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Sunny Kim's paintings move from sublime to unfeeling in an instant.  In her world, human frailty flickers within the four corners of enormous historical realities.  Realities where uniforms (military, academic, professional) are the vehicle, source, and subject of meaning. Nonetheless, this unrelenting uniform world is also hyperbolic, fantastic, even ironic.  The sparse spaces of Kim's depictions become a waiting veneer susceptible to the unique projections of its inhabitants.

Apparent throughout the work is the clarity in with which she renders her subjects.  Their formality recalls official documentation or propaganda posters.  The images seem aged: muted, black and white, passed into record.  The events and people have become the raw material of institutional histories.  We recognize the pictorial devices at work immediately and are inclined to make assumptions.  Under A Tree is obviously derived from some sort of academic record, perhaps a class photo, while the Girl in Uniform series appear to have been cropped from a larger image.  Her group photos speak of the manipulations and ultimate meaning of institutionalized representation.  The paintings of individuals emphasize estrangement, separation from the whole, and brooding.  In Kim's work there is a dynamic between the individual and group which spans from playful to painful.  It is difficult to look at Late Afternoon and not feel irony.  On how many levels are these young women being molded?  Even while participating in the construction of this naturalistic image, they are stiff and immaculate.  Are they fully conscious beings or some sort of beach side prop?
Central to Kim's exploration are several questions about consciousness.  In the most general sense, Kim asks where individual consciousness begins.  After looking at Late Afternoon for a moment longer, the subjects gradually appear less regimented.  There is a simple poetry in the band of dark mountains.  The beach itself is a pattern of light and dark that says more about painterly decisions than about the mechanical translation of photographic space.  Kim, as a painter, inserts an interpretive realm before the photograph.  Her concerns do not end with photo realistic technique; rather, they begin there.  Consider the not-quite-black-and-white palette of Blue Palace, or the unnatural tonal shift between foreground and background in Pond.  Kim's manipulations are in dialogue with the conventions of the photographic material from upon which she draws.  With this in mind, her works veer from oppressive to dream-like.  In this world of mechanical clarity we find fantasy on all the fringes.  The impassive and calculated expressions of the young women hint to at a deep physiological life.
A uniform is, by definition, something which is always the same.  By remaining consistent a uniform affirms the jurisdiction of an institution over an individual.  Like the ideology it manifests, the uniform is a Truth which should not be subject to worldly events (such as a fashion show or a sloppy lunch, for example).  By repurposing institutionalized dress with aesthetic and psychological embellishments Kim erodes a bit of their power.  On the other hand, it is a mistake to think that her work seeks to overturn such conventions.  In addition to transforming the uniform, Kim relies on its symbolic power.  In all her paintings, the uniform introduces an element of timelessness.  Displaced yet still intact, the uniform's stability serves an allegorical function.  We are familiar with how an aged black and white photo may trigger a memory from this device's frequent use in TV and movies.  Kim expands this device with the authority of the uniform.  Not only does her uniform invade our photographic-like memories with institutional pollution, but it is reverie itself: persistent, ethereal, unreal.  In the end, like our memories, the uniform is not reality.  It is merely worn.
This brings us to one of Kim's darkest questions.  Kim is not simply saying that we fill our roles, our very identities, the same as we fill a uniform.  She is asking "who is wearing who?"  Are we a product of what these uniforms represent, do they determine us?  Are they just a surface?  Of course, her answer lies somewhere in between.  This ambivalence can lead to a playful game of "hide and seek" with individual consciousness or allow possibilities for the worst forms of oppression.
In Garden and Underworld Kim introduces a new element into the work.  The photographic space has ruptured significantly.  Uniformed figures now stand before painterly emulations of 18th century Korean embroidery.  The background, unlike the other paintings, is not a backdrop.  The embroidery functions as an emotional projection which seeps into the foreground to interact and envelope the figure.  Clearly, Kim is not only analyzing consciousness in the public sphere, but in the domestic as well.  There is a juxtaposition of two worlds.  The first world describes how the individual fits into a larger social universe, within clearly dominant institutions.  The second world is traditional and feminine.  The starched white collars and plain black skirts contrast so dramatically with the pattern that the image suggests surrealism.  This pretty and magical space creeping about the figures might be the thoughts of the distant girls documented in the other paintings.  Garden and Underworld are candid, even archetypal.  The figure is, perhaps, a powerful visionary.
Kim's retreat to this interior space reveals not only how the influence of tradition sneaks into newer roles and institutions, but how our feelings are not always our own.  The very fabric of femininity is an internalized fiction; an elaborately woven construct.  When surfacing in a uniform bureaucratic state, this fabric seems like an escape.  When considering the historical restrictions placed on women in traditional societies, however, this colorful freedom is only seeming.  Even if these young women are allowed a fantastic world, what good is it if they are contained by it -- if it is tied to a servile and meticulous domestic role?  Still, Kim manages to load the paintings with ambivalence.  The weirdness of her juxtapositions are larger than the sum of their parts.  When these two world views come together it is almost as if she is suggesting a utopian solution in earnest.  In comparing the restraints of traditional and modern Korean cultures she manages to highlight what each is lacking.  In this process she synthesizes hope and anxiety.
Finally, the autobiographical dimension should not be overlooked. Kim was a uniformed school girl herself.  She explains, "I am haunted by that aspect of my past - I cannot shirk the feeling that a significant element of my life has been lost.  Having left Korea in my teens while still having strong ties, I often wonder how my life might have been different had I stayed."  There is much in Kim's world to hinder the development of the individual, yet it remains a birthplace of consciousness.  These works are not tragic.  They are wonderings of these girls' futures; of whether or not their glimmer of self realization will be snuffed out.
By Paul Johnson
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