“What the viewer thinks it is, is what it is.” Byron Kim’s deceptively simple statement about art may appear surprising considered alongside his decades-long artistic career. Addressing an audience in Princeton’s McCosh Hall, Kim acknowledged that some of his biggest artistic successes have stemmed from unanticipated interpretations of his art. Kim enjoys sharing the true sources of inspiration for his paintings, while also “embrac[ing] the different interpretations that other people have had. It happened twice that I put work out there and it got somewhat misinterpreted, but in a way that was very rich.”
One such example is his most popular project, which has been ongoing for almost 30 years. Synecdoche is a collection of panels representing the skin color of hundreds of individuals who have sat for Kim. It is housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The description on the Gallery’s website reads, “The title—referring to a figure of speech in which a part represents the whole or vice versa—makes clear that issues of representation, both visual and democratic, are in play.” In a country as diverse and racially fraught as the United States, most viewers inevitably see the piece as a commentary on race and representation.
While Kim recognizes and appreciates this response, he hesitates to draw the connection himself. “The larger discussion gets into these difficult areas that are so undefinable,” he remarked. “People always talk about race, and that’s such a constructed terminology. Skin color doesn’t map onto race very well.” Perhaps simplifying a portrait down to solely skin color can paradoxically push viewers to consider the complexity of human subjects and of the construct of race.
Kim arrives accidentally at broad implications through intimate approaches. He once painted a panel of his mother’s skin color from memory instead of by observation. He felt that the act of imagining her skin tone “elevated it.” Kim sees his work as a departure from the abstract expressionists who “made paintings whose subject matter was too huge for words, like anxiety or death.” Kim deals with the “infinitesimal as opposed to infinite.” Yet when Kim’s mother remarked that the color was “too dark,” Kim, who is Korean-American, saw his work absorb a new layer of meaning: that of colorism among Asian women.
Kim embraced Synecdoche’s theme of representation when he painted 24 members of the student body and staff at Princeton University last week. The students he painted are all elected representatives on Princeton’s student government. These panels, which he believes are his best yet out of the entire series, will soon be on display at the Princeton University Art Museum.
Synecdoche is not the only instance of context impacting the perceived meaning of Kim’s work. Kim was inspired to create paintings resembling bruises after reading a poem by Carl Phillips. Phillips’ poem describes a man observing his sleeping lover’s bruise and picturing in his mind how the bruise will look as it fades. However, the initial exhibition of Kim’s bruise paintings coincided with President Trump’s inauguration, “so it was written about in terms of trauma,” Kim said. Something that was latent in Kim’s initial source of inspiration took on a life of its own when the art’s audience needed it to.
Kim’s commitment to amplifying life’s smallest components has brought him unexpectedly to some of society’s biggest concerns. His paintings show that there is as much value in the intimate as in the expansive – and also that these planes may not be so distinct.