Byron Kim, ‘Synecdoche’, 1991, Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Byron Kim’s multipanel Synecdoche, of which the first eighty-two panels are shown here, draws its title from the figure of speech that describes the metaphorical relationship of the part to the whole. This “group portrait,” which the artist considers a work in progress, thus functions as a portion of some larger entity, as implied by the elipsis-like projection of two panels at the lower right of the grid. What we see, then, simultaneously conjures up panels that are not present, calling to mind absent friends and acquaintances and suggesting the potential for further additions. It also employs a synecdochic transformation with respect to its sitters, relying not upon physiognomy, but instead on skin tone, to identify the subjects. But, as Kim has observed, his decision to focus on a section of each sitter’s skin draws attention to the complex and changing pigmentation of particular bodies, problematizing the notion that any aspect of one’s physical appearance, even the “color” with which we equate our racial heritage, can ever be accurately represented. The work thus implicitly questions the customary assumption on which it seems to rest, namely, that the part can ever be made to stand for some broader imaginary “whole.”

Image rights: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

"This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today"

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Richard S. Zeisler Fund

About Byron Kim

Best known for Synecdoche (1991), a grid of hundreds of monochrome “self-portraits”—the colors corresponding to their sitters’ skin tone—Byron Kim explored identity politics with his early abstract paintings. More recent works have included untitled paintings of cloudy night skies that Kim paints from memory, their subtle variations of purple and gray only visible with close inspection. Speaking of the figurative aspect of works that largely appear abstract, Kim has said, “I love a good abstract painting, but I’m often not interested in what people talk about when they talk about abstraction, so I prefer to apply my own content.”

American, b. 1961