Heenang heesoo Kim’s Neo-Modernist Portraits Reflect the Anxieties of Daily Life

Ayanna Dozier
Aug 26, 2022 5:24PM

Heenang heesoo Kim, installation view of “Heesoo Kim: Normal Life,” at Unit London, 2022. Courtesy of Unit London.

Heenang heesoo Kim’s morbid, modernist-inspired portraits queerly reflect what French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described as “hell as being other people” in his 1944 play No Exit. Both cheeky and modern, Kim’s Cubist-inspired paintings emotively capture the tension of people struggling to keep it together beneath the weight of ordinary life.

With a BFA in advertising and design from Konkuk University in Seoul, the self-taught painter first worked in photography. Even in his photographic practice, Kim was drawn to portraiture as he wanted to visualize everyday stories. In 2014, at the age of 30, Kim began painting and found that the medium allowed him to craft more introspective portraits that liberated his subjects from fixed narratives or interpretations.


Kim has since been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions in Seoul, where he was born and is now based, and is quickly making an impact in the London arts scene after gaining representation with Unit London in 2021. His first solo show with the gallery, “Normal Life,” is on view through September 10th and marks a new journey in his practice memorializing the mundane.

Reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s groundbreaking Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905–06), Kim’s paintings occupy the weight of personhood with a contemporary twist. In his 2020 exhibition “The Other Side of My Mind” at Everyday Mooonday in Seoul, Kim examined the darker impulses of daily life during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the paintings, subjects bearing expressions of agony are cast against a black background. The works frankly convey the madness and existential dread experienced by many during quarantine.

After that darkly emotive outing, Kim is working towards normalcy at Unit London. The subjects in his latest body of work are less aggrieved while partaking in quotidian tasks that make them feel like they belong in a society. “The meaning of normal might just be our honest mindset in our natural habitat,” Kim said in a video interview with Unit London. In pursuing the mundane, Kim has made his subjects less alienated. Untitled (Nonsense) (2022), in which a blonde woman with a drooping cigarette between her lips winks at the viewer, is one of the few paintings in the series that features a singular individual. They now exist in groups, families, and pairs where they slightly offset the strangeness of existence by being with others.

The heaviness of Kim’s neo-modernist style adds gravitas to his subjects’ lives. This modern Cubist style has seen a recent revival on both the primary and secondary market through artists like Vojtěch Kovařík, Ben Sledsens, and Lenz Geerk. Due to the scale of Kim’s paintings, his portraits physically immerse audiences into nameless narrative scenes. Normalcy consumes Kim’s audience, allowing viewers to momentarily feel comfort in the mundane. By pursuing the ordinary, Kim has found his stride in keeping the darkness just out of view. As the artist described, “Living life is just continuously reading in between the unwanted news and the good news that never gives you a heads up.”

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.