“I’m not trying to be spooky,” explained Cindy Ji Hye Kim, even as her works impart a chill with their stony vignettes plumbing the depths of the human psyche. Kim’s drawings and paintings are often strung from the ceiling like ghostly scrim, opening into scenes of dark interiors punctured with a harsh spotlight. She begins by building her work like theatrical spaces, such as a hall of funhouse mirrors or a dollhouse. Then, the denizens of this shadow realm come out to play: figures of authority standing in illuminated doorways, faceless forms gathering to perform what appear to be religious rites, schoolgirls bound into taut geometric shapes.
Kim’s bold plunge into the disgraced corners of the imagination has resonated with many, earning her solo and group exhibitions around the world. By 2022, she had achieved every artist’s dream of living entirely on her practice. But one of her first grinds after earning an MFA from Yale School of Art in 2016 was as an illustrator at an animation agency in New York, where she is still based. Her background in animation, at times, still haunts her paintings in their bisected or multiframe compositions.
Currently on view at Kunsthall Stavanger in Norway is “Sand in the Hourglass,” which includes a series of paintings inspired by phenakistoscopes—early circular animation devices where incrementally different frames rotate around a center to create the illusion of a moving image. It is disquieting to experience them as motionless objects, as if stiffened into a rigor mortis. Kim’s signature use of grisaille, a monochromatic painting technique that was traditionally used for preparatory underdrawings by applying an initial layer in grayscale, heightens this deadening effect.
In her New York solo exhibition “In Despite of Light”at Casey Kaplan earlier this year, Kim dipped further into the uncanny by implanting her drawings with clippings of her own hair. They rested on plywood easels—“a charged disciplinary device,” she said—some of them cut to look like vertebrae. Her interest in relating scaffolding and structural supports to anatomical parts began in 2019, when she presented a series of paintings in “Verses from the Apocalypse” at Foxy Production. The show, organized in collaboration with Helena Anrather, featured wooden stretcher bars carved into bones and human silhouettes.
Cindy Ji Hye Kim, installation view of “In Despite of Light” at Casey Kaplan, New York, 2022. Photo by Kyle Knodell. Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York.
Kim presented more skeletal forms the following year at MIT List Visual Arts Center: The painting Superego Fortuna (2020) , when viewed from the back, is supported by a sheet of baltic birch plywood cleanly sliced to resemble a pelvis. The resulting work destabilizes the boundaries between surface and substance by excavating the hidden components of what remains to be seen. In her intricate constructions, the artist wills the work to have a body and a life of their own—to rebel against their maker and annihilate ideas of the human.
In thinking about the pains and pleasures of art as a discipline, Kim often draws from her childhood growing up in Anyang, South Korea, where her family moved shortly after she was born in Incheon. There, college prep began at a very young age, and she took art classes after school that required sketching Western portrait busts and copying the Old Masters.
Cindy Ji Hye Kim, installation view of Riddles of the Id, 2020. © Cindy Ji Hye Kim. Courtesy the artist and François Ghebaly.
“I find the historical space of those European references violent, but it’s also beautiful,” Kim said while reflecting upon the Eurocentricity in her Korean education. The unquestioned normalcy of the Western academic structure, and its ubiquity, struck her as odd and tragic in retrospect. Perhaps this is precisely the lens her work holds up: to experience nostalgia for the past after making a traumatic exit.
Kim recalled feeling alienated and stateless after moving from South Korea to Canada at the age of 12. But rather than attribute this to strictly being Asian or an immigrant—identities that she said are often projected onto her—Kim prefers to define her experience as a fact of contemporary life. “I feel like I am living without history,” she said, explaining that even her knowledge of her own family lineage only extends back a few generations. “The placelessness of my existence feels like a very productive place to think through.”
Portrait of Cindy Ji Hye Kim with her works, from left to right, Prophecy and Moonlight, both 2022. Photo by Lance Brewer. Courtesy of Cindy Ji Hye Kim.
This pressure to reconcile large gaps in identity is evident in an early solo exhibition in 2018, “The Celibate Machine” at Interstate Projects in New York. There, she molded fists out of grains of rice and shaped a can of Spam to display the brand’s name in raised Korean letters. Both foods are intrinsic to Korean culture, and yet Kim invites viewers to consider how delicious commodities like Spam are often a byproduct of American militarism, imported during the Korean War.
Indeed, what does it mean to desire symbols of the oppressor? Is there room to mourn the exquisite ends of destructive means? Kim enters this uncomfortable territory with a delicate hand, indulging in lush references to Greek mythology, the Bible, Shakespeare, and other Western canonical works commonly under fire for their historical dominance. Rather than exclude them, she registers their sinister libidinal appeal, shying away from easy answers to age-old problems. After all, her Korean art classes objectified the white body, she pointed out, contradicting the popular perception that objectification is a process that strictly strips power away.
Her 2021 exhibition “Soliloquy for Two” at François Ghebaly, which co-represents Kim with Casey Kaplan, featured the painting Capita: The Face and Its Name (2021). Its semi-sheer silk surface depicts neatly coiled human entrails, while a stretcher bar on the reverse evokes a crucifix. When viewing the layers together from the painting’s front, one is encouraged to find the object in the human where it is least expected, and vice versa.
While searching for answers about life, Kim became a voracious reader. (Currently, she is reading Megan Rosenbloom’s 2020 book Dark Archives, which grapples with the queasy history of books bound in human skin.) Her work engages heavily with psychoanalysis, not only classics like Sigmund Freud but also contemporaries like Maria Walsh and Adam Phillips.
Cindy Ji Hye Kim, installation view of “Soliloquy for Two” at François Ghebaly, 2021. Photo by Paul Salveson. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles.
This cohort also includes English pediatrician Donald Winnicott, whose influential writings that take seriously the mind of a child echo Kim’s artistic approach. She recalled, with a tinge of grief, a clinical study of Winnicott’s that affected her deeply. It involved a child who became so preoccupied with string that he once tied it around his younger sister’s neck.
Rather than shame the child’s sadistic inclinations, Winnicott delivered a compassionate diagnosis: He theorized that the child became violent because he craved more attention from his mother, a connective tissue that he learned to symbolize through a material object. “Maybe my artwork is like this string,” Kim wondered of her work. “It’s like a motive to connect but also could be seen as a denial of separation.”
The Artsy Vanguard 2022
The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The fifth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 19 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2022 and collect works by the artists.
Header image, from left to right: Cindy Ji Hye Kim, “Feign’d Vestal,” 2022. Photo by Kyle Knodell. Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York; detail of “Ego Patheìtique,” 2021. Photo by Paul Salveson. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly; and “Riddles of the Id,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly.