Kang applies art from East to West

“Success is good, but I don’t know how to achieve it,” began artist Ik-Joong Kang at a lecture sponsored by the studio art department on Friday. Though Kang may have his own view of what constitutes success, it is clear that colleagues in the artistic community think highly of Kang’s work.
Born in Korea, Kang relocated to New York City in 1984 and obtained an M.F.A. from the Pratt Institute. Kang has been featured in several exhibits, including a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York City in 1996 and a two-person exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Champion, Conn. He represented Korea at the 1997 Venice Biennale, a high-profile contemporary art exhibition in Venice, where he was awarded the Special Merit Prize.

To begin his presentation to students and faculty at the College, Kang screened a 10-minute video montage of his work. Kang’s art primarily consists of small (3×3 inch), painted panels arranged into large-scale art installations, often covering walls of entire exhibition halls from top to bottom. To date, Kang has created over 500,000 modules in the form of small canvases, wooden blocks, prints, ceramics and even chocolates.
Kang relies on bright colors, vivid images and painted words to convey themes of colonization, war, conquest and adaptation concerning Asia and the West. One of his most notable works, “8490 Days of Memory,” consists of a mosaic of chocolate bars surrounding a chocolate statue of General Douglas MacArthur. The piece symbolizes the Americanization and exploitation of South Korea, according to Kang.

Kang described his own creative process at length. “Usually I get an idea when I take a shower in the morning,” he said. “But when I try to get an idea, I don’t get it.” On a typical day, Kang said he works from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., then goes home and draws for a few more hours. “I often spend 15-16 hours a day working,” he said.
Kang began constructing his small modules as a student at Pratt, working two part-time jobs to support himself. “For three years I was in pain – no time to paint or study,” Kang recalled. “I worked from nine to nine, went to class from 10 to three, and then slept until work. On the weekend, I had a different job. I worked at a men’s clothing store.” Kang completed most of his early paintings in transit. “I could work on the train [or] on a bus ride,” he said. “During my first year, 1984, I made about 1000 paintings on the train.”
Kang, now 51, still resides in New York with his wife and 13-year-old son. Fatherhood has inspired him to use children’s art to promote child welfare. One of Kang’s latest endeavors is a project called “100,00 Dreams,” in which he collected thousands of drawings from North Korean children. His original aim was to build a functional bridge between the two Koreas. Kang explained his plan: “Let’s build a bridge between North and South Korea! Each drawing from children would be one block.” Though North Korean children didn’t participate as originally planned, the project eventually took the form of a one-kilometer vinyl tunnel in which South Korean children’s works were displayed.

Kang has furthered his involvement with child artists in the Amazing World project, for which he’s collected “over a million drawings from 149 countries in the last 14 years.” Amazing World seeks to involve children of diverse cultures, religions and political backgrounds.
When he’s not painting, Kang fancies himself an epicurean. “I love food,” he said. “Ninety percent of my blood is composed of Chinese food. I don’t go for Korean food.” In fact, Kang published the Starving Artist’s Restaurant Guide, which features his list of the 14 best restaurants in New York City’s Chinatown. The book was surprisingly successful and is now in its third edition. While he originally sold the book for $3.50, he recently found an original copy selling for $125 on eBay.

Kang compared food to artwork: “Painting is like good food: It just tastes good. I don’t know why,” he explained. “It has to be balanced. Why is this food so good? Why is this so bad? These are good questions.”

Kang described the symbiotic relationship between the artist and his audience: “We have to inspire each other. I can learn something from you, get inspiration from you,” he encouraged. He also believes in the curative power of heartfelt artwork. “My definition of art right now? Art has to connect,” he said. “It has to wake me up. It has to heal.”

Additional reporting by Pat Megley, staff writer.

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