Shadow and I – About the Summoning Art of Painting

criticism of Hyunho Kim’s work

Yeji Hong  Art critic

Images are all over the place. Adding another one does not make it any different. We cannot fathom what filled their heart when the first image was ever created back in the old days. Their thoughts and feelings sank into the grave as dust, and their relationship with the image faded. The story that conceals all these secrets, or the myth surrounding the origin of the image, is scattered like shards and awaits posterity. Can we ever revive the senses that were shared in the very beginning?

Hyun-ho Kim’s “The Summoning Project”[1], recalls an old article that implied the magical function of image. Gaius Plinius Secundus, a great Roman statesman and scholar, excavates the origins of painting and sculpture at the same time, mentioning a myth in Natural History. Butades of Sicyon, a potter who dwelled in Corinth, and his daughter hold the clue. Butades’ daughter was in love with a young man who was going abroad indefinitely. Before parting, she drew in outline on the wall the shadow of his face thrown by the lamp. Her father pressed clay on this and made a relief, which he hardened by exposure to fire with the rest of his pottery; and it is said that this likeness was preserved in the Shrine of the Nymphs …[2] This is the plot of the myth.

Although Plinius does not directly explain it, Victor I. Stoichita, author of Short History of the Shadow, interprets the implications of this myth hypothetically. According to him, the origin of the image should be sought “in the interruption of an erotic relationship, in a separation, in the departure of the model”. In that sense, “representation” is a sort of “substitute” and “mnemonic aid” of the person, making the absent present. In this case, the shadow’s resemblance (similitudo) to the original plays a crucial role.[3] In the myth introduced earlier, both the shadow and the image created according to it resemble the lover. The real shadow accompanies the one who is leaving, while his outline, captured once and for all on the wall, immortalizes a presence in the form of an image, captures an instant and makes it last.[4] At this point, Stoichita emphasizes “verticalizing” the shadow. In the spirit of Greek art, “the shadow recumbent on the earth” has to do with death. Therefore, tracing the shadow of an erect person is a wish for the person to be forever ‘upright’(not recumbent), so that he or she is ‘alive’.[5] The image drawn by Butades’ daughter can be interpreted in the same context. Meanwhile, it is worth paying attention to the latter part of this story. The shadow is innately a double un-realization — it reduces the being to its look and projects them onto the wall. That is, the shadow becomes “the other” of their body like a spectre. Butades once again “realizes” what had been unrealized by “endowing this fantasy with a (new) reality”.[6]

Stoichita explains that the dialectic of the absence/presence themes implied in the birth of image is interspersed throughout art history. The theme has been visualized in various formalities, from drawing the outline of a shadow to coloring, to giving a sense of shape.[7] Regardless of the specific expression or material, the act of creating an image of a subject and relating with it is based on a fundamental understanding of life and death. Above all, an image brings comfort to those who are left behind, by calling formissed ones to the real world.

In the context of the origin of image, we can read the meaning of Kim’s “The Summoning Project” in depth. While studying abroad, the artist, unable to attend his friend’s wedding, sent a life-sized self-portrait to South Korea. The painting attended the wedding as a substitute of the artist, sat at a table with other guests and took a group photo. The friend responded with the documentation of it, which is the beginning of the project. He realized that he could endow an absent one with a real body in the form of painting. Afterwards, Kim worked with participants, thereby expanding the project. Participants talked about the person they wanted to meet, and the artist made paintings that resembled the missed ones by extracting keywords from the story. The paintings on frameless canvas were transformed into objects that could be hugged and worn, such as cushions, blankets, shoes, and bags, after consulting with the participants. In exchange for the artwork, the participant sent photos and videos of the time spent with the summoned beings. Surprisingly, the documentations show how the paintings mingle with people like a living being. In The Summoning Project: Seo Injoo (2016), for example, the whole family sits around a table and chats with their deceased mother. The memories of each person are reeled off as they face the summoned mother – not recumbent but upright.

The subject of summoning is not limited to people. The body of work “Night Holding Space Even at Night” which started in 2020, summons nature to the here and now. The working process is as follows. As a sketch, nature is dead asleep. The tendons of the mountain range hang lifelessly, and the flow of the waterfall is still. The nature that appears in lines without its original color is in an un-realized form. Kim then makes matière along this outline. Bumpy textures are created with black and white acrylic mixed with heavy body medium. Its shape gradually stands out and begins to gain tactility. When thin carbon black is applied on top of this, the paint oozes through the irregularities and the volume is revived. Nature that was still begins to move. In the video piece which documents the process of resuscitation, the artist’s body and canvas are about the same size, and they stand facing each other. Nature is summoned to this side of the world and becomes realized in real time — just like when the shadows reflected on the wall acquired a body.

The prerequisite for summoning is the insurmountable distance between the subject and the artist. It is the gap that opened up as they left, the absence of the subject. Therefore, the essence of painting that summons lies not only in the completed image but what motivated the artist to paint it — the uniqueness of the relationship between the subject and him. Let’s go back to the process of painting like we rewind a video, to the first moment he picked a brush. The painter is about to miss or lose something. The sensory data that constitutes the subject matter scatters rapidly. The artist’s eyes move busily in the air, and his hands follow the trail from a step behind. The gap widens between the mind that is attached to the subject and the body that is distant. The movement that intends to traceshadow is as desperate.

It seems that Kim was sensitive to the essence of painting from early on because his insight for the act of painting itself is reflected in his earlier works. One day, as a Korean painting major, he gets a strange feeling about a paper that was pasted on a drawing board. When a finished painting is removed, brush marks remain on the drawing board, and he thought that the marks were rather close to the truth. Starting from this trace, the artist worked to revive the existence that he intended to capture in the first place. Viewing this realization through the lens of the aforementioned shadow leads us to wonder what is ‘the object that has left’ from the drawing board. Firstly, it is the person he wanted to paint, and secondly, it is an image, or a shadow, of the person. If so, the marks left on the board after removing the finished painting are ‘the shadow of the shadow’. What is recorded on this bottom layeris none other than the truth of representation, a fundamental paradox that the artist had to face. Kim has been holding on to this question for a long time, and Geurim Research is an in-depth journey to search for the answer.

I imagine the myriad of shadows the artist must have encountered while painting — a being that has lost their body, a being that remains only as traces and silhouettes, and someone whois alive only in the heart. A painting depicting a subject matter that sways in the light and evokes sorrow is not a plainsurface. It is a body that has been summoned by the desire to regain it. This body bends the physical reality between the shadow and the painter. It emerges as if it challenges the limits of space and time. While constantly transferring and painting, we wait for the countless beings that the artist will summon. Right where you stand, the lost heart and the midst of endless darkness is where these beings will reach.

[1] “The Summoning Project” is a series of work that explores mediums that Hyunho Kim named “Geurim(painting in Korean) Research”, and it is divided into two parts. Part 1 (2015~2017) summons a person who the participants want to meet as a painting and develops it in two or three dimensions. The time spent with it is archived in photos and videos. Part 2 (2020~) is a work that summons nature in the form of paintings with bold textures, and it views nature as the object of nostalgia during the pandemic when it is difficult to go out. According to the artist, the painting is not simply regarded as a still image, but as a “real object” with three-dimensionality and tactility.

[2] Victor I. Stoichita, Short History of the Shadow, trans. Anne-Marie Glasheen, London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1999, p.11.

[3] ibid., pp.14-15. emphasized by the present writer.

[4] ibid., p.15.

[5] ibid., p.16.

[6] ibid., p.17.

[7] ibid., p.7.

Translated by O Woomi Chung