Eunice Kim: Complex Simplicity

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add,

but when there is nothing left to remove.”

–Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

 

This article is the result of in-depth series of interviews and exchanges between Nontoxicprint.com’s Nina Lawrin and artist Eunice Kim that took place over the course of late 2013 through early 2014. It follows up on Kim’s first essay published in 2009, and is most comprehensive profile to date of the artist and her work, shedding light on concepts and processes, as well as taking an intimate behind-the-scenes look at Kim’s methodologies and pathways. The article is being brought to Printeresting through partnership with Nontoxicprint.com.

 


 

At first glance, there is a sense of familiarity and comfort, but also of awe in contemporary artist Eunice Kim’s engagement with the collagraph.

Grey smudges of cloud-like forms cusp darker cylinders with clearly delineated, crisp dots of definition. Each dot mark is carefully cradled to the next, creating a complex structure with simple rhythm. I find it strangely impulsive, almost humanly innate – instinctive – to be drawn to these repetitious patterns that resemble common shapes and formations found in our perceived world, and in that, have relevance, identification, and logic.

The monochromatic prints take our eyes through an illusion of space, of time, of the individual, and of the collective whole, while intelligent compositions both amplify and layer complexity of the work. Further insights into Kim’s collagraphs reveal aesthetic and processes which are equally intelligent and intuitive, and are complex interlay of history, memory, and reflection through re-configured structures on paper. The work is powerfully evocative and conceptually driven, beyond mere concerns with printing techniques and conventions of reproduction.

The collagraph is an incredibly flexible, tactile, and low toxicity printmaking process that can result in numerous aesthetic forms filled with texture, spontaneity, and play. In college, then a student of graphic design, Kim was introduced to the collagraph within an elective printmaking course. Her path was clear and defined from that moment on:

A collagraph was the very first print I ever pulled off the press and I was instantly hooked. The rest, as they say, is history. I committed to the collagraph pretty much from the get-go and although the medium is intrinsically of low toxicity, usage of various organic solvents such as turpentine and mineral spirits became problematic for me. By my late twenties, having developed various allergies, sensitivities, and health issues, I found myself at crossroads: find an alternate way of working or give up printmaking. The latter, of course, was not an option.

With health being a concern for Kim, she took a five-year hiatus from printmaking to detox while working creatively through web design. She saw this period as an opportunity to better equip her for long term art making:

I always say “breaks” can be extremely productive. When I returned to art making in 2004, came the Porous series, which began my investigation with dot-based imagery and research into safer, sustainable approach to printmaking.

To be clear, I have tremendous respect for traditional approaches to printmaking; they are the foundations we build on. I do believe, however, that our methods must evolve and change in response to concerns of our time. There is, of course, no such thing as a completely nontoxic process. Most products we use in our daily lives, in fact, have SOME downsides. Hence, I believe better description is “safety conscious.” The goal is to raise awareness to minimize hazard and impact.

Kim’s views on traditional printmaking methods serving as foundations to build on parallels her sentiments about formative years growing up in Korea. Her grandmother had an immense impact on the young artist:

My maternal grandmother, more than anyone or anything, has had profound bearing and influence on my formation as a person, and by extension, my work.

I was born in 1971, in Seoul, Korea. While I was still an infant, my parents immigrated to the United States and left me in grandmother’s care. Their plan was to retrieve me as soon as they were able, but this turned into ten years. My grandmother raised me for those first ten years of my life…

Nightly, I fell asleep to my grandmother’s whispered Buddhist prayer chants and found the evening ritual to be extremely comforting. And now, in my work, I find myself engaging in similar ritualistic repetition, both in forming and shaping individual dot marks on my collagraph plates, and in the printmaking process itself, which reinforces the repetitive act.

These memories and personal history, as well as the negotiation of two different cultures, play inevitable roles in Kim’s approach to the collagraph process. When asked about her immigration to the US and whether her Korean heritage melded or conflicted with life here in the States, Eunice humbly spoke of some observations in relation to her work:

Generally speaking, here in the West, it’s very much about the individual, whereas in the East, there is a strong emphasis on the collective. So coming from this bicultural background, an important aspect of the journey for me, is reconciling and balancing the tension between the individual and collective.

For instance, one of the things I strive for in my work, is to create an environment and a context within which each one of my dot marks retains its unique individuality, while contributing to a larger whole. With Tessellation series, this effort is replicated and reinforced through usage of collagraph monoprint modules, where each one of those squares is unique, while being part of the larger picture. I reckon this is somewhat akin to building a community or society.

