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Unlike conventional landscape, and mountain-and-water painting, portraying contemplative beauty, nature in Kim Sung-nam’spainting is furious. Twigs and leaves entangle and fill the canvas. They mash and disperse through rough brushwork, losing original form. In a summer scene, depicting fresh verdure, dense foliage flows down like vegetable juice. In a winter scene, bare trees expose black skeletons. Even a deserted house in a tranquil scene trembles with concealed tension. Kim’s most recent work forefronts nature dramatically, but it is far from an exaggerated hymn of praise to nature, or some exquisite depiction of beautiful subject matter on fine canvas. In his work, nature retains primitive energy: Without the usual sense of peace and blessing, this energy traces through injured and moaning animals, plants, and endangered humans.
Kim’s paintings show among other things birds shedding blood, falling to the ground; a herbivore narrowly escaping death; a man living together with nature. Nature here is not effeminate and passive, awaiting human rehabilitation. It shows capability to heal itself, within mystic flame or dimming lust from a reddish or bluish house, warm with the light of hope. Even in winter scenes, with trees bare, nature maintains density, implying annual renewal.
In a painting, a man swims in a pond, suggesting erotic union with nature, which is here a metaphor for woman. Eros and thanatos appear as one body with two faces, not opposing each other. The man swims in the boundary of nature and humanity, reborn through immersion in freshness and vitality. His small bald head is stark in contrast with surrounding color, stillness and movement. Nature here is portrayed in swift brushstrokes and knife touches, and is the appearance of vital process. A process of destruction indistinguishable from renewal.

Kim’s work does not convey the conventional landscape messages of nature destroyed by man; man should rehabilitate nature; or, man should return to nature. His work is vague and ambiguous; is aesthetic rather than ethical. Is the man in the pond swimming or drowning? Are the flames glowing with life or death? Is the smoke from the deserted home heralding new life, or the onset of destruction? Red flowers in a house suggest miracle among ruin, exuding a tragic mood. All around, the process of becoming one with nature is just another aspect of death. Small things and flames that constitute part of nature in contrast wit one another draw viewer’s attention.
Light from the deserted home also provokes a meditative feel, like the flame of a soul against a monotone background; as light from a burning tree that is frantic vitality, stimulating processes of destruction. Both lights link to the cycle of nature, which repeats through revivals in spring and extinctions in the fall. Impressed by earth’s striking variations, caused by such seasonal change, people often think about what users these marvelous alterations, of light, of color. One such person was Sir James George Frazer, writer of The Golden Bough. In it, he exemplifies human ritual, filled with myth, custom, and in the most primitive cases, human sacrifice – such as “The King of the Woods” - all prayers for nature’s abundance.
Anthropologists report plenty of myths and customs in all ages and countries for praying abundance and resurrection. Frazer expounds a typical myth in which a god dies and revives annually. In a primitive ritual a man was killed to be offered to a deity. In this context, the “King of the Woods” was also murdered, due to worries that his enervation and senility might weaken nature’s reproductive force. Such ritual represents change, symbolized in objects like plants and animals, prevalent in Kim’s painting.
Kim Sung-namalso presents the cycle of seasonal change through trees burning in a field. Like previous work, featuring superman, the dramatic changes are mythical. However, he also demolishes each myth through destructive brushwork. But the light he also depicts does not imply enlightenment: figures in the thickness appear reclusive and mystic. Nature is here reviving and perishing, losing clear contours. Does this mean a return to primitive chaos and blindness? Suddenly, we are not clear of Kim’s intention.
While Kim’s previous work was Dionysus, his recent painting employs aspects of Hermes. And both contrast with Apollonian thought. Heinrich Rombach, in his book The Apollonian and Hermesian World, explains that Apollo symbolizes contemporary order. Born in the Underworld, unlike Apollo, Hermes was messenger from the gods to humans, also translator and guide, helping the dead enter the Underworld. He was the god of the road toward unknown worlds. It seems far from mere coincidence that Kim’s motifs, birds, horses, and smoke, associate with a messenger, who bridges the boundaries between the gods and humanity.
The world we reach through the guidance of this god is inscrutable, dark and closed in this sense. Kim’s feral canvas emphasizing renewal and extinction rather than existence shows the reverse side of the Apollonian world. In this world governed by materials, facts, and laws, humans have achieved material abundance by using nature as a tool. In Kim Sung-nam’spainting, nature appears as primitive matter indecipherable by human reason. Kim tries to set this free from the fetters of dogmas through an amorphous world not controlled by capital and labor. In this world, a human being is not regarded as a barometer of all values any longer. He is just a being floating over an ambiguous world. Humanity in infinite nature is linked to the world of superman, his previous subject matter, namely history and the world after humankind.

By Lee Seon-young / Art Critic
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