Jiyeon Kim – Meme Paintings
Solo Exhibition, Painting
09.06.2020 2pm - 18.07.2020 7pm
The phenomena and state of mind depicted in Jiyeon Kim’s Meme Paintings have gained currency, as our already technologically focused world finds itself increasingly turning online. As we have been forced to stay inside during the global pandemic, often our only source of contact to the outside world is through our screens. Jiyeon Kim’s solo exhibition deals with feelings of disorientation and stress in regard to our perilous state and how we perceive our reality based on the overflow of media content seen on the internet.
About the Exhibition
With the solo exhibition Meme Paintings, SomoS presents Jiyeon Kim’s new group of paintings, conceived in Berlin early 2020 during her Berlin artist residency, offering a comprehensive look at the unique creative vision of this prolific young South-Korean artist that consistently bridges real and online life in exciting ways.
In her work, Jiyeon Kim consistently explores ways of representing the individual in our digital era. Most of her work uses acrylic paint, and combines elements of abstraction with figuration. Deeply invested in reinterpreting the art of portraiture in a contemporary way, she focuses on the ways in which our attitudes toward depictions of the human face and figure have changed with the rise of the internet and digital technology.
Kim previously completed City of Singles – Portraits of Tinder, a series of acrylic portraits of people she found on Tinder. Her interest in how we represent ourselves on social media drives her to question whether the photos we post on Tinder, Facebook, and Instagram might be revealing deeper subconscious desires. Although these individuals are represented in a classical painted style of portraiture, each face in the series remained recognizable. They were painted on 50 x 50cm square canvases, and most figures were cropped at the shoulders to focus on their faces. She used mainly muted shades of blue, grey, green, and occasionally red, contrasted with blank white backgrounds, bringing the entire focus on the individuals themselves.
Her latest work group, the Meme Paintings comprises 11 paintings, ranging from 20 x 30cm in size to 165 x 125 cm, all using mixed media on canvas. In the series, started in 2020, Jiyeon Kim’s work evolves from “selfie” to “story,” from private to public figures, from using candid imagery to overly familiar ones, as she moves beyond her earlier relatively straight frontal portraiture to visualize new and more complex ideas about the ways in which we interact with the internet, and the fleeting narratives it creates within our own minds.
Part of her larger ongoing Fake News Project, Kim’s Meme Paintings take inspiration from the flood of images and news articles that we are faced with every day. The collage-style paintings combine disparate elements: painted fragments that are combined loosely with parts that have been printed and pasted to the canvas. Kim first extensively designs these works by organizing the elements digitally in Photoshop, arranging and rearranging them until they achieve a visual balance. The use of collage allows a more surrealist style, absent in previous work. But keeping in-line with City of Singles, the use of realistic internet visuals ground her artwork, creating an impression of familiarity for the viewer. In addition, the images are soft and subtle, rendered in washed-out, muted tones, a look that may allude to the rapid fading of the lurid imagery of mass media once stored in our memory. The painting’s floating figures are orbited by hyper realistic depictions of often brand-name objects, that reference the Pop-art tradition, calling to mind the work of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. The incorporation of skewed abstracted geometric background motifs further contributes to an overall impression of transience and ethereality from these images.
All of these elements work together to create an insidious effect on the viewer, who knows too well the pop-culture images presented in Kim’s paintings. Kim uses this initial comfort to infiltrate the viewer’s perception, much like the visual flood of images we see every day does.
The paintings are a visual representation of the fragmented pieces of photos and articles that remain in Kim’s mind after browsing the internet, blended with her own memories and thoughts to create a composition that contains both elements of truth and fiction. Though viewers might be tempted to imagine relationships between the disparate elements depicted in Kim’s paintings, they have no real relationship outside of their shared existence in Kim’s memory, their randomness is intentional. Through the filter of our own minds, which are presented with endless information every day, stories become distorted and altered in this way. Kim’s work seeks to visually represent this distortion, in which information and narratives merge into a muddled, fuzzy state of consciousness, questioning how does the sheer amount of images and information we consume in our daily lives affects us long after we’ve seen them? What of the images that we see over and over again? What does it do to our sense of reality and the function of memory itself?
