From Andy Warhol to Vincent Van Gogh, Kim Dong Yoo Puts a Spin on Art Historical Icons

It’s tempting to compare Korean artist Kim Dong Yoo to prominent artists like Damien Hirst and Chuck Close—but these comparisons may be reductive. While he frequently uses butterflies and a grid-like system to create composite images—often of prominent art historical icons or religious figures—his offers a unique perspective and a distinct painting style. At Hasted Kraeutler in New York, a new exhibition titled “Living Together” marks a shift in Kim’s practice: his work now transcends the grid.

Kim treats portraiture like a game of building blocks, using small repetitive images to build up larger recognizable forms. With Butterflies - Andy Warhol (2014), small white and gray butterflies of varying sizes form an image of Andy Warhol’s face. The configuration of butterflies is striking, and the contrast of black and white gives the painting a sort of cosmic feel. Because it is based on Warhol’s iconic work Self-Portrait Fright Wig (1985), this painting could easily stir up a spirited conversation about image appropriation and the nature of authenticity.

The painting Butterflies - Van Gogh (2014) makes use of a similar visual language: a smattering of purple butterflies appear against a cheery yellow background. Together, they form the portrait of Vincent Van Gogh. Some may regard this work as yet another form of appropriation, as it is based on Van Gogh’s own Self-Portrait (1889, while others may see Kim’s style as an inventive cross between pointillism and pop art practices. By selecting works by artists with such rich art historical significances, Kim has cleverly referenced the art historical canon. In an interview Kim explained: “It may seem like I choose my subject too easily, but the choice entails risk and I find exhilaration in what is risky.” This element of risk is communicated to the viewer in bold colors and a careful selection of cultural icons.

In another series, Kim mines classical art history for imagery and is interested in creating an illusory cracklure effect in his paint. In the paintings Skull 1 (2012), Skull 2 (2012), and Skull 3 (2012), Kim reimagines the memento mori in lovely shades like aubergine, olive green, and crimson. And in other works, like Praying Hands (2012), Crumpled Madonna and Child (2009), Madonna and Child (2014), and Madonna and Child (Palette) (2014) Kim explores traditional Renaissance painting and a variety of stylistic representations of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

In his philosophical writings Jean Baudrillard discussed the concepts of simulacra and simulation to explain the relationship between original imagery and their reproductions. Baudrillard’s theories about originality and the value of sign systems relate quite directly to Kim’s work. By combining classical techniques with visual icons from a wide span of history, Kim creates a whole new matrix of meanings.

—Anna Furman


Living Together” is on view at Hasted Kraeutler, New York, Apr. 30–Jun. 20, 2015.

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