this artist paints the private and public personas of her friends
By painting her subjects in two poses, Kim Hyunji's life-size portraits capture the duality of a generation.
Kim Hyunji is a Korean-born, Australian-based artist who bares the body and souls of her friends and acquaintances in her paintings. Typically nude and sometimes in the midst of something private, Kim’s subjects reveal more of themselves in one portrait than they might in an entire Instagram feed. Larger than life and dreamily staring out from the canvas, there’s a powerful sense of stoicism to her subjects' expressions; a sort of pure insight into the psyche of a generation that only a peer could capture.
With an exhibition coming to a close in Melbourne, we caught up with Kim in an effort to better understand her work and where she hopes to take her rare talent.
Your work is so evocative. How did you learn to paint like that and has your focus always been people?
I was influenced by my mother and grandmother who are also artists, so started drawing when I was very young, but completed my Bachelor of Fine Art about four years ago. Early on I enjoyed drawing things around me: banana peels, people walking down the street or my classmates. Capturing the essence and the resemblance of individuals is what really intrigues me. I also did a lot of self-portraiture as I began to practice oil painting. It was around the time I moved to Australia that I started to do portraits of others. I painted my friends as a way to practice and improve my technical skills. At the same time, I was influenced by Australia’s multiculturalism and diversity, which is the opposite of Korea — a single race country. In the human portrait, even the smallest, most minuscule brush marks can change the whole feeling of facial expression and impression. It’s challenging to translate the persona of a model into painting in this medium. That’s what I love about it.
Can you tell us about moving to Australia from Korea and how it influenced your work?
I first came to Australia in 2013 when my father got a job in Perth. I struggled with the language barrier and the cultural differences at first, and still do to some extent, but I am grateful that I came here and could meet so many beautiful and interesting people. Australia has a rich multicultural society, which has influenced me and my work a lot.
You paint your friends in what would typically be pretty private situations: taking drugs or without clothes. Why those moments in particular?
Every work I make is pretty self-reflective. For me, in my work, I think it’s important to expose the reality and the relevant issues our generation faces. We need better and more constructive communication between different generations, and different communities, and I hope that my work can contribute to that. Sharing a mutual experience with the audience and possibly evoking some feelings through my art is my general goal.
Your paintings seem to riff on and reflect selfie culture. How do you think social media has changed us?
Accessibility to the Internet and social networks has affected the way we perceive our relationships with others, the way we observe ourselves and also influenced how we formulate our egos and access memories. I think social media has resulted in us being more shallow and vulnerable. At the same time it has contributed to building a hyper-connected society. It has helped us share views on equality and awareness, connecting groups of minorities and enabling them to define their community and share information and space. You can’t ignore the impact of the Internet on our lives, so naturally it affects my artworks too.
Can you tell us about your current show?
As an artist who is both a woman and a POC, the current series was inspired by my own experiences of gender discrimination and unprofessionalism within the Australian art scene. By depicting nude portraits of myself and other female artists I respect, I wanted to point to gender discrimination and our perception of female nudity, which is profoundly affected by the male gaze. I also wanted to promote diversity — in ethnicity and shape — subverting ideas of the white female body that dominates representation in the media. I asked femme-identifying artists to curate their own pose; one which reflected their own experiences navigating with a feminine appearance in contemporary society. I also wanted to highlight the gender-bias in the way we perceive the nudity so displayed my paintings of nude men alongside my new works.
What do you do when you're not painting?
I am going to English school at the moment and moving to Sydney in a couple of months to study special effects makeup. I really want to extend my creative practice to include makeup. I’m trying to read more books in my spare time but really I mostly just chill with my friends or with my laptop.
Kim's show runs at Metro Gallery until March 9.