In the Meme Paintings, the digital stream is halted for a moment, its floating, frozen state inviting contemplation instead of distraction. We are left to reflect on the process of being flooded itself, and the mental flotsam left in our consciousness after the digital flood recedes.
Jiyeon Kim - #KOBEBRYANT #POLARBEAR #DANGER
Jiyeon Kim’s #KOBEBRYANT #POLARBEAR #DANGER is a painting centered around themes of danger, extinction, and death. Centrally placed in the composition, there is the figure of one of the most popular basketball players of the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant, who is easily recognized by the number “8,” printed on the back of his shirt. Bryant’s death on January 26th 2020 was a trending topic on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as well as on the mainstream media.
If we look at the fragmented depiction of the athlete’s figure, up where his head is supposed to be, Jiyeon Kim placed a drill, which is pointing at the Lakers’ star. Notice that all the lines of the painting lead the viewer’s gaze to its upper region. Nonetheless, the drill is one of the elements that is going in the opposite way, right on Kobe Bryant’s head, transmitting a sensation of danger. Another element which is directly confronting Bryant’s body is the ladder placed on the layer below. Both elements together, the body and the ladder, create a unique diagonal line that gives a sense of balance to the painting. Eventually, on the top layer there are three sticks, which together with the ladder, the drill, and the raw flesh create a sense of violence and aggression to the human body.
Around the depiction of Bryant’s body there are two black lines which are also pointing up and giving a feeling of ascension that could be related to his death. These two black lines provide some sense of depth to an otherwise flat composition. Moreover, the position of the body is also quite significant. Instead of choosing an upright position, Kim portrays Kobe Bryant on his knees, his body seems to be weightless and lifeless, as if it were floating.
Similar to other paintings of the Meme series, the background of the painting features two rectangles of different colors (the same ones as the Lakers’ team uniform, in this case), a mise-en-scène that evokes a flat and abstract landscape.
Another important element in the painting, and which gives it part of its title, is the polar bear at the bottom of the overlaid elements in the middle of the composition. The question whether the polar bears are currently extinguished or not, has been one of the most popular and frequent questions in 2020 according to Google. It is not known for sure if that is the reason why the polar bear is one of the main elements of the composition, but considering the painting series’ concept, it could be a motivation.
Additionally, only half of the animal’s body is depicted, which could be a metaphor of the polar bear’s extinction. Alongside with the polar bear, this climate change concern could also be depicted by the artist through the numbers at the side of the animal’s body, that could work as a reference to the number of Google searches. The pieces of bacon and the plant could also be seen as part of the artist’s concern about the current climate change crisis.
The objects such as bacon, toothbrush and drill are also part of a recurring visual motif in all of the Meme Paintings: a layer of random consumer objects that accompany and interfere with the painting’s narrative, perhaps referring to the often strange and random simultaneousness of commerce and tragedy in the realm of mass media.
On the top of the painting there is an image of a virus that can be immediately associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. Placed at the upper part of the canvas, and gravitating upon the other elements, it gives to the viewer a feeling of constant threat, as it is slowly and ominously descending over the scene.
Jiyeon Kim created this large scale painting in early 2020 using collage and acrylic paint on canvas. This work features a patchwork of imagery selected from Kim’s experience of browsing the web. Along with the others in this series, this painting aims to address the flood of news stories and visuals we are exposed to in this post-modern era, online as well as through marketing and TV. By curating, reinventing, and recreating the visual narrative we see here, Kim is directing us to the unconscious activity in our psyche and questioning how this excessive visual stimulation may affect us and our perceptions.