I wonder if being a Korean artist living in the US doesn’t make my work more “Korean” in some respects, than if I was a Korean artist living in Korea. Along with hybrid, multicultural experience comes the need for clarification of one’s identity and place in the framework of things. There is also conscious effort on my part, to selectively take the best from each culture. Influences and tendencies that survive and remain intact after this distillation process are then brought to the forefront and amplified.

With these considerations in mind, it is fascinating to break down the process through which Kim creates her prints. Some qualities that permeate throughout Eunice’s work that are specific to her artistry are the dot process, obsessive repetition, and transfusion of rituals:

Collagraph process through which I produce the work, is my own. I think often times we come to these things by necessity. I needed and wanted a technique that is in line with my intentions, as well as safer and sustainable.

Arriving at my particular process took a bit of tinkering and experimentation, which included plenty of ideas that did not necessarily pan out. What we normally refer to as “failure” in our culture, is essential to innovation. After all, how do we arrive at something that works, if we do not first understand what doesn’t work? I made a whole lot of bad prints before I began to see something I liked.

The search for my visual language and the search for my process took place simultaneously. In other words, I didn’t first set out to develop a technique, then create an imagery I had in mind using that technique. The imagery was informed by the process, and vice versa, a process evolved that is specific to the visual language.

Lacking precedence in traditional printmaking that is equivalent to the way I construct my plates, I am often thinking about how I can better describe and explain my approach to work. It occurred to me recently, that my dot marks are in essence, each a miniature sculpture, lovingly (!) formed, shaped, and polished. I believe that there is a real opportunity with collagraphs to exploit and harness its physicality this way.

Another driving force behind my research was the desire for simplicity–both in imagery, and materials and processes. Having said that, I also find to be true that doing simplicity right, can be quite complex. It is important to note here a distinct difference between “complicated” and “complex.” “Complicated” is making more out of something that isn’t (think, soap operas). “Complex” speaks to something more inherent in nature, and is worthy of study and investigation (say, the way universe works). Simplicity and complexity can, and often do co-exist beautifully, and that is my overriding goal.

I enjoy working in scales both large and small. I find that each demands a different kind of strategy and presents different challenges. There are things you can do with small pieces that you can not with larger pieces, and vice versa. Working in varying sizes allows me to exercise the full range of my muscles, so to speak.

With my current Tessellation series, I employ a module-based approach to work. I love the flexibility and investigative possibilities inherent in working with units. I can fully develop and flesh out my concepts in manageable scale, then use those modules to build a larger whole within framework and structure. I find working within this precept of order wonderfully freeing.

Unsurprisingly, Eunice Kim’s work finds strong affinity with minimalist art and quiet intimacy of Agnes Martin paintings, although Kim’s work adds a “fractal” and more “improvisational” twist to the 1960s concerns with repetition and geometry. Kim’s complete attention to detail while having a view of the collective whole also brings to mind Jackson Pollock’s democratic “all over principle.”

Segueing on to more technical realms, I inquired about the absence of standard editions in artist’s repertoire of work, as well as the distinction between “edition variable” and “unique” one-off prints:

I’m drawn to printmaking for what it makes possible in the way of in-depth study of materials and processes, not so much for its potential for replication. And it’s not that I necessarily have an aversion to standard editions; I simply haven’t found the occasion where my intentions aligned with the act of creating identical multiples of one image.

You are also absolutely correct in that my particular process simply isn’t suited to standard editions, as the matrices go through physical changes during the printing process. Wiping the plates with newsprint essentially replicates the same abrasive motion used in construction of my plates and progressively flattens out the dot marks. In early impressions, dots print smaller but with bolder presence (more ink accumulates around them due to their height). In latter impressions, as the dot marks flatten, they progressively print larger, but with subtler, more nuanced characteristics. The plate tone, as well, changes and mutates.

So, to further elaborate… With an “edition variable of 20 (Porous series, Five Elements series), there are 20 impressions that vary by way of integrity of dot marks and plate tone, as well as color variations in the case of Porous series. Printing for “edition variable” is more typical of what you would expect from intaglio editioning.

Tessellation series, however, is a whole other story. Inking for each collagraph monoprint module is varied and executed with eye toward play on matrices, much in the way music is improvised on established notes. It’s largely an experimental and investigative process, with the goal of expanding mark making possibilities and potential.

