Sarah Shinhyo Kim
Riverside Gallery, Hackensack, NJ
June 3 - 15, 2019
By MARK BLOCH, June 2019
Sarah Shinhyo Kim's WeCloud is a 30 x 40 inch acrylic on canvas created in 2017 showing the familiar white shape of the iCloud logo on blue. Upon closer examination I realize that the image is composed of hundreds of smiling, frowning, heart-eyed emoticons. Elsewhere a three foot square 2016 work called Peace (Dove) is actually a series of black, white, red, yellow and silvery grey emojis amassed on a moody grey background that, when seen from afar, form a dove with wings spread.
Sarah Shinhyo Kim has been seriously painting for ten years and her work since 2016 has focused on the increasing popularization of emojis in our communication. These “little pictures depicting the facial expressions of humans and animals,” as she calls them, have been of interest to her, “since they began to be a primary means of communication—especially in this mobile age.” She has chosen to seize on the new language, combining them as building blocks to create larger images.
The first emojis hit cell phones as long ago as 1997 but it was October 2016, around the time Sarah Kim began using them in paintings, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art took an interest in them too, acquiring the 1999 collection of emojis that had been distributed by DoCoMo, the Japanese provider of wireless voice and data to subscribers via their parent company, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation.
Some twenty-eight of Sarah Kim’s emoji canvases filled this large gallery, each adorned with hundreds of tiny individually drawn and painted faces—fun little looks, appearances, countenances, guises, and impressions that convey the full range of cartoony human affection, excitement, happiness, joy, love, passion, pride, sympathy, anger, despair, melancholy, grief, rage, sadness, shame and sorrow—graphically and symbolically.
This solo show, her second, is called Connection. Her previous exhibit here, F.A.C.E.S., was an acronym for “Feelings, Appearance, Communication, Emotions, and Socialization,” and focused on singular, distinct emotions that each unique emoji expression revealed.
Here, while it is interesting that Kim included “animal faces” in the description of her work, I find the myriad human emotions to be more than enough to contemplate. Similarly, despite her choice of uber-subject matter such as the recognizable “WeCloud,” dove, or several examples of hearts and trees carefully comprised of hundreds of the tiny facial expressions, much the way a scene by Seurat was constructed from pointilist dots of color 130 years ago, I am most intrigued by her abstract compositions such as Communication I, Vortex, a 2018 mixed media work employing ink and acrylic on two adjoining canvases to depict what looks like a flow of emojis moving like sand through an hourglass—but horizontally.
For Kim, all of her work is about infinite possibilities of communication and ultimately “bonding.” “How two completely different worlds can connect and become one,” she elaborated. That is what I see in this piece or some of the others in a series of works that is more abstract: a fat ribbon of emojis twists itself into a pretzel in one; white on black and black on white vectors wind around each other like geometric emoji-laden magic carpet rides in another.
For me, the horizontal flow in Communication I, conjured up a very human but elusive process: synapses in our nervous system, in which chemical messengers take the form of rapidly firing neurotransmitters, passing information from one neuron to another.
Just as an estimated 200 billion neurons in a healthy adult brain provide the patterns that construct each unique human’s consciousness and behavior, Sarah Kim conceives her emoji paintings in terms of the billions of people around the world who suddenly find themselves communicating with the aid of a new pictorial language.
About an acrylic and ink work from 2018 measuring 40 x 60 inches, her powerful piece Social Networking, she said, “like little cells or building blocks, strangers come together randomly to form communities in our society.” She says that emojis transcend “barriers of language, ethnicity and nationality.” In this work, clusters of emojis inhabit free-floating orbs like popcorn balls that, in turn, float in space. Their thin electrified tentacles, presumably longing for like-minded beings or the messages that unite them, bleed off the end of the canvas.
While Kim looks behind the faces of the emojis in Heart of Equality which explores skin color, or in Emotions, compositions on a yellow, blue or red canvas that explore joy, sadness and anger, respectively, a more personal series, Memories, comprised of one large 2017 30 x 40” acrylic on canvas work, and two different sets of three smaller Memories paintings, tackle personal reflections and her inner outgoing communications as they arise from her unconscious.
Saying she conceived the Memories idea while musing about a recently deceased family member, melancholy emojis in shades of mauve, black and white and a pinkish grey meander across mysterious black cracks on a yellowish brown background suggesting the way thoughts bubble up from unconscious places.
Kim considers herself part of the last generation that straddled the analog and digital worlds. She was born in 1977 and 10 years old in 1990 when Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the World Wide Web. Kim’s family left Seoul, South Korea, settling in the USA in 1991 when she was 14. At age 17, she saw Forrest Gump, the 1994 American comedy-drama where she still remembers experiencing what she remembers as an emoji image for the first time in the form of the smiley face.
In fact, that was not how the iconic smiley face was created. It was born 50 years ago in Worcester, Massachusetts by a real American graphic artist named Harvey Ross Ball. Ball finished the design in less than 10 minutes and was paid $45 for his work by the State Mutual Life Assurance Company who never tried to trademark or copyright the design.
In the early 1970s, the owners of two Hallmark card shops in Philadelphia appropriated it, adding the slogan “Have a Happy Day” and sold more than 50 million buttons and countless other products.
In 1972 a French journalist became the first person to register the trademark for commercial use in over 100 countries and launched the Smiley Company.
If that was the first emoji, as of July 2017 there were 2,666 emojis on the official Unicode Standard list. In between, “emoticons” were the names given to text-only pictorial representations of a facial expression using punctuation marks, numbers, and letters. The first ASCII emoticons originated on the PLATO IV computer system in 1972.
Today, Sarah Shinhyo Kim, artist and mother of two, notices that “on Snapchat—kids use the emojis to communicate in code” beyond the reach of their parents.
Her favorite artists are Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama. She appreciates the simple and direct means of expression of these Japanese artists. Her own heart shaped symbols and “prosperity” trees address her own commitment to peace and non-violence and communication as the key to all human relationships. As she looks at the world her children will inherit, she does not shy away from the world of user-friendly cuteness in which emojis joyfully dwell.
Her native Korean alphabet, known as Hangul, created in the 15th century, is one of the youngest languages in the world and is uniquely known for the scientific design of its basic consonants that is said to mimic the shapes of the speaker's throat, tongue and mouth. In its origin, the alphabet had a set of 28 letters including 11 vowels; today it consists of 24 total letters with 10 vowels. But Sarah Kim prefers an even more pictoral expression. “I’m bilingual—but instead of writing about my emotions, I send pictures,” said the Korean American artist.
Sarah Shinhyo Kim’s exhibition explored several ways of working with emojis to create imagery. I am curious which direction she will pursue next. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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