Kim’s work displays elements of both hyper-realism and surrealism, Pop art, and modernism. Following in the pop art tradition, Kim’s work explores the effect of pop culture and advertising on society and the human experience. What makes Kim’s work unique within this movement, is that her work focuses on contemporary infrastructure – modern-day pop culture references and focusing on up-to-date digital technologies such as computer usage and the internet. The work bears comparison to work of artists such as James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, and Pauline Boty.
In this image, we see an assortment of familiar and distinctive disjointed visuals. Kim’s use of color is washed out, featuring grey as the base color for the image with muted tones of purple, pink, yellow and blue to create a blanched effect. Overlaid are abstracted geometric shapes and lines, which further add to the impression of a non-real setting. All of these characteristics work together to create the impression of an intangible space, comparable to the indescribable experience of consciousness.
Images of milk, a positive pregnancy test, fluffy pink blankets and children smiling have a soothing and comforting effect and bring to mind family, parenthood and childhood innocence. Where one might expect a caring paternal figure, this innocence is harshly interrupted by the imposing and menacing headless male figure at the forefront of the image. In the place of his head, by which we might ascertain his identity, there are military pocket knives and prison bars. In this way, the figure acts as a symbol of violence, death, punishment and danger itself. Much like the facts behind cases of child sexual abuse, the sexual reference in this painting is shrouded in mystery and metaphor. The phallic symbol of the femur bone in the background and the yonic symbol of the seashell in place of the male figure’s lap, suggests a subversion of the natural order and perhaps a possible reference to castration; chemical castration is not an uncommon penalty used in the United States for child sex offenders.
When considering this painting as part of a series addressing internet usage and its effect on the psyche, one can interpret that Kim is highlighting the very real danger that children may be exposing themselves to by encountering threatening individuals online who will exploit the vulnerable naivety of minors. Furthermore, she is questioning the morality behind the way in which we allow children to discover the negative aspects of life such as danger and violence. In this painting, Kim mirrors the harsh contrast between the unknowing child and uncovering dark realities online, since all of this information is at the tip of our fingers, even for children.
Kim has called this series Meme Paintings in reference to the pop culture subjects she chooses throughout the collection such as Greta Thunberg, Kobe Bryant, Elizabeth Warren, and Logan Paul. The title of this work suggests implications about the headless figure we see in this image. The plaid shirt he wears bears associations with America, guiding us in the general direction of the offender, but ultimately leaving the viewer to question who this might be. The fact that this question is left unanswered can lead us to speculate that the finger is actually being pointed at us, the viewers and society for being complicit in the deconstruction of childhood.
#ELIZABETHWARREN #FEMINISM #SUICIDE is based on images that Jiyeon Kim encountered online, found on social media, online news and advertising, jumbled and layered on the canvas, suspended atop a flat abstract background. Kim uses a muted color scheme, with pops of “feminist pink” in both the rendering of the jacket and the vibrator. The effect of the entire composition is one of flatness.
In this painting, we can see both human and nonhuman elements, including a bird, a box of Tic Tacs, a hair brush, a vibrator, an ice cream cone, plant shapes, two figures, and one pair of legs. They are interspersed with abstract lines and rods, splashes of paint, and a series of numbers that seems to be a binary code, further invoking the digital.
In contrast to her earlier Tinder Portraits -which delved into the inconsistencies and paradoxes of online self-presentation- in many of the Meme Paintings the faces of the figures aren’t entirely visible, the fragmented story becomes more important than the person. The people depicted might be recognizable to the public, as they appeared often in recent news media. As the title suggests, the woman in the pink jacket is Elizabeth Warren, and those who have seen photos and videos of her might recognize the outfit, stance, and the bottom half of her face. Kim identifies the other figure as a Japanese girl who committed suicide after being raped by her father. Though the viewer will naturally want to draw connections between the people and objects depicted in the painting, Kim says that there really is no connection, other than the fact that each of these images retained a place in her mind, and that this lack of connection is part of the theme of the works, which is the random and constantly changing informational buzz of a consciousness conditioned by the constant noise of online life.
Unlike other Meme Paintings, in which the visual and emotional composition is usually balanced more evenly, @ELIZABETHWARREN #FEMINISM #SUICIDE is divided clearly in a positive and negative sphere; an upward and downward movement, both in content, mood and palette.
The upper part of the painting has the powerful Warren figure, smilingly reaching up, seeming to be almost lifting off the ground, carried by what could be wings of (Indian?) feathers sprouting from her shoulders, as if she is about to ascend. The symbolism of the peace dove flying near her head, adds to the sense of empowerment and positivity of this upper part of the painting.
Diagonally cut, the lower half of the painting is occupied with dark imagery and earthy somber colors, featuring powerless shapes that are drooping or moving downwards. We see a young person turning their back to the viewer, gazing down, clothes ragged. More sinister is the portrayal of the second, falling, figure, placed upside down with only the legs still visible, following exactly the same angle as the Warren figure -a mirrored image of human potentiality, one protagonist falling rigidly and heavily, while the other rises effortlessly and victoriously.
Fragmented, and full of the noise of literal commercial “product placement,” this painting still powerfully conveys a poignant image of female victory and defeat.
The double painting features a collage of human beings, plants and products positioned on an abstract muted-tone background. In contrast to the floating elements such as the hand-sanitizer, the fish, the pop-corn bucket, the mouth or the knife that seem to be somehow suspended in the space, the two human figures presented are instead well grounded and, even though the full body is not visible, they seem to be walking on solid ground one following the other. The whole composition is then crossed by sharp diagonal lines appearing in different forms: thin black lines, white sticks, branches with leaves and finally the multi-pointed golden line coming out of John Kerry’s finger.
The black-hooded figure on the right referring to Covid-19 seems to be carrying a load on its back consisting in a pigeon, typically a dirty animal known as carrier of illnesses, a mutant fish and the hand-sanitizer, probably one of the most emblematic images of these pandemic times together with the face-mask and the rubber gloves. The gloves are placed on the hooded head almost in a mocking way, resembling a rooster comb. The role of the distorted fish instead is ambiguous but one may interpret it as the reflection of the effects of human capitalism on the evolution of nature, or better, the disruption of its natural evolution, the contamination between species resulting in the creation of new unknown viruses.
The lines crossing the image may also symbolize this element of disruption not only biological in terms of natural development of the species, but also disruption of our daily life, our securities and beliefs, our well-being suddenly interrupted by an uncontrollable and unexpected event. It is also interesting to notice how these lines intersect with branches and leaves that flow within the human figures, the animals and the goods.
In line with Kim’s interest in the representation of the individual during the digital era, the painting is without doubt a faithful visual representation of the individual these days, where pictures with surgical masks are trending on social media and images and articles referring to masks, gloves and disinfection are obsessively present and recommended.
On the left-side, the headless figure of John Kerry seems to be pointing directly at the #COVID-19 #PIGEON panel as if he was highlighting something that was indeed preventable if only we had listened to the loud and clear messages nature had given us so far. Kerry is a democratic American politician, who has publicly criticized Donald Trump’s leadership and management of the coronavirus emergency. In a recent speech, he related the climate crisis to the covid-19 outbreak, talking about the emergency as the result of the unwillingness to respond to the truth and the lessons learned, as well as a wide-spread misinterpretation of reality and distortion of scientific truth in favor of ideology.
The elements on his head may symbolize the main causes that are provoking these damaging effects on our planet and its inhabitants. The Johnson & Johnson baby powder may symbolize distrust in big pharma and authority in general, as the multinational, after being criticized for its part in the opioid crisis in 2019, was ordered to pay out billions of dollars over claims its talc-based baby powder causes cancer in 2020. The hair dryer stands for our polluting comforts as well as the warming of the planet, while the pop-corn bucket may refer to the irreality of watching the digitally mediated spectacle of crisis, in which grave concerns such as economic precarity, racial injustice, the pandemic, and global warming are in danger of being reduced to easily consumed and shared memes.
