Sung Hwa Kim’s solo show, on view at Harper’s Chelsea 512, Today’s Yesterday, Yesterday’s Tomorrow, is a surreal puzzle about time. Kim captures nostalgia, anticipation, and desire through refulgent forms, softened details, and a dichotomy between light and dark.
In the possessive, unraveling its nonsensical title would point to today’s yesterday as the day before today, and yesterday’s tomorrow as today. Or, as a contraction, today’s yesterday and yesterday’s tomorrow could mean that today is yesterday and yesterday is tomorrow. It seems to imply that time isn’t real; it’s absurd, or at least, it’s not real in the typical linear fashion that our language allows. In any case, the phrase entices the same head-spinning mental gymnastics that contemplating the passage of time does, calling attention to the crucial element of time in Kim’s paintings.
In this show, Kim paints still-life arrangements that exist in front of windows. The primary element in each still life is a jar inspired by traditional Korean white porcelain jars, also known as moon jars. While these jars are usually white, Kim has reinterpreted the idea of a moon jar, employing them as portals to landscapes where sometimes, the moon is visible, rendered as a glowing circle.
Wooly gray silhouettes of flowers emerge from the jars' mouths, reminiscent of Sanyu (Chang Yu)’s potted flower paintings in their restrained contours. The plants’ gray-speckled surfaces are akin to television static and ashes–a reminder that these living forms are in limbo in the painting, but all living forms will die. These spectral flowers are accompanied by glowing petals falling and/or resting on the table.
Occasionally, also on the table are drinks, lit cigarettes, and books. All of the drinks are full and the books are closed, welcoming a future moment for them to be enjoyed. The scenario seems to present potential and desire, but also a sadness that these amusements, immortalized in paint, inevitably will not be enjoyed. As the transient pleasures of glowing white petals fall from the bouquets, lit cigarettes burn, a mug of hot coffee cools, and the sun sets on another day, Kim calls upon seventeenth-century Dutch vanitas visual metaphors for the brevity of existence.
With respect to Rene Magritte, specifically citing his 1933 painting, The Human Condition, Kim adopts the motif of windows to enhance surreal elements. Similar to other works by Magritte, Kim presents varying times of day and diverse locations at once within a single composition. The landscapes on the jars’ surfaces are at odds with the weather and light conditions seen through windows, in mirrors, or in paintings of a window. The disorienting quality of this motif is most effective when the number of conflicting environments is increased. For instance, in Still Life with Jar, outside the window is a starry night sky, on the pot is a flower and butterfly amidst the blue and green of a sunny midday, and through another window reflected in the mirror on the right register of the canvas is the red-orange sky of a sunset or sunrise. The disjunction between the light, weather, and mood outside the window versus those presented on the pot toys with the conflict between light and darkness, or symbolically, between life and death. Through these reminders that the weather will change and the sun and moon will rise and fall again tomorrow, Kim reminds a viewer of the cyclical nature of life.
The disjointed scenes on the jars suggest that the vessels hold hauntological portals to past moments and future projections. These objects are ripe with vibrant life-filled scenes and energies that are often entirely different to that of the rest of the painting. While all of the rooms and still lives in the paintings in this show are uninhabited, luminous contours of figures appear in the environments on the vessels, imbuing the paintings with loneliness and longing. The jars also feature flowers, animals, verdant fields, luminescent nocturnes, and serene activities such as walking or fishing. This imagery is not warped by the curves of the jars as one might expect. Rather, the environments appear as if they are being seen through windows in the shapes of the jars. Perhaps a viewer is seeing a moment elsewhere happening at the time of the painting, or perhaps it’s an image from the past or the future. Temporally, they suggest that to be in the present is to be influenced by the past, the future, and the infinite other realities that could be one’s present moment.
The paintings’ spectral inconsistencies between the interior and exterior spaces suggest that another day will come, those that have passed will live on in memory, and the present and the future are gravid with possibilities—Kirsten Cave