In the Studio with Ho Jae Kim

Words by

Alex Leav

In the Studio with Ho Jae Kim

AL: Your second solo show, Carousel, recently opened at Harper’s Chelsea. How was your experience preparing for the show? How did you begin?

HJK: When I began collecting my thoughts for this show, I knew I wanted to create an exhibition that functioned like a musical symphony. A symphony is composed of smaller parts that can be understood individually, but altogether, they function as one grandiose idea. Structurally, I hoped that the recent series, Carousel, would function similarly. A curation modeled like a symphony where each painting becomes an individual movement that becomes an essential pillar of a larger thought.

This body of work was conceptually and structurally planned before the first canvas was stretched. Of course, compositions, color, and other details were adjusted over the course of a year, but the total amount of paintings, their allegorical references, and the initial pictorial compositions were premeditated. In other words, all the paintings were worked on simultaneously. This experience felt like having too many Google tabs open without the ability to close them. It was overwhelming, but I also think that it reflected the world that I live in. A similar kind of chaos, however in my controlled environment of a studio. 

Ho Jae Kim, "Carousel," 2023. Oil, inkjet transfer, enamel, and paper on canvas. Triptych; 96 x 204 in (altogether). Image courtesy Harper's, New York.

AL: How do you “plan” a piece? Or, what does your physical process look like? 

HJK: From my perspective, there are two major elements to a painting: draftsmanship and color. The two are like two people in a relationship, and the love that they form as a result is the painting. My paintings’ procedural development began from a draftsmanship-forward place. As I keep researching and developing, I am slowly trying to allow color to have more presence in my works, so that one day, draftsmanship and color could coexist in a mutually loving and expressive relationship. 

AL: It’s interesting you use the word ‘draftsmanship’ as opposed to ‘drawing.’ 

HJK: I’m not really drawing, per se. The draftsmanship of my paintings begins with a 3D modeling program. The program allows me a degree of precision in heightening levels of geometric and compositional accuracy. This initial step is a homage to the Renaissance artist, Piero della Francesca. 

AL: So you draft up and plan the compositions using a 3D modeling program. Then?

HJK: When 3D models are finalized and an ideal composition is found, the digital composition is printed from an inkjet printer. Then the inks of what is printed are transferred onto the canvas using the inkjet transfer technique. Layers of overlapping transfers mimic the process of glazing in oil. Ultimately, these inkjet transfers are used as under paintings similarly to ways ‘cartoons’ (fully realized under-drawings) were traditionally used in frescos. On top of the inkjet transfers, thick glue layers are then applied, simultaneously sealing the ink and paper for archivability, all the while building textural surfaces and shallow reliefs like Egyptian hieroglyphs and wall decals. The finished glue layer is then layered with clear gesso, which marks the end of the preparatory process, and the surface becomes ready for oil painting. In a way, my paintings are “traditional” in the sense that there are canvas, sizing (glue), gesso, and oil. However, they’re not traditional in that they have a lot of funk in between the canvas and the paint.

Ho Jae Kim: Carousel, Installation view. Image courtesy Harper's, New York.

AL: I think, in that way, your paintings are very sculptural. The first time I saw your work, I was fascinated with the texture of the surfaces. The paint itself is smooth, but the glue and gesso layer beneath the paint is rough and choppy. It almost feels like a vinyl sticker was pressed upon a stucco wall. 

HJK: I’m also interested in the texture. I’ve noticed that my application of color has been slowly becoming thicker and more gestural in recent months, too. Towards the end of production for the Carousel series, I began to use thicker paints in impasto and as a result, brush marks have become rougher and paint textures have become bolder. I guess I am trying to allow the paint to be itself; in other words, I am learning to let the paint be more painterly while consciously protecting the personality of my draftsmanship that I have come to embrace.

Ho Jae Kim, "Day 19: Wilson" (detail), 2023. Oil, inkjet transfer, enamel, and paper on canvas, 50h x 40w in. Image courtesy Harper's, New York.

AL: Your process seems so meticulous, almost mathematical. 

HJK: Yes, I’d say so. I think that the mathematical precision in my process is a way for me to consciously control negative space. 

AL: What do you mean by controlling negative space? 

HJK: For example, when you observe the works of Piero della Francesca and Rene Magritte, there isn’t much mystery to the presentation of objects and figures. The viewer may be fascinated with how well they are painted, but the mystery is not about how things are painted. Alternatively, Philip Guston’s cartoons and Picasso’s figures, for example, are bodies that take a longer time to absorb. The use of painterly gestures in abstracted representations of what is ‘real,’ holds the viewers' attention longer to keep them wondering about the ontology of what is represented. When looking at a Guston or a Picasso, viewers might be curious as to how the figures are painted. However, when looking at a Piero or a Magritte, one’s absorption of figures and objects might be much quicker. It’s more straightforward. A rock is a rock, a businessman is a businessman, a comb is a comb, and a bird is a bird; they are painted with such levels of exactitude that there is no mystery as to how they are painted, so the true mystery becomes where they are painted. 

Therefore, thinking about where - in Magritte’s works especially - objects’ locations and their scales become quintessential to the viewing experience. From the exactitude of what is depicted in the positive space, your eyes naturally begin to ponder the relationship between what is painted. You wonder, about how close or far something is from another, or how big or small an object is relative. Your eyes continuously navigate between the figures and objects that are depicted, and in other words, the true essence becomes about the negative space. With negative space, I try to mimic the mystery that Magritte and Piero did so well to master. 

