Steve Kim: catching up with the artist ahead of his new work debut at the Pixel Palette exhibit

Posted on February 27, 2016

We first discovered Steve’s work 2 years ago. Immediately we were fixated by his hyper attention to the detail in all aspects of his work. The relentless focus on subject, color and composition is clear. Steve skillfully employs the beautiful elements of classical portraiture, while constantly pushing the boundaries to incorporate abstract, forward-looking concepts. We had a chance to catch up with him ahead of his next show Pixel Palette at the Denver-based Helikon Gallery.

FF

You’ve lived and worked in both cities and the countryside. You are currently in rural Mississippi. How has your environment affected your work? Is the lack of stimulus in certain ways more stimulating?

SK

Honestly, I think could get away with living somewhere even more remote, like a cabin in the woods where I could go weeks without seeing another man-made structure, so long as I had a UPS store within reach and an internet connection. Place is secondary to (studio) space for me at the moment. As long as I have the time, space, and materials to get work done I’m generally okay.

processes (2) by Steve Kim. On display at Helikon Gallery thru April 2nd

processes (2) by Steve Kim. On display at Helikon Gallery thru April 2nd.

FF

As a body of work, there seem to be common stylistic principles that exist across your pieces. It is difficult to pinpoint them exactly but as an example you give close attention to ensuring accuracy of the human form. I wonder to what degree you conciously implement these “principles” and to what degree they are just a result of your evolving style. Would you agree these principles exist and if so what are the most important ones?

SK

Yes, I start with absolute accuracy with regards to the body and the photo reference, it’s a way of getting the lay of the land, a way to explore what drew me to the photo, the person, the particular arrangement, composition, lighting, etc. in the first place. The literal act is a forward-moving accumulation of marks, but subjectively, conceptually, it’s more like reverse-engineering, moving back in time to investigate how and especially why I ended up where I started.

Style is really a foreign word to me. I understand that my work appears stylized, has a style, etc., especially in aggregate, but I like approaching each piece from a blank slate. It’s not literally blank of course, because of the photo reference, but I do think of the photo as a neutral starting point, or at least it’s my personal point of neutrality. That’s why the initial drawing is so important to me, even if I end up erasing most of it. It’s like going on a trip, by the end you don’t really have anything to show for it, only experience, but there’s no substitute for the understanding gained through time spent and distance traveled.

processes by Steve Kim.

FF

Your work bridges physical illustration and digital mediums. Can you talk about the evolution of this intersection of disciplines? Was there a certain moment when you began to explore the combination more deeply?

SK

Up until about five years ago, I worked exclusively in physical media, primarily drawing and painting, but I’ve always had an interest in digital processes. I’m dating myself here but there was a time when things like computer graphics simply did not exist in mainstream media. When movies like The Lawnmower Man, The Abyss, and Terminator 2 came out I was totally obsessed. I would daydream about the things I would make once I learned how to use programs like trueSpace 2, and later 3DS MAX 1.2, but I never really got beyond the dabbling stage. Instead, on the digital side of things at least, I gravitated towards Photoshop, photography, video, color science, digital printing, interests that had nothing to do with the art I was making at the time, but nevertheless consumed a good amount of my time and energy. It’s nice that things have converged the way they have. I find this happens a lot, obsessions and questions that are forgotten or set aside always seem to have a way of coming back.

Still, even as a spectator, watching computer graphics evolve over time, especially in video games where serious technical and creative (one and the same in my view) trade-offs have to be made, I feel it’s informed me on a deep, mostly subconscious level. Even now, as games move towards realism more and more, with accurate lighting models and things like physically based materials, I still find myself having a lot to think about, because no matter how sophisticated the technology, there’s always someone behind the scenes dialing things in, inherent biases, preferences, and especially mistakes that break from reality and I find this to be as valid a point of contemplation as anything else.

All that said, when it comes to my actual workflow, I try to do as much outside of the computer as possible, and I prefer to lift from analog sources like drawings, paint layers, and photographs. I throw all of that in Photoshop and press buttons and try to get in and out as fast as I can. Photoshop is an amazing tool, but it’s slow, no matter how fast computers get Photoshop and the vast majority of digital