Korean-American Painter Hee Sook Kim Explores the Space Between East and West

For Korean-born, U.S.–based artist Hee Sook Kim, painting is a way to unpack the complexities of cultural identity. Using visual symbols that span Eastern and Western cultures, she gives voice to experiences of migration and displacement, with particular attention to how gender dynamics intertwine with such movements. “Paradise Between,” Kim’s current solo show at Causey Contemporary in New York, showcases a new series of paintings that investigates and celebrates this space between cultures.

Though Kim’s work is heavily influenced by her own experiences, she uses biography as a means to examine larger cultural systems and ideologies. Born in South Korea, Kim immigrated to New York at the age of 28 and has since spent a nearly identical amount of time in the U.S. In the artist’s own words, this experience “makes possible a hybridity that presents both cultures through the eyes of my own particular feminist perspective: raised in fear as a woman, now living in complete confidence as a woman.”

Although Kim’s move to America represented a departure from the traditions inherent to Korean society, she soon discovered that her new home had “its own complicated versions of racism, sexism, and classism.” For Kim, neither society allows a respite from systems of cultural oppression.

In her mixed-media paintings, Kim attempts to capture the ambivalence and the freedom she feels due to her hybrid identity. She starts with images taken from Korean landscape painting—a genre historically dominated by men. By taking up this artistic tradition as a woman, Kim performs a defiant political act. On top of these naturalistic scenes, she overlays patterns using Western oil paints, thus juxtaposing the visual cultures of the two places she has called home.

This overlaying might be interpreted as an indictment of the hegemony of Western culture, with the West threatening to blot out the history of Korean painting. Regardless, the results are strikingly beautiful, especially after Kim applies a glimmering array of glass beads. Her artwork finds new sensations in this cultural friction, as she finds her own piece of paradise in the process.



—A. Wagner



Hee Sook Kim: Paradise Between” is on view at Causey Contemporary, New York, Mar. 10–Apr. 10, 2016.


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