hunger and the big picture
This work is from a large exhibition I had in 1997 at Art Space Seoul (part of Hakgojae Gallery). It included 21 bowl paintings (the “Hunger” series, ink drawings on paper kites (3) and rice paper (“Kalin” series), the painting “Strange Progeny” and the large painting titled “Big Picture”.
Click here for the essay by Soo-Jin Park from the exhibition catalogue.
Recently, as I was writing some thoughts on my work to a colleague, it occurred that I had not explained publicly my thinking about and reason for making this work. This seems pretty important given the problematic territory that this work wanders into. What follows is an excerpt from my correspondence:
Around 1995 the “special needs” school that our daughter Temma had been attending for 6 years – Lakeview Learning Center – was preparing to close. I was working at the school on a large painting (titled Big Picture) of the classroom for “severely and profoundly disabled” children that Temma was part of. While working on this large painting I was given a collection of miscellaneous photographs documenting the students in their daily life at the school. Also around this time I was offered an exhibition with a gallery in South Korea, the country where I grew up (my parents were medical missionaries). I decided to make work for this show based on the photographs that I had been given of students from Lakeview Learning Center as a way of making present a population that was largely invisible / marginalized in Korea at that time. My goal in making these paintings was to select photographs that (for me) most powerfully expressed the humanity of these children. In making the paintings my intent was to try to represent them as best as I could in accordance to how I perceived them via the photographs: that is, as completely and compellingly human. Despite my ambivalence about using other people’s photographs as sources for paintings, these photographs – apparently taken by the staff of the school – offered a kind of “objective” perspective on the children somewhat fitting for my relative distance from them personally. That said, to the extent that these children were part of a community of which my daughter was a part I felt it was appropriate to make paintings based representing them.
This latter point is important in relation to the fundamental intent of this project. While I was attempting to portray the children in all their individuality evident in the photographic sources, I was doing so with the primary goal of presenting them as a community: a community as evidently diverse and complex (in various respects) as any other.
There is a well-known (in Korea) poem by the Korean Catholic “Minjung” writer Kim Chi Ha that has an essentially Eucharistic refrain: “God is rice”. In allusion to that poem I decided to do a series of 21 paintings on Korean rice bowls (a very commonly used kind of bowl). More specifically, as an allusion to the marginalization of this population I made the paintings on the bottom / underside (typically unseen) surface of the bowls. In using the rice bowl I not only wanted to draw a connection to Kim Chi Ha’s poem, but further to the movement of Minjung Art that had grown in vitality at the ending period of Korea’s long dictatorship (the early ‘80s). The Minjung Art movement (which, especially in the person of the artist Im Ok Sang, had been very influential for me) made the empowerment of the poor and the marginalized their priority. My hope was to situate the subject of the work I was making – at that time still a largely marginalized community – in the context of the Minjung political imperative.
In this work I was attempting to represent these children as faithfully as I could. It might be helpful to unpack my thinking “representation” a bit: Painting, particularly realistic / representational painting is frequently thought of / received in relation to the convention of “mastery”. That is, when one makes a realistic painting it might be understood as an artists’ claim of mastery and, implicitly, as their claim to an authority over the subject represented. I do not have any interest in that way of approaching painting. I am interested in painting that is a kind of conversation with the material used to make it (as opposed to painting as about control or domination of the material). No less importantly, I’m interested in painting as a regarding of the subject in humility: an attempt to represent the subject as honestly, accurately and respectfully as possible. Put another way: painting for me is learning how to make this painting in relation to trying to understand and represent this subject.
Taking that word representation a bit further: it is of course a reasonable question to ask whether one has the right to represent (make or take a picture of) another person – particularly someone who is not able to give consent. And it is reasonable to question whether I – even as the parent of a member of that community and trusted by the staff of that community – have the right to represent the students. But no less important is the other side of this question: the right of each person to be represented (both literally, in the sense of being pictured, and – via metaphoric implication – politically). In the case of this particular population and the particular context in which these paintings were being shown my intention was to make and show these representational paintings of these children as a claim to their right (authority) to be represented: Particularly towards the goal of advocating the presence of members of this population as they existed in that country at that time.