AL: Getting back to the format of the show, you mentioned that each piece functions independently, but works with every other piece to create a grander narrative?

HJK: Right. The centerpiece of the exhibition - its namesake painting, “Carousel” - depicts a carousel with 31 horses. Alongside the centerpiece, smaller paintings signify 31 individual narratives. 20 paintings (each 50w x 40h in) each depict an individual narrative, and “Songs of the Remaining Days” (99h x 66.5w in) lists 11 titles of 11 individual narratives within the picture plane. Together, the 21 paintings become a depiction of 31 stories, referring back to the number of horses in the centerpiece. As the number of the horses becomes a symbol and an index of each story signified by the smaller paintings in the exhibition, the audience is given the chance to see all 31 stories as one, housed under the roof of the carousel, all the while individually as individual paintings.

Ho Jae Kim, "Day 1: Richard Parker," 2022. Oil, inkjet transfer, enamel, and paper on canvas, 50h x 40w. Image courtesy Harper's, New York.

AL: What kind of individual stories are making up the grander narrative?

I’ll give you an example of one of the paintings in the show:


In the movie Castaway (2000), the main protagonist, Chuck, played by Tom Hanks, is rescued not from the island but in the middle of the ocean on his makeshift raft. In other words, the island has only been experienced by Chuck, and the narrative (movie plot) of the island is a story told by our protagonist. In other words, the island only exists through Chuck’s storytelling, and the audience’s experience and imagination of the island are a result of the narrator’s oration. Without knowing how reliable Chuck is as a narrator, and without the ability to confirm the existence of the deserted island, the story of the island becomes a mythology. It is a fantasy grounded in reality and a place that simultaneously exists and doesn’t exist due to the uncertainty of ontology. 

On the deserted island, Chuck creates a being, Wilson, a deflated volleyball with a face painted in Chuck’s own blood. In the movie, Wilson becomes Chuck’s friend, alter ego, and confidante, all the while a personified object— fundamentally a lifeless being. On the deserted island, a tropical purgatory, Chuck laughs, cries, and makes conversations with Wilson who is his physical manifestation.

Here, I found a parallel between the experience of Chuck’s island and the experience of emerging artists in their studios. Emerging artists too are lost in their secluded studios, which are like deserted islands because they are hidden from the world and experienced only by the castaway. In the limbo of time, artists speak and listen to their artworks with dreams of rescue. Artworks, physical manifestations of the artist, are Wilsons, and the studio is an island. 

Ho Jae Kim, "Day 8: Laundry List," 2022. Oil, inkjet transfer, enamel, and paper on canvas, 50h x 40w in. Image courtesy Harper's, New York.

AL: Where do you find inspiration?

HJK: Inspirations vary from sources like literature, philosophical texts, movies, personal experiences, etc. With my inherent fascination of liminal spaces, which I coin as purgatory, certain ideas illuminate like a lighthouse on a stormy sea in my Odyssey of life. 

AL: You seem to keep busy outside of the studio, too. You’ve founded CIVIL ART, a platform which amplifies voices that advocate cultural awareness of API through social engagement programs that utilize art and literature. Can you tell me a little bit about that? 

HJK: Civil Art is a non-profit organization that I co-founded and am currently working as the organization’s executive director. Civil Art’s creative programs and curatorial exhibitions promote institutional change, education, and community impact. 

The organization was founded through its first project, At the Table, in 2022. Collaborating with Christie’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) team, Civil Art curated a privately selling exhibition that featured over 30 API artists at Christie’s Rockefeller Center gallery. The project was conceived amid rising cases of xenophobia against the Asian diaspora, heightened during the pandemic, to provide opportunities to raise funds for and amplify the voices of the API community. As part of the initiative, Civil Art has also produced a cookbook containing family recipes from 46 members of the Asian American community, including artists, chefs, scholars, gallery directors, and more. Food is a universal necessity deeply intertwined in one’s journey in life and working as an archive of memory, bringing people together through a shared experience. Proceeds from the exhibition benefited Heart of Dinner, a non-profit organization that fights food insecurity and isolation experienced by New York City’s Asian American seniors. This initial project raised a gross amount of $235,000, featured over 50 creative individuals, and was featured in international/national magazines such as Forbes, Barron’s, Mash India, Purple Fashion Magazine, and SupChina.  

Since At the Table, Civil Art has been working to curate exhibitions annually. In July 2023, Civil Art will launch a new program, Art and Voices, a collaborative program that demonstrates unity and camaraderie between communities empowering nonprofit organizations. This year, we are collaborating with The Here and There Collective (THAT) to curate an exhibition that will occupy Harper’s gallery spaces in Chelsea. Additionally, with THAT, Stilllife, and CIDA, we are creating educational programs to supplement our community-empowering goals. 

In 2024, Civil Art will be collaborating once again with Christie’s CSR to program another rendition of At the Table. It is too early to provide any details publicly, but we are excited to create even more opportunities for our creative community and reach a larger demographic of audiences. 

There is a part of art, which is the pursuit of aesthetics, form, and concept – explored inside my studio. However, I also acknowledge another characteristic of art that has the ability to affect community, society, and history. Ultimately, the work I am putting into Civil Art is my way of exploring the societal part of Art that is difficult to reach just inside the studio.

Ho Jae Kim: Carousel, Installation view. Image courtesy Harper's, New York.
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Photos by Alex Leav