Art Critic, Mark Jenkins, Jounalist for the Washington Post
Among Jean Jinho Kim's recent artworks are small assemblages of two simple metal pieces, bent into eaves- or arch-like forms, that overlap to suggest the profile of a house. Nearby in her large home studio are sets of rectangular metal tubes that bend sharply at the bottom so they resemble pairs of boots.
The outlined houses and the streamlined boots might indicate that the Korean-born multimedia artist is concerned with domesticity and fashion, subjects usually associated with women. She is, after all, a mother and a grandmother. Yet much of her work is bigger, brawnier and more flamboyant.
"I kind of like heaviness," she says.
When she exhibits her distinctive art in South Korea, Kim reveals, people often assume that it's the work of a man. They also think that it looks very American. Yet the artist believes she's guided as much by traditional Asian aesthetics as the brasher outlook of modern and contemporary Western art.
"I think my work has a bit of a duality," she notes.
Kim began as a painter, and still makes paintings and collages. Recently, however, these pictures have often borrowed motifs from the shapes of her sculptures, the art for which she's best known. Drawing in 3-D space with muscular strokes of metal is central to her work.
The sculptures began with elaborately tangled assemblages of downspouts, preexisting forms that Kim manipulated in unexpected ways. Originally, these were painted in a single hue often set off by a contrasting color and material: In 2109's "Jump," the ends of light-green tendrils are stuffed into pink rubber boots. The downspout pieces soon became vertically oriented, often clustered in bouquet-like designs in which each stalk is a different color.
The counterpoint is also analogous to music, another of Kim's influences. (Her mother was a musician.) The artist likes things that are, she says, "coexisting."
Working during the pandemic, Kim began to make sculptures that were more suitable to being placed outdoors. Aluminum became her preferred material, and the arrangements became sleeker and simpler. Rather than entwine multiple tubes, she erected just a few uprights, often straight columns bent into a pair of zigzags at the top. Some of these evoke lightning bolts, while others move toward the house-like shapes of her recent work.
"When you get older, you like to make your life simpler," Kim muses.
The artist derived some of her artistic sensibility from East Asian art, with its delicate gestures and subdued colors. She combined this with Western minimalism, which also prizes simplicity, directness and a dark or earth-toned palette. Yet her mode, which she calls "expressionistic minimalism," features surfaces that are shiny and brightly colored.
In the United States, Kim has always lived on the East Coast, and for many years has been based in the Washington, D.C. area. (She earned her late-in-life M.A. at that city's American University.) Yet her work, with its hot pinks, bright yellows and bold reds, has an affinity with Southern California art. Her style recalls that region's "finish fetish" style, which was inspired by the sleek forms and shiny surfaces of surfboards, airplanes and custom cars.
Kim has her sculptures powder-coated at a Northern Virginia shop that caters to both artists and industrial users. Whether they suggest boots, houses or something burlier, they all have a machine-like quality.
And yet there's a personal quality to Kim's work, whose sleek forms reflect her life and philosophy. The downspouts the sculptor bends into so many shapes signify communication -- "things going through," she explains. And those boot-like sculptures remind the artist of her late mother, and their metallic material represents her "strong will" to continue wearing her trademark footwear as she became older and more infirm.
Knowing these things deepens the viewer's appreciation of Kim's work, but is not essential. The artist's mastery of form and flair for color are enough to delight the eye. Whether her sculptures look like houses, boots, flowers or spaceships is secondary to their power and grace.