sense, you create a form of physical photography by capturing your subjects through mold-making and casting. We accept as reality a lot of photography inundating our collective social media feeds. How central to your work is that perception, as well as the element of repetition?
I don’t think it matters whether we knowingly accept these images as reality or not. More likely, even though we know these images are not “reality,” they still gravitate towards becoming normal and natural to us because they fill our sight lines and become part of our habits. I’m interested in what holds the authority of truth, visually. Other than seeing something in real life, it’s culturally accepted that the next best substitute is photography, or anything that uses photo technology, like film or video. I know, generally, the word “abstract” in visual art is used to describe non-realistic, non-illusionistic images—art with geometric shapes or angular distortions, for example. But I became really interested in the abstraction that happens within representation itself, especially in photographic images. All the Photoshop edits, cropping, scale and proportion shifts, lighting tricks, color changes—I began to think of them as forms of abstraction and distortion that added to the original abstraction: flattening the 3D world into 2D and isolating it in time. That said, even though I was thinking about photography, I didn’t want to use it directly in my work because I actually love photography and I’m really easily seduced by its aesthetic. I’ve tried combining my painting with photography in the past using screen printing, collage, cyanotype and whatnot, and it didn’t work. And because I wanted to make really literal those things that are almost invisible or subtle, I gravitated to sculpture instead and ended up with mold-making and casting as a physical, touch-oriented substitute for photography.
Repeating a form, especially into a pattern, gives the illusion of continuity. Mold-making and casting lends itself well to this because the whole point of it is to make copies. I used to just repeat the same cast irregularly, but I recently began tiling them into actual patterns, where the empty spaces between the casts also begin to form a pattern. It brought a new dimension into the work.
With your drawings, you often start with free association and let the subject come into focus, which seems in opposition to your sculpted works that often begin with the literal form of a cast. How do these two methods inform each other?
Drawing provides a change of pace. It’s quicker, less pressure, and it’s funny to see what I do when I have no plan. Certain motifs tend to recur, and because I’m not bogged down by process and can focus purely on the visual, drawing tends to be where I work through my colors, compositions, and image/object combinations. I’ve also learned over the years to give some space to my impulses and gut instincts. They seem to be about a year ahead of my rationalizing brain. Though I work intuitively in the paintings too, drawing is the dedicated space for working intuitively.
You are a recipient of the 2017 James and Audrey Foster Prize, awarded by the ICA, Boston. Your pieces in the exhibition worked with three subjects: a plastic surgeon, a fitness trainer and a geneticist. What were the connections you were exploring with this series?
These subjects were chosen because their occupation involves manipulating the human body. The plastic surgeon does this on a cosmetic level, the trainer on a muscular level, and the geneticist on a cellular level. I wanted to use the bodies of the people whose work shape the perception of the human body. I’ve known Dr. Melissa Doft, the plastic surgeon, because she collects my work. When we first met, I knew instantly I wanted to mold her but waited a bit before I asked. Steve Marino has been my trainer for years. He is part of the reason I can continue to do the intense sculptural part of my work despite my shoulder injury. Dr. Eric Lander, the geneticist, is the director of the Broad Institute at MIT/Harvard in Cambridge, MA, where I live, and he happened to be a friend’s boss. They were very curious about the process, and I think they appreciated the fact that it was a new experience.|
What is a subject getting into when they take part in a molding session?
I think it’s a totally weird sensory experience; it definitely was for me when I was molded for the first time. The first thing I do is cover the person in Vaseline, even the clothing. I compose them, usually while they are lying down, positioning them in the way that I want. Then, skin-safe silicone rubber is brushed in thin layers, and, of course, I leave the nostrils clear. There’s a bit of sensory deprivation going on because the eyes, ears, and mouth are covered. The whole process involves lying still for about 20-30 minutes while the rubber sets. When I peel it off, they clean up. I find that the people who are willing to get involved are usually very comfortable with their bodies and curious by nature.
Lucy Kim’s solo show at Lyles and King New York opens on November 17, 2017. Portraits by Todd Mazer