One to Watch

Turning the Inside Out with Jisup Kim

Jisup Kim’s paintings read like expansive landscapes of an alien planet. Look a little closer at his richly detailed canvases, and you see forms reminiscent of cells, eggs, blood vessels, and vital organs. While his recent paintings, titled Dreaming Landscapes, appear otherworldly, Jisup also magnifies and explores the natural processes that support our lives on a microscopic level. Our bodies become sublime—and a bit weird—taken to a large scale and composed in layers of unexpected colors.

Inspired by sci-fi films and immersive installation art, Jisup Kim aptly captures our simultaneous proximity and distance to the inner workings of our bodies. Chasing the notion of the ideal, Jisup suggests that we can find wholeness, and a sense of the universal, within ourselves.

Working across painting and installation, Jisup has exhibited widely in South Korea, where he is based.

Tell us about who you are and what you do. What’s your background?

I‘m Jisup Kim, an artist from Korea. I started my path in the artistic world during my high school years. However, even since much earlier, I have always known that I love to express my thoughts and feelings in various ways . . . I was a kid who liked to think a lot. I have always been very much into understanding the world and situations that occur in my life. . . . I guess that’s why and how I decided to be an artist: I would like to say that what I do is observe things, think deeply, and express [ideas] in various forms.

What does your work aim to say? What are the major themes you pursue in your work?

My work is about the vitality inside the human body. We all have intense things going on in our body, such as dividing cells, wide-spreading blood vessels, and so many different tissues and organs working to make us live. I found that strong life force in our body ‘ideal.’

Long before [my current work], I was interested in something ideal, seeking what the meaning of ideal is. It might be because, back then, the world—I mean, the reality—didn’t seem so happy in my eyes, and I felt like we were all struggling in life.

At first, I wanted to talk about the gap between the actual world and what we dream it to be. While working on that subject, a thought struck me. It was that the ideal is not something that we have to find externally, but it might be right inside of us. And we just cannot see it directly and often forget that it’s there.

I hope the audience can feel that ideal vitality inside them when they see my artworks.

Can you walk us through your process for creating a work from beginning to end?

My work process begins with completing the composition with drawings. After creating three or four drawings with perfect composition and the color I aim for, I finally transfer them to canvas.

In recent works, I use layers of paint to add the concept of time that flows through the three-dimension space that we live in. I put paint on a canvas, dry it, and do it over and over. After I have several layers of colors, I scrape them to make a particular form. And on that form, again, I paint in detail [until] finally it is done.

I think our lives are like that. Things that happened in the past somehow affect now, just like the long-before-dried paint takes part in my [finished] artworks. And some incidents are so unforgettable or big for us that they make traces and marks on us, just like the scratches that I make remain even after the strokes on top of them.

Who are your biggest influences and why?

I cannot really choose someone. I think films and comics have influenced me. I love to watch sci-fi films, fantasy films, and surreal comics a lot. When I was young, I was fascinated by such imaginative stories and images, and even now, I still am. I think those have significantly contributed to who I am today since I could endlessly imagine worlds that do not exist with those.

I also want to say that I like seeing big installation works by artists like Anish Kapoor, Damien Hirst, Yayoi Kusama, and many others. I’m so impressed by how those gigantic artworks dominate a space. Seeing them create a surreal feeling while they still exist in a real space, I also get motivated and want to make artworks that overwhelm people. Now I’m more interested in making a surreal, ideal space on a flat surface, but I have made installation works before and still have the passion and plan to make more of that kind of work too.

What are some of your favorite experiences as an artist?

In Korea, there’s an old tale named “The king has donkey’s ears.” Long story short, it is a story about one man who knew the secret (that the king has ears that look like a donkey’s) and shouted out that secret in a deep forest.

When I was still in college, I made an installation work [named after the tale] that let the audience participate. I had people come and write their secrets that they couldn’t tell anyone else on a piece of water-soluble paper, put that into a water container, and let them dissolve away.

People lined up to participate in this, and some people told me that the work made them so moved that they even shed tears.

At that time, I thought I was lucky that I was an artist.

What was the best advice given to you as an artist? 

One professor in my college once told me this: “Working hard is the best talent that you have. Don’t ever stop working hard.” As he said, I was a hard-working person who remained until the last and kept working on my studies and painting. And even over ten years later, I’m still a hard-working artist that never stops thinking about ways to develop my work and knocking on the doors so that my art can meet audiences. I believe that this opportunity with Saatchi Art is also a result of that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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