Finally, the top center “mouth with knife” motif recalls the bombardment of information we are continuously subjected to, information that in the digital world is often distorted for the achievement of hidden goals. In fact, the knife and the clip may suggest the nefarious consequences of fake news and the spread of superficial information on social media, the shallowness and the aggressiveness of unreliable sources.
Kim’s paintings are often characterized by a format that combines an abstract background with elements of pop-culture and realistic figures, integrating pictures and pieces of stories she retrieves from the internet into a multi-layered image that represents the impossibility to retain fully the quantity of information she comes across when browsing online. The painting is in fact a representation of her broken memory, combining elements that at first sight do not have a real connection between one another, but in reality they are the result of the intersection of themes, stories and pictures within her mind.
Although seemingly placed in the air, the products and animals in the picture are intentionally positioned in the head area of the human figures, as a way to represent the objectification of humans in the digital era, a technique that Kim often uses in her Meme Paintings to transmit this concept as well as to emphasize the idea that her works stems from fragmented memories and thoughts.
A technique Kim chooses to visually express the interaction of the human mind with the internet and the contrasting emotions generated by this process is the “sticker technique,” consisting of a collage made of different acrylic painted elements layered on the canvas, some of which are hand-painted while others are created through photo transfer.
We may also notice how the muted color tones of the background and of the human figure contrast with the more inviting tones of the consumer products, reminding us of the colorful advertisements and the lure of capitalism that is programmed to move forward, regardless of the terrible outcomes it may leave behind.
Overall one may interpret the left #JOHNKERRY #SPEECH panel as a representation of the pre-covid phase, where consumerism prevails, but is already carrying a warning about what may come; while the right #COVID-19 ‘PIGEON piece stands for the era of the pandemic and its aftermath, where nature starts to come back into the fore-ground, where freedoms have been restricted and man is now forced to new habits, including being more conscious of the bigger picture and especially of the need to take into account the health of others and of the natural environment. Hopefully, a positive note on where this current situation will bring us.
In Jieyon Kim’s painting #LOGANPAUL #SNUGGLE, the central figure depicts YouTube celebrity Logan Paul, who rose to fame sharing sketches on the now defunct video-platform Vine, as well as posting on his own hugely popular YouTube channel.
Jiyeon Kim chooses to obscure the face of the figures in many of her works. Often a tool is aggressively pointed in the direction of the head. In this case, the missing face may allude to the disassociation with public figures we see on the internet and the constructed realities they portray. In a world where entire personas are manufactured specifically for an online audience, it is difficult to separate lies from reality. The recurring motif of the ladder in the midground of the painting conjures associations with gaining social status or ‘social climbing,’ often through posting controversial content, a tactic sometimes employed to bolster celebrities’ fame and certainly one that is compatible with Logan Paul’s online persona.
Other prominent symbols in the composition include a pair of pliers, a bottle of lube and fabric softener. The inclusion of these consumer objects is at first disorientating to the viewer, but upon closer inspection we become aware it is in fact the artists’ intention to create a sense of discombobulation and stress. Through this technique, Kim’s work creates a commentary surrounding human-kind’s current perilous state, and how we perceive our reality based on the overflow of media content seen on the internet.
Logan Paul’s most notable controversy, the posting of a video of a hanging corpse found in the well known ‘Suicide Forrest’ in Japan, is subtly referenced by Kim through the inclusion of the only motif relating to nature in the work. The olive branch protruding into the center of the canvas, past the figures absent face, may in fact point to this lewd behaviour and act as a symbol of peace in regards to his attempted public apology to rectify his mistake. However the viewer is ostensibly reminded of the fact that everything we post online stays with us forever, regardless of the accessions we make.
As in the other paintings of the Meme series, here Kim creates an uncanny narrative through the suspension of different elements and human figures on a muted and almost ethereal background. The scene presented in this work is fragmented and discomforting, inviting a conversation about urgent and current themes such as the power of youth, environmental pollution, and the need for change.
