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Into the Void

Nicholas Projects, Melbourne

'Into the Void' exhibition view, Nicholas Projects, VIC, 2016
Photo by Naveed Farro

The photographic in excelsis and excess

The photographic representation of the human being casts them in the path of death. The photograph destroys what it touches, namely time, and it indicates only what has already been lost. The loss of photography is particularly evident in the photograph’s overexposure, the excess of information, which obliterates its very purpose of fixing and making visible. One of the first photographs taken of a street had to be exposed so long that everyone – except a man having his shoe shined – disappeared from view. Photography empties out and destroys the living vitality of flesh, and transforms it into paper and pixels. Yet this transformation, this affixation, possesses the most extraordinary power – emptied of what they were, these images become fetishized; the ghosts of desire, love, and recognition haunt the discreet dots and tiny mosaic pieces that form these smooth, imperceptibly constructed illusions.

The work of Hyunji Kim capitulates into the culture of youth and beauty that pervades photography, yet in these works we have before us, Kim empties these culturally prevalent images of all their form and solidity. From the people she lives beside come the empty gazes of people washed out and washed up on the shores of photographic excess. This excess of photography is not the subject of Kim’s work, though it is definitely a part of it. It is much more about the photograph that defines – relations, figures, and objects – and how this makes it a particularly ambivalent form of imaging – particularly for imaging the human being. It takes us back to the development of perspective in the renaissance, and presents itself as the culmination of a particular way of seeing: the single eye, at a fixed height, capturing a particular moment, snatching it from time. It is a manner of seeing that puts the world in a particular kind of frame – a frame that makes the world distinct from the self. It is this distinction that we see reflected back at us in Kim’s work: the separation of the image from the self. There is a cold distance between we the observers, and the observed: between the lover and the adored. The difficulty that this inspires is the difficulty of Kim’s work. Her paintings, irrevocably physical, with their impasto gestures and woven substrate, attempt to destroy this distance, even as they create it.

Kim’s work is extraordinary for its technique and its visual power, but in order to remake the work of photography, it is also painting become destructive. It is not clear-cut where the borders lie between recognition and the loss of sense, but Kim’s work sits near the edge of what is seen and recognised, and what is not. It is not the erasure of information like what we can see in Gerhard Richter’s photographic based paintings, in blurred in Kim’s works there is erasure in absence, destruction in omission, and loss in the curse of the photograph: an excess of white.

Of the most interesting cases, there is a painting of a lost eyebrow – razored off, it is assumed, though we are not sure if it is an artefact of the camera, which has destroyed so much other information, or the painting, which interpreted the photograph, or that it is in fact at the depth of the physical world itself. We lose sight of the referent in a painting that has become as much about what features are gone as those that are left in. The eyebrow is symptomatic of the physical uncertainty that the photograph can retroactively plunge us into – an uncertainty derived from the distance between how things felt or done, and their transformation into a photograph.

But these faces, these portraits, have lost more. They have become signs of faces. So close cut and having lost so many features that they take on the aspect of outlines. They still have the fluidity and simplicity of an Elizabeth Peyton, a restraint in the number of strokes and the direction of paint and its application that speaks to the abilities of its painter. But it is, in the removal of content, the leaving bare of canvas, an attempt to come at the work from a somewhat atypical angle – against the body of the history of painting. It is not hiding the surface, building up, like painting so often does, with layers of obfuscation and disguise, but revealing and undermining. The substrate of the image is revealed through Kim Kim’s paintings, and we find ourselves looking past the brushwork at the base, the ground, rising rapidly to meet us, a ground that was there the whole time.

Graham Mathwin, writes at Sensible Perth

'Into the Void', Nicholas project, 2016
Photos by Bruce Esplin