Beyond Impasto: Social Commentary in the Faceless Work of KwangHo Shin

Lush gobs and broad scrapes alternate with lacy drips of paint across new works by KwangHo Shin, now on view at Unix Gallery in New York. In each canvas, the outline of a figure creates an imperfect boundary for barely contained loose brushwork. The immediate visual impact serves as a gateway to the broader themes of interpersonal connection that Shin explores in his bold practice.

  • Image courtesy of UNIX Gallery.

    Image courtesy of UNIX Gallery.

Shin starts with a photograph of a person. Their outline is enlarged to fit a massive canvas, often nearly two meters tall. Within the silhouette, Shin applies paint quickly and vigorously. Some works are dark with a few bright accents; others offer a dazzling panoply of vivid hues. Dots and scrapes mar the white space at the fringes of Shin’s paintings, indexing his intense creative process.

Shin says this process captures the feelings he has while looking at the source material. Indeed, the dynamic brushwork suggests the exciting ideas and emotions generated by interpersonal contact; at the same time, however, the painting process obscures the subject’s features, recalling the challenges of authentic human connection.

Not all of Shin’s works feature mountainous impasto. In some portraits, such as Untitled 16NY34, paint is thinly scraped onto the canvas in a patchwork effect. The figures appear pixelated, like holograms about to dissolve. That technology, not unlike paint, offers a type of human presence that flickers in and out of reception.

On the other hand, Untitled 16NY26 departs from Shin’s normal protocol. Shown in a room with no other paintings, the canvas still works with thickly applied paint; yet there is no figure, and the only color is pitch black. The piece is a response to the South Korean government’s reaction to the MV Sewol disaster, a 2014 tragedy in which a ferry capsized, killing 304 people. The churning brushstrokes become the impenetrable surface of a volatile, colorless sea.


—Brett Lazer


KwangHo Shin’s work is on view at Unix Gallery, New York, Jun. 23–Jul. 30, 2016.

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