Skin Deep 

Byron Kim uses swatches of skin color to signify something more.

Byron Kim is best known for his pictures of skin. Make that skin color, without the texture, wrinkles, or hills and valleys of the real thing.

It's fitting, then, that a small grid of flesh-toned panels hangs like an emblem at the front of "Threshold: Byron Kim 1990-2004," now on display at the Berkeley Art Museum. At the opening, a coffee-colored man approached, held his arm up close to the panels on the wall to see if he could find a match, and then swiftly let it drop again, unperturbed when he couldn't find one. From his gesture, it was clear that he knew something about the artist's intent.

As the title suggests, this solo show -- Kim's first -- is a retrospective look at what this Korean-American artist has been doing since he burst on the art scene in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. That show featured a wall-size work, a grid of hundreds of panels in assorted shades of beige, brown, and pink. At first glance, it looked as if Kim had created an abstract "minimalist" painting. But for each panel, he'd duplicated the skin tone of someone he'd met and asked to sit for twenty minutes while he caught his or her approximate hue. In a way, he was painting the person's portrait. He named the piece Synecdoche, which means a figure of speech in which a part is symbolic of the whole or the whole of the part. Synecdoche reflected the diverse community of Kim's neighborhood in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Part of the reason the piece made such an impression was that multiculturalism and identity politics were all the rage in the early '90s.

Born in La Jolla, California, Kim lived on both coasts during his childhood. He first became interested in art, especially abstract art, while majoring in English at Yale in the early 1980s. There are traces of Mark Rothko in Kim's artwork, but he was far more influenced by Brice Marden's minimalist works of the 1960s, which also juxtaposed monochromatic panels of muted color.

Kim defies easy categorization. He adopted minimalism as an art form, but whereas minimalism was originally about the stripping away of content, Kim uses it as a mode of personal and sometimes political expression. In 1992, he published a polemical essay in a newsletter put out by the activist Asian-American arts group Godzilla. In his essay, entitled "An Attempt at Dogma," Kim asserted how his own painting would take on the "elite tradition" in art: "Like all good abstract and romantic monochrome paintings ... Synecdoche will imply a much larger, boundaryless work. While I want these chips of brown and beige to push in and pull back and give visual pleasure, I also want them to have the mundane flicker of an art that is inclusive as a matter of fact."

Over the years, Kim has added to Synecdoche by increasing the number of panels, and a larger version than the original is on display in the current show. On a visual level, the colors appear to be randomly arranged, and actually they are. To the right of the painting is a small chart of names identifying the individuals he painted. The names follow alphabetical order, which corresponds to the organization of the painted panels. Kim's method of constructing art here may seem a little mechanical, but to Kim, the piece expresses a sense of people and place. "I live in Williamsburg," he said at the show's opening. "If I'd done this in La Jolla, it would have looked quite different." Synecdoche (1991-present) dominates the wall, and it's fun to look at. Still, to appreciate the concept behind the image, the viewer has to read the explanatory wall plaque or already be familiar with Kim's work.

Kim complains that for a time after the Whitney Biennial he became pigeonholed as the "skin-painting guy." But time passes, he points out, and people forget. Still, the characterization is not entirely undeserved. Even before he decided to represent skin on canvas, Kim toyed with the idea of canvas as epidermis. In his Belly Painting (Red) (1990/2004), which is also on display in the Berkeley show, he experimented with pouring paint onto the canvas to see how much it could take; the force of gravity sucked it down so that the swollen "belly" of the painting looks like a pregnant woman's distended, sloping abdomen.

The show also offers a look at how the artist's work has evolved. Kim has continued to paint in monochromatic fields of color, sometimes placing two colors next to each other, sometimes multiple strips. The paintings often have a waxy veneer, which produces slight texture and sheen, and in many cases, the effects are beautiful. Unfortunately, the works elude reproduction in black-and-white.

In the mid-1990s, Kim began a series of gorgeous large gray-green paintings in homage to celadon ceramics. He got the idea when he accidentally broke an eight-hundred-year-old Korean cup that had been a gift from his parents. He was distressed after he broke it. Then, as he picked up the fragments from his studio floor, he saw how the glaze sticks to the clay surface much the way paint adheres to a canvas, which moved him to capture the celadon colors on a monumental scale.

In what he calls "spots of time" paintings, Kim uses color to recall particular moments and places from his past. Miss Mushinki (First Big Crush) (1996) is a small panel of narrow horizontal black-and-green stripes. This represents the pattern of a turtleneck he wore in first grade. It also records the moment he remembers when his teacher told him that she liked the shirt. For the viewer who is staring at the painting without this explanation, however, it's just a series of stripes. In this case, the idea behind the work may be more appealing than what the painting delivers.

On the other hand, three brown and beige rectangles manage to convey an old Dodge and the dusty feel of the road in 1984 Dodge Wagon (1994). With Metropolitan Pool, Williamsburg, Brooklyn (1994), two horizontal bands of color together evoke a hot summer day in the city and the cool oasis of water. The titles help here, but these paintings are compelling on their own. 46 Halsey Drive, Wallingford, CT 06492 (1995) is a clever statement about memory. The piece gets its name from Kim's family home, and the house must have been quite pink. To represent its color, Kim interviewed his parents and sister, who each chose paint chips matching what they recalled. Not surprisingly, they remembered the color differently, so Kim took the various chips and copied their hues in a series of hot and pale pink and peach stripes on canvas. Here, as with Synecdoche and much of his other work, it helps to know the story behind it, but even without the explanation, the painting has charm.

More recently, Kim has taken on grander themes. In a couple of panels together entitled Whorl (Ella and Emmett) (1997) he depicted the tops of his children's heads. Against the two brown backgrounds, the lighter-colored swirling whorls in their hair look like distant galaxies. He has also made the daytime sky his subject. His recent series of "Sunday Paintings" provides a window onto his world. Along the bottom of each blue-and-white square, he records the date, the time, and his daily activities, such as what he ate for breakfast or how he helped his son with a science project. The words are so personal and mundane, the pieces run the risk of being easily dismissed, but he implies something more significant by placing these everyday facts of life in the ethereal setting of clouds and sky.


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