With Tessellation series, not taking plate construction into account, it takes just about six months to print and assemble four works sized 36×36 inches. Part of this is due to the fact that it is necessary to print far more collagraph monoprint squares than I will actually be using, to ensure sufficient picking and options during the composition process. For a piece consisting of 144 collagraph monoprints, for instance, I will print at the very minimum, 200+.

I must admit, because the process is so protracted, it takes a good degree of faith on my part to see it through. It certainly isn’t about immediate gratification. The antithesis of “more-faster-now” world we live in, you might say.

Kim also spoke about the unique qualities of her ink:

Characteristics of ink are extremely important in my process. For one, it must have enough body to grab onto the plate surface, yet fluid enough to wipe off the dot marks clean. I use a blend of several different black inks to achieve the tacky, buttery, gritty ratio I’m looking for, with the correct intensity.

I should also mention, the consistency of my ink is not a constant. As dot marks flatten out, the ink mixture must become thicker and more viscous, as there is less on the plate for the ink to grab onto. So there’s this ongoing balancing of variables. There can’t be a change in one thing, without corresponding adjustment in the other.

During one of our last exchanges, I asked the artist to speak to some of the ever-present and recurring themes in her work (e.g. circles, structure, repetition) and how she sees them informing her ongoing practice. Eunice’s answers reveal an intimate connection to these motifs and provide a glimpse into her personal history:

I guess you can say that the circle and I go way back. As referenced in my essay on early influences, graphic motifs–particularly circles, were very much part of what comprised my actual physical environment while I was growing up. And I suspect, because I am a visually oriented person, they had quite a considerable impact on me. The circle, to me, is wonderfully self-contained, and there is also an efficiency to it, which I love.

So, what about all this recurring structure and repetition? I think it comes down to what we call one’s “inherent sensibilities” or “unique aesthetic,” which I believe is the result of both nurture and nature (what I refer to as “tendencies both cultural and personal” in my artist statement).

For instance, on the “nature” end, I simply seem to tend towards order, structure, and rituals; they are inherent in my being. My first memory of making a “repeat pattern” drawing was during a first grade classroom art session. I recall it comprised alternating bunny heads and flower buds in a grid pattern. At around the same age, I would make collages out of tiny pieces of colored paper torn using out-of-ink ballpoint pen tip. Even *I* shake my head at that one. What kid does that?

I half-jokingly say that everything I need to do what I’m doing right now, took hold during the first ten years of my life, but I think there is much truth in that as well. Certainly, the techniques and learning how to align my intentions with processes came later. But the raw material–the stuff that I continuously pull from and keep going back to, was all already “there,” patiently waiting for their time to be cultivated and fully realized.

I do believe that as long as I am making work that is genuine and true to myself, there will always be some consistent and recognizable thread running through them, regardless of how the work evolves or changes.

 


 

Eunice Kim is a Seattle-area artist and exhibits her collagraphs internationally.

Nina Lawrin is a Chicago-based artist and co-editor at Nontoxicprint.com.

 

Tessellation (144-3) #8, collagraph monoprint, 36x36 inches, 2011, edition: unique.

Tessellation (144-3) #11, collagraph monoprint, 36x36 inches, 2012, edition: unique.

Eunice Kim with her grandmother.

Tessellation (4-3) #21, collagraph monoprint, 6x6 inches, 2010, edition: unique.

Eunice lovingly and patiently placing each individual dot in its collective space.

Series of dots--shaped and polished by hand, ready to be inked.

Inked collagraph plate ready for printing.

Collagraph monoprints lined up for composition and assemblage.

Tessellation (144-3) #9, collagraph monoprint, 36x36 inches, 2012, edition: unique.

Eunice in studio with Tessellation series.

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Categories: Artists, Interviews


4 Responses to “Eunice Kim: Complex Simplicity”

  1. Ruth Leaf says:

    I enjoy the calming yet intense imagery. for me it’s new use of design. Ruth

  2. Joanna Lee Place says:

    I have always been a fan of your work. Love your intensity, simplicity and passion in your work. Keep it up, Eunice!

  3. luca cruzat says:

    This is a very good work. Nice to see too the collagraph process used so effectively. Thanks for sharing Eunice’s work.

  4. Cathryn says:

    Just wonderful.