Heesoo Kim’s Nameless Portraits Reflect Universal Human Experiences
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Whether gazing into the distance, peeking from behind curtains, or staring intently at viewers, Heesoo Kim's portraits appear to be frozen in time.
Heesoo Kim, studio view. Courtesy Unit London.
Normal Life, Kim's first solo exhibition at Unit London (9 August–10 September 2022) includes a series of portraits of unknown figures that explore the threads that connect human experiences, feelings, and emotions.
Kim encourages viewers to see themselves in his nameless portraits, evoking a universal experience that presents the ordinary with 'the potential to be extraordinary.'
Born in 1984 in Seoul, South Korea, Kim studied advertising and design at Konkuk University before working in photography and video. Painting came later on, stemming from the daily observations and notes of self-reflection that fill his sketchbooks.
At the age of 30, Kim turned to painting full-time. 'I don't have a lot of special experiences,' he has explained. 'They're mostly pretty normal experiences, like hiding my sorrow or trying to avoid negative thoughts. I'm simply realising and recognising the fact that I've been trying so hard to avoid the difficult side of me within my everyday life. It's really nothing special.'
Kim works with watercolour, acrylic, coloured pencil, and pen to create portraits that are 'immobilised and held as though through the lens of a camera.' His sketches show his interest in the idea of memory, longing, and imagination.
He evokes Picasso's Cubist paintings with his fragmented figurations, while his strong use of light and dark references chiaroscuro techniques, giving a sense of volume and depth to his otherwise static imagery.
With hands pressed to their ears or their eyes closed tightly as if wincing, Kim's portraits reveal the pain and burdens humans internalise, regardless of their backgrounds or where they have come from.
Shifting from an 'unusual' life into a 'normal' one, there is a sense of hope, curiosity, and belonging that emerges from Kim's new paintings.
These themes were emphasised in the artist's works created during the coronavirus pandemic. In his solo exhibition The Other Side of My Mind at Everyday Moonday gallery in Seoul in 2021, for instance, Kim presented a series of figures in confining situations—stuck behind bars or blindfolded—and paired with morbid imagery such as guns, nooses, and pills.
In another online presentation shown with Unit London in 2021, the artist featured a series of figures painted against stark, black backgrounds, clutching the single stems of withering plants, symbolising the ephemerality of human existence.
The paintings that are included in Normal Life are not entirely unlike the dispirited figures of previous paintings, yet there is a notable shift, as if Kim is slowly breathing life, and colour, into his portraits. Shifting from an 'unusual' life into a 'normal' one, there is a sense of hope, curiosity, and belonging that emerges from Kim's new paintings, which often feature more than one figure.
In Untitled (Question and answer) (2022), a man and woman stand side by side, one holding a key, the other with their wrists in handcuffs. In Untitled (Smokers) (2022), two figures face each other, their cigarettes touching and producing a single puff of smoke.
Bright blues, greens, and reds contrast with the artist's previous use of dark hues. Figures are engaged in more normal activities, such as making a phone call or working on a Rubik's Cube. They seem ready to engage in a more 'ordinary' life.
However, darker elements still find their way into the canvases. A woman holds a dead flower in her hand in one painting, while a man holds scissors to a flower in another, about to cut it off its stem.
In Untitled (Expect the Unexpected) (2022), a woman balances an apple atop her head. On closer inspection, an arrow is lodged in the left side of her chest—right where her heart would be.
In another painting, titled Untitled (Dangerous Thoughts) (2022), a woman holds a lighted candle to a stick of dynamite, an explosion inevitable. Like the painterly techniques Kim employs, his works are bound in a constant struggle between lightness and darkness; the two sides of the human mind.
Normal Life is a quest into what constitutes an 'ordinary' life, offering no answer but seeking to balance—and embrace—both the positive and negative aspects of normality. —[O]