Q&A with Resident Artist Steve Kim
Steve Kim’s process is a messy one.
Across myriad platforms from graphite and pencil sketches to oil paintings and digital illustration, Kim ends up with lots of leftover pieces — and hates to see the odds and ends go to waste.
“If you cook a chicken or a turkey, you have your leftover carcass,” says Kim, taking a break from working during his residency at Red Bull House of Art to chat. “You want to make something out of these byproducts.”
Those byproducts — a watercolor wash leftover on paper, the edge of an image cropped out digitally — can often end up creating entirely new works for Kim.
“If there was something in that drawing that I found that I could call my own or change, I’ll do that,” says Kim. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
There’s a layered approach to Kim’s work starting as a straightforward figurative sketch onto watercolor before adding other ingredients — or celebrating minimalism by taking things away.
Without even considering the logistical layers that go into his work, Kim seems to float across the paper. With such elegant linework, Kim manages to show off his abilities as an artist while removing himself at the same time. The audience is left with an immensely emotive portrait that’s a testament to Kim’s taste and ability in working from a photo reference.
We spoke with Kim about how his focus on portraits began, his return to oil paintings after a time away and what he hopes the audience feels when they see his work for the first time at Red Bull House of Art
You have a great knack for transferring over these incredible emotions captured in a photograph to your work whether it’s graphite on a watercolor wash or an oil painting — a medium you’re returning to at the Red Bull House of Art after almost five years away. What goes into the selection process of the photos you reference and what sort of symbolism bleeds its way into the final work?
Originally, all the oil paintings were based on personal snapshots that I’d take with my DSLR. A lot of paintings were of my nephews because when you have kids, they’re always being held and there’s this compound shape of the parent and the kid together that adds an extra layer of complexity versus just a single figure by itself. When I stopped painting, I got rid of everything and wanted to start over — I just wanted a clean slate. When I wanted to get into illustration for the first time, I was starting from scratch.
I knew I could draw portraits, so I started asking people. I had a Tumblr account, so I asked people, “Hey, if you send me photos then I’ll draw you.” This is how those colored pencil drawings happened. With those initial drawings, I realized I could turn it into personal work through colored pencil by abstracting or cleaning up things. I could scan that color in photoshop and then have that become my illustration portfolio. So, that’s how it started for me and, surprisingly, it got me work pretty quickly.
You mentioned that you’ve turned your focus towards working from film stills recently because you’re able to capture some strong, passionate and emotional performances from the actors and take advantage of expensive, exhaustive lighting setups.
Yeah, it’s pretty new for me. A couple years back I saw It Follows, which is set and filmed in Detroit. I was like, “wow, this is great imagery.” I had already done one from a David Lynch film and I realize that I don’t really like David Lynch that much, but it didn’t matter because the kind of imagery you get from a film is something that would be hard to get on your own — especially performances. To tell your friend to look happy, look sad — you’re not going to get that kind of emotive quality. It kind of catches my eye because it’s not something that I myself could ever photograph.
What sort of impact do you hope your body of work at Red Bull House of Art has on the audience?
I shy away from an explainer, you know? There’s a lot of things you can’t say through language and words. It’s this idea like throwing out messages in a bottle — you make work, you throw it out there and hope someone sees it eventually. You always wonder, “Are they seeing what I see?” What I would hope for when people see the work is this feeling of straightforwardness.
By Ryan Patrick Hooper