We may immediately notice the extensive use of conflicting perspectives -hinting at the collage-based origin of the painting- that create depth through the positioning of each item. The result is a multi-layered image that seems to build a sequence in the reading of each element presented. In contrast to this sense of 3-dimensionality, the presence of the vertical scratches (resembling aluminum foil, but actually torn maps of industrial areas) underline the painting’s flatness.
The items that are placed further away from the viewer are a plastic container and a grey seashell, followed by a child dressed in black, leaning forward to drink from its hands, hinting of the pollution of our drinking water with microplastics. The image of the child is partly obscured by that of the faceless teenage figure, that is blindly marching forward, seemingly unaware and unresponsive to its surroundings.
The faceless figure has an ambivalent role in this scene: one may recognize in the clothes and long hair the figure of climate activist Greta Thunberg, whose facial features have been erased and her character disembodied to resemble the most common attitude of pupils of her age: indifference. The young human figure is blind and unable to see what is being placed in front of it, whereas the viewer clearly and immediately notices the plastic comb and the pill blister positioned in the very foreground. Indeed, Thunberg started a movement not only against the climate crisis but also against the numbness of nowadays youth, mostly living and interacting in a virtual world where they are passively fed with distorted representations of reality and seldomly take actions to influence its course.
The figure of the faceless activist may recall the famous “mannequin” of Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings. The motif of the mannequin was extensively used in the works produced during the years of the “Metaphysical School,” founded with Carlo Carrà, and which later inspired several artists within the Dada and Surrealist movement including Salvador Dalì. In De Chirico’s paintings, the mannequin is a figure without countenance that is objectified and stripped of its complexities, a figure that may be charming and scary at the same time, and that is suppressed of its capacity to guide and express emotions and thoughts.
Kim is also familiar with this concept of the objectified human being that she often conveys by removing the head, the feet, or simply suspending in the air the human figures portrayed in her painting. In this case, the facelessness may suggest that Thunberg stands for any young activist.
The composition conveys a sense of danger, underlined by the baseball bat with spikes positioned right below the boy’s mouth and recalling scenes of violence and fear. But this combination of strong elements seems to be rejected and literally crossed out by a sharp yellow line, as if part of the past, and then immediately combined to a steep and surrealistic ladder, potentially leading to a sustainable tomorrow that may only be reached by deeply changing our habits.
In religion and philosophy, the ladder serves as a symbol of ascension, progress, and spiritual passage; its steps representing the various virtues that bring us closer to enlightenment. This brings to mind the often cited relation between religion and activism, both direct, as with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi and current religious groups; but also unconsciously, in the rhetoric of guilt and repentance found in contemporary nonreligious activism, an interpretation in which Thunberg is often compared with Jeanne d’Arc. However, the partially broken steps suggest that environmental progress will not be reached without overcoming obstacles.
In another potential spiritual reference, we see the activist stepping through a triangular portal. The portal stands for entering a new phase of development, or another dimension; while the manifold associations of the triangle include body, mind and soul; past, present, future; or the trinity. An environmental connection may be found in the fact that traditionally, earth and water symbols are shaped from point-up triangles. Also note how the point-up triangle reinforces the ascension trope of the ladder.
In this painting, the presence of natural elements is reduced to the orange leaves climbing up the child’s shoulder and the seagull flying away in the top left corner. Although central to the narrative, visually, the natural is marginalized.
About Jiyeon Kim
Jiyeon Kim completed her BFA at SungKyunKwan University in Seoul, and attended the Innenarchitektur Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaft und Kunst in Hildesheim until 2015. Living between Berlin and Seoul, she has held four solo exhibitions in Berlin, participated in several group shows in Seoul, Leipzig, and Berlin, and participated in Art…Essenz 2016. She was nominated for the EB-Dietzsch-Kunstpreis in 2018.
Jiyeon Kim – Meme Paintings
Open June 9th – July 18th 2020
Closed on Saturday June 27th
Tuesday – Saturday, 2-7pm
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