Suk Choo Kim's solo show at Black Faun Gallery represents a reckoning with the past. The large-format photographic images presented here resolve a project that began 40 years ago as a series of Polaroids. Kim learned how to manipulate Polaroids in and around New York City circa 1970, as a photo-obsessed, self-described "flower child" and "shy Korean engineering student." But he soon decided to abandon the Polaroid project because of the limitations of the technology at the time. He simply couldn't make the pieces as big as he wanted. Besides, other projects beckoned.
Over the next few decades, Kim served as a staff photographer in the United States Army. He founded the Korean photo magazine Youngsang. He compiled several major archives of street photography. And he exhibited widely, all while pursuing a full-time career in manufacturing. But, he says, he never forgot his Polaroid experiments from the 1970s.
"The limitation was size. The pictures were so small. So even if they were jewel-like, it was impossible to get the kind of impact that you can get at this scale," Kim said during a recent artist's talk at the Black Faun Gallery, gesturing toward the large-format prints on the walls. Advances in digital photography, high-resolution scanning and high-quality color printing have made it possible to achieve maximalist effects that artists could only dream of 40 years ago. Kim decided to revisit this project because he could now print the images at the larger scale he had envisioned without sacrificing detail or clarity.
But there was also a more personal impetus: Kim's recent diagnosis of gastric cancer. The artist printed the photographic images in this show on canvas and hand-painted them during a three-month course of chemotherapy.
"At first, they gave me six months. They said, 'Get your affairs in order.' And I was like, oh shit. My mind went blank," Kim said. Clearly, it did not take long for sangfroid to reemerge. Kim brought the discipline and professionalism that have characterized the different phases of his career to a new commitment: painting and printing his way through his cancer treatment. He described the work as therapeutic. "After chemotherapy, I get so nauseous and feel so sick. But when I'm in the studio, I'm solely into doing work. While working four, five hours at a stretch with this acrylic medium, I am well."
Kim was an enthusiastic early adapter of the Polaroid SX-70 — the first and most iconic of the push-button "instant cameras," introduced in 1972. The SX-70 produced a unique positive image made from a gelatin-based emulsion layer in between two sheets of Mylar. Early experimenters messed around and discovered that the emulsion remained soft and gooey for several hours inside its Mylar sandwich. Intervening manually in this mechanical process proved not only possible but irresistible for many.
An encounter with Greek artist Lucas Samaras's 1972-73 retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art yielded an epiphany in this regard. Samaras's Photo-Transformations, shot with the SX-70, were tiny, strange self-portraits in which the artist's face appeared altered by distortion effects created by manipulating the Polaroid dyes as they dried. Inspired by what he'd seen, Kim started hacking his own Polaroids.
He began by taking a picture as it exited the camera, cutting off the plastic tab at the bottom and opening it up like a butterfly-cut steak, "to expose the film, push all the chemical out, and spread it evenly around." Sometimes he used an etching burin or an empty ballpoint pen to draw into it; sometimes he smeared the emulsion with his thumb. Sometimes this yielded remarkable results. Several of Kim's Polaroids bear an iridescent sheen like an oil slick, while others are scored with a matrix of superfine wrinkles. Concentric strata are visible at the perimeter of some images, where the picture thickens because layers of gel emulsion have been pushed aside.
Kim demonstrated the technique at his recent talk. "Once the emulsion comes off, you're left with an image that looks like a transparency. It is very delicate." At this stage the picture is, disconcertingly, in flux: a matrix of chemical dyes embedded in a layer of quivering gel the consistency of Jell-O. The artist used a tiny brush to push the gel around, nudging the picture so it buckled like a face in a funhouse mirror. "You have to work fairly fast, 30 minutes max," he said.
As he prepared for this show, Kim scanned these Polaroids at high resolution before printing the resultant files much larger on canvas. He figured out a way to reverse-engineer the effect of his earlier manipulations by using clear acrylic medium to pattern his prints with swirly lines that make things look irradiated and full of feeling, like in paintings by Vincent van Gogh.
Needless to say, 2016 is a long way from the 1880s, and the expressionist treatment Kim brings to these surfaces is unmoored from historical context; it's one option among many, like an Instagram filter. Kim's wiggly brushstrokes might look a little like Van Gogh's but they recall the blur effect employed by Gerhard Richter, a very different artist, in the deadpan renditions of snapshots he started painting in the 1960s. Like Richter's blurs, Kim's quasi-expressionist traceries are a way for the artist to assert the bald fact of his presence. They're a way of leaving fingerprints on the machine.
Many of these images derive from second-hand sources. Some were produced "by shooting the screen of an old color TV with the color knob dialed to 11." One began as a Polaroid of the TV taken during the 1971 World Series. Another, featuring a giraffe, came into the world when Kim shot the screen during "some kind of National Geographic special." The forms of experience that Kim documents are both more banal and less obviously autobiographical than we might have anticipated. Paradoxically, this makes them all the more relatable. Staring at the pictures on the TV, changing channels — isn't this the fundamental visual experience that Americans share, at least if we're talking about the Baby Boomers and their offspring?
Many of these images share a domestic quality in common. A couple dances. A woman reclines in bed. Birds wing their way across the backlit sky. It would be easy to interpret these scenes through the lens of autobiography: remembered moments of happiness, snapshots from a life well lived. But that reading would be incorrect. Kim's up to something subtler and less maudlin. "Are the characters in the images you?" someone in the audience asked. "No," the artist responded with a beatific smile. "They could be anybody."
Suk Choo Kim's exhibition Beyond Photography will be on display at Black Faun Gallery through Dec. 31.