Bong Jung Kim is a Korean-born artist living in the New York City area. He is a skilled artist who merges discarded high-tech materials with pictures of black, blossom-like shapes that might be flowers, or more erotically, pubic hair or even female genitalia. His series is called “Addiction,” a problem with obsessively observing pornography that he candidly acknowledged in conversation. The electron parts he attaches, usually to the center of the flowers, also indicate addiction -- in this case our helpless dependence on high technology, the cyber world, and the Internet. Interestingly, the honesty with which Kim acknowledges his dependence on sex videos flies in the face of the traditional Korean culture, whose sexual probity is well known. But Kim is living and showing in America, where it is acceptable to express one’s desire openly. His "Addiction" series not only opens up a set of issues that for polite, middle class Korean society is more or less taboo, it also presents the predicament of a man overwhelmed by the open sexualization of culture, in a place where porn has become, more or less, a mainstream part of the American experience. Without judging the desire of the artist, we can contemplate the success of his paintings/assmblages, which are neither explicit nor hidden but take a middle ground, presenting openly the interface between sex and modern culture.
Can we read one man’s obsession with eros as an indication of the society at large? This is of course difficult to do -- Kim’s account is anecdotal and hardly scientific in any social sense. Yet one assumes that sexual obsession occurs much more extensively than may be reported. Desire simply does not go away, being strongest in youth but persisting in life through middle into old age. Kim is in mid-career, a time in one’s life when erotic feeling, while still strong, is moving toward a lesser level of desire. It is a period when men often cling to the potency of more youthful times, and this may be true of Kim himself. Yet the tendency to make art out of sex can fail in the sense that sexual interest often overrules esthetic accomplishment, disturbing artistic interest; and in any case, it is not only sex Kim is addressing. Rather, he preposes an exhibition based on the nature of addiction: the need, at any cost, to fulfill the wish for something. Thus, the work breaks free of its possibly tawdry origins to powerfully comment on the social nature of needs considered illicit. (This has changed, though, in the sense that culture worldwide has incorporated sex into an open topic.)
Addiction 94 (image top), a mixed-media work from 2015, consists of a rounded, triangular blot of black ink, with hair-like extensions moving outward, toward the edges of the paper. It looks, in truth, like something very sexual: two rounded haunches serve as the thighs that frame the black mass, easily viewed as a rendition of pubic hair. Right in the center of the black hair is a series of discarded electronic materials, which serve to emphasize the sexuality of the image by contrasting a manmade world with what is literally the depths of nature: the vaginal gap. Between the two haunches are thin lines of ink—liquids dripping from a vagina. If it all sounds rather vulgar, it really is so -- in part because the image can be read so literally. As most often happens in pornography, the metaphor is discarded in favor of a literalism serving to intensify the erotic experience. And as for the electronic detritus, that too is a literal relic of a civilization whose technology keeps us passively in check as we continue our daydreams on the Internet, where we can purchase computers, shoes, and porn.
In Addiction 61 (2015) (image above), the imagery and materials are similar: rounded masses of ink, partially surrounded by lighter umbras and in the middle of which sit more electronic throw-away objects. Here the image might be accurately likened to a budding flower -- and we remember the word "flower" stands as a euphemism for the vulva! So the sexual implications of Kim’s work are never really far away. The electronic materials include a disk of some sort, as well as wires stretching away from the disk's center. The combination of ancient flower and new technology feels a bit disconcerting, but then so is Kim’s subject: the nature of unmitigated need. Technology is now regularly embedded in our bodies for medical reasons; we carry it with us everywhere we go. And our obsessions with technology are neverending. Here Kim’s contribution as an artist is to make the point that there is even a beauty to our addictions; many see the vulva, or female flower, as an image of unrivaled delight. Thus, the artist’s show may begin with a confession but moves beyond it, into a place of affirmation of eros, the issue we all are secretly -- or not so secretly -- taken with. To Kim’s credit, his frankness becomes not a personal but a so ill statement; we recognize the obsession in ourselves. - Jonathan Goodman