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Ji Woo Kim

Growing up, I was always surrounded by people in the visual arts. My grandparents worked in fashion, my uncle is an architect, and my mom studied art history and archaeology in college. While I was growing up, my uncle would come over on the weekends and draw with me. He inspired me to create and opened my eyes to different fields, including fashion, architecture, and interior design. 

I was born in Korea and moved to Vancouver when I was 5 or 6. My dad stayed in Korea because of work. When I first moved to Vancouver, I was in a predominantly white neighborhood, and I was thrown into that environment and expected to assimilate. In the beginning, it was a matter of learning the language, but I actually struggled more in fifth grade when I moved to a neighborhood that was primarily Asian. That was when I started to think about identity because as a child I didn’t have many avenues to engage with Korean culture. 

A friend introduced me to Korean media, like K-pop and dramas, which made me want to start exploring my Korean identity further. From there, I felt that I was balancing identities, existing in the gray zone of being Korean and Canadian. I came to New York for college, studying for a BFA at Pratt, and that was the first time I interacted with Koreans from Korea. I realized how different I was as an Asian American. There was a clear distinction. 

The process of thinking more about identity was gradual. The first time I wanted to make art about this specifically, was when I was speaking to my uncle, who has lived outside of Korea for the majority of his life. I was shocked when he said, “Don’t you feel like there isn’t one place that you can call home?” I thought that spending 30+ years in the US and Canada would make him well-adjusted to living here. I realized that this identity crisis would go on throughout my life. The in-betweenness is our home as Asian Americans. 

lines Color is my favorite part of painting. I am into bold, bright colors, and my recent body of work incorporates a lot of fluorescence. I call my new body of work my “break up paintings,” which condense images of the trauma and depression I experienced in the past year into 24 hours. Since these paintings explore mental health, I was trying to find a way to be upbeat and make the process fun. I started all of the recent paintings by laying down a fluorescent ground color. I’m very drawn to pinks and purples, and that shows a lot in my recent works.

I keep telling people that I want the “break up paintings” to be a Gen Z show, and the two images of me crying are based on my selfies. When I was first going through the break up, my way of coping was oversharing on the internet and uploading crying selfies, which is quintessentially Gen Z. I was trying to find ways to play into that humor, and I thought that fluorescence and the reddish skin tones and pinks would add a nice kick to the paintings, instead of this being a show about trauma and grief with a dark palette. 

I don’t know what my next body of work will be, but I think making works about Asian American identity will always be relevant to me. Recently, I feel at home with the people around me, so I’m more interested in exploring mental health, emotions, and depression over searching for community. My future work will probably try to meet somewhere in the middle.

I typically combine five to six layers in one work, selecting images and textures from my archives. Combining documentary photographs and telescope images can easily appear artificial if the images don't harmonize well with each other. To merge the images, I experiment with various layers and processing techniques. I also introduce texture by layering images of painted canvases with my photographs. 

The colors in my photographs are also unusual because I extract various colors through chemical reactions when I develop the film. I follow a lot of Daisuke Yokota’s developing processes. For example, the proper temperature for film development is about 30 degrees Celsius, but instead, I will develop film in boiling water. Sometimes strange colors or textures will appear, making the image look like something other than a photograph. When I repeat the process of taking a picture, printing it, and then taking another picture, the image degrades. That is another form of aesthetic expression.

Initially, my practice was about taking photos and printing them, but with film processing, I found joy in the manual process. I have buried film in the soil under dim moonlight and developed it together with the soil. I have experimented with scratching the film. It is intriguing to achieve abstract images with these processes. 
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Images courtesy of the artist, Make Room Gallery, and Shuyao Chen.
Ji Woo Kim (b. 1996) is an artist based in New York City. She received a BFA in Painting from Pratt Institute in 2018 and an MFA in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in 2023.

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