I’m welcomed by three cats as I step into Seo Eun Kim’s downtown apartment. Somewhat feline-like herself, the painter is settled, cross-legged on the couch, drinking something thick and purple from a large plastic container. Her presence is cheerful and energetic and it quickly rubs off on me (much like the cat allergens) as we begin discussing her recent travels in the Philippines and, eventually, her art practice. Finished canvases surround us, leaning against the walls, tucked into bags, and resting on tables. I’m excited. I’ve been an admirer of her work for years, ever since we were in an undergrad studio course together, and was always impressed by her ability to know exactly what she wants out of a painting and how to accomplish it.
You might recognize some of the forms floating around in her abstract compositions. Kim uses graphics from anatomy and criminology textbooks as her reference imagery: custardy pockets of fat, the bright, saturated red of fresh blood, and glistening lumps of pink tissue. Her fascination with gore has a telling backstory. It began when she was six and her parents, who she describes as laissez-faire when it came to media consumption, let her watch the very age-inappropriate movie The Mummy. Disturbed by the graphic imagery, she was unable to sleep for three months afterward and was profoundly shaken for years following. Eventually, she had the idea that if she just kept watching movies with gory content, something would change and she might get used to it. So, it became a challenge, and then something of an addiction, to subject herself to more and more visually gruesome and disturbing films. That’s when she began to no longer react to the images with terror and disgust and, instead, see the blood and guts in another way: as beautiful and interesting both in an aesthetic and in an existential sense – a sensual and lush sort of memento mori, rich in colour, texture, and the pulsating proof of nature’s incredible complexity.
Her story makes me think of something I once heard about the tradition of Maranasati meditation in Theraveda Buddhism, a practice where the aim is to gain understanding and acceptance of death by observing the human body in various states of decay. As the meditator studies the corpse, perhaps “whilst it is being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms", they are instructed to consider the following: “This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, [and] is going to be like that body”. Here, when used in tandem with imagination and contemplation, the graphic or abject image can serve as a powerful tool for spiritual growth.
It’s an idea that’s also explored in Stan Brakhage’s 1971 experimental film “The Act of Seeing with your own Eyes” for which he spent a day in a Pittsburgh morgue filming various autopsy procedures. You can watch it here: https://vimeo.com/31369640. Turned on to the film by Kim, I decided to watch it as “research” and found it pretty hard to stomach without moderation (I paused every 5 minutes to watch gore-free YouTube videos). The thing that’s interesting about it is that, despite being extremely graphic, Brakhage makes certain formal decisions which actually render the images of hands cutting human ribs with scissors and peeling back scalps more manageable, abstract, and aesthetic. With the lack of soundtrack, frequent use of close-up or cropped shots, the distancing effect of the grainy 16mm film, and quick cuts, the images take on a look and a rhythm that becomes almost entrancing or dreamlike (well, nightmarish). Because of this, it’s easier to dissociate and just become awash in the human body’s many meaty forms.
In a similar way, Kim hopes that by abstracting and reconfiguring the entrails of the human body in her chosen medium of acrylic paint, she can introduce viewers to the same combination of formal gratification and intellectual fascination that she feels when watching the carnage of her favourite movies. “I want it to look good”, she tells me, “but I also want to gross people out”. Maybe, like Brakhage’s film, her work can provide an introductory experience of death meditation, giving us an opportunity to reflect on the unpalatable reality of our material nature — without having to gaze upon any real decaying corpses.
In her practice, she is driven by experimentation and is guided by the possibilities she sees in paint. Changes in her process tend to come when she gets bored with doing things a certain way, and I get the impression that this happens quite a lot. At one point, for example, she started to get tired of painting with a paintbrush and was looking for a way to make more graphic lines, to get more body and physicality into her surfaces. As it would happen, she was also working as a pastry chef at the time and had the idea of applying her icing-piping skills to her canvases. Kim began piping layers, lines, and dots of acrylic onto her paintings, capturing the sinews and tendons of her subject matter with a more appropriately stringy and voluminous gesture.
From there, it was all about finding new ways to use paint to create layers of texture. From thin, stain-like washes created by tossing her cup of brush-cleaning water onto the canvas to folding sheets of dried paint up into semi-sculptural shapes to even foregoing a painting surface altogether and lacing and knotting strings of dried paint around an empty frame. She shows me numerous tests of things that “aren’t really finished”: experiments with dried-acrylic spaghetti strands and textured piping tips, each new method relating to a texture or impression in human anatomy. It is easy for one’s body to empathize with the physicality of her paintings, but the sensations are often uncomfortable, tense, and spasmodic.
A large, 48”x72” piece entitled Suture #1 is my favourite of her works, and perhaps the best example of all her research and development synthesized into one cohesive whole. A raggedly-shaped opening filled with bodily colours, shapes, and textures dominates an otherwise neutral, off-white surface as if a diagonal slash across the canvas has been flayed open revealing an intricate landscape of innards. The red and orange hues of muscles and buttery yellow fat, bright sinews pulled taut, veiny patches of indigo and purple, large, tongue-shaped fields of pink and blue. The surface texture is captivating in its variety. Kim has used her myriad techniques of piping together with thick smears and layers to create an diverse, ever-changing world full of visual interest. The methods and materials she has come to employ in her representations of the body are dense and body-like in themselves. It’s a confrontational painting. Visually overwhelming but also attractive and easy to get lost in. Scary but honest, as repulsive as it is sublime. Look, it demands, this is you.
 The Way of Mindfulness The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary by Soma Thera, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wayof.html#discours
Want to see more? Here's a link to her website: