The English translation of the Korean word Shi Jang is “market”. Korean markets are the inspiration for Woomin Kim’s ongoing series, collectively titled Shijang Project. Kim said in 2021, “It’s the place I used to go all the time growing up. And every time I visit Korea, it’s one of the first places I go. […] In my quilts, I describe the different types of merchants, shops, and assemblages of materials that can be seen in these types of open-air markets. It’s such a vibrant place, with a fish market next to a fabric market and all kinds of energy. The particular visual abundance she describes can be experienced in her wonderfully dizzying debut exhibition, Woomin Kim: The Shijang Projectetc. at Susan Inglett Gallery (June 9 to July 29, 2022).
Kim is part of a growing generation of Asian artists who earned undergraduate degrees in their home countries and then immigrated to the United States to further their education and, in some cases, to stay there. After earning her MFA in 2015 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Kim moved to New York, where she discovered an equivalent of Korean outdoor markets in Queens.
The exhibit’s 10 collage-like quintuplets, all between five and six feet in diameter, are polychrome extravaganzas that invite viewers to marvel at what can be achieved with fabric. Combining abstract forms with such specific objects as dried fish and leopard-print shoes, Kim’s attention to detail, color and texture results in a massive inventory of objects created through imaginative use. distinctive materials. She has an agile, funny and very sharp sense of mimesis. By incorporating materials that may in fact be part of the object it represents – a mop or a pair of shoes, for example – it pushes the American tradition of trompe-l’oeil of John F. Peto and William Harnett towards a new territory.
At the same time, Kim’s work repels such slick representations of material goods as Andreas Gursky’s supermarket photographs, Andy Warhol’s screen-printed Coca-Cola paintings, and Haim Steinbach’s minimalist displays of merchandise. Unlike Warhol’s insistence on uniformity and its flattening of experience or Gursky’s association between abundance, waste and indiscriminateness, Kim shows the nomadic side of global capitalism, that of the petty trader who maintains an outdoor booth temporarily set up in a designated part of a city.
Kim replaces similarity with difference. In “Shijang: Shoe Store” (2021), she used different materials and patterns to fashion more than two dozen types of shoes, from boots to clogs to sandals. Even when the pattern is the same, as in two single boots in the lower left quadrant, the colors are different. Although the names of some manufacturers are scattered across the screen, there’s no sense that one pair is more desirable than the others, and there are no branded sneakers. The bare bulb hanging from a black cord in the upper right quadrant establishes the frame. It’s about necessities rather than haute couture. And yet, the interest in pattern and color is present everywhere.
Kim’s delight in turning a piece of fabric into something as mundane as the pattern inside a boot or shoe is obvious. It is the opposite of the Warholian aesthetic of boredom and fascination with mechanical reproduction. As his works show, boredom is not an option, but a privileged position, when survival in a new environment depends on hard work. His art is based on the activities of cutting and sewing, activities that we often associate with making clothes.
Kim’s celebration of an alternative economy also highlights the determination of many immigrant cultures to maintain certain practices and traditions, such as a region’s cuisine or medicines and remedies. His resistance to the destruction of difference that Warhol recognized as one of the cornerstones on which America was built is admirable. Her art does not overtly claim to be political, but it is on many levels, from the craftsmanship of her quilts to the craftsmanship she represents; from its recognition of daily life as a constant struggle for economic survival to the flexibility and adaptability that characterize many immigrants to the United States.
At the same time, Kim’s use of collage and his hallucinatory juxtapositions of pattern and color rethink aspects of the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s, and his interest in different styles of Asian art. In “Shijang: Ribbon Store” (2021), the artist stacks spools of ribbon in different patterns. Despite the flatness of its materials, it composes a shallow space that includes shelves and the edge of a fabric-covered table, which spans the bottom edge of the quilt. The attention to something as disposable as the ribbons, and the way Kim arranges them on the table, underscores an aesthetic arrangement very different from the typical American emphasis on mass production. Within this polyphonic gathering, no pattern or color is eclipsed by another. Each contributes to the whole composition while maintaining its distinct identity. It’s masterful.
Woomin Kim: The Shijang Project continues at the Susan Inglett Gallery (522 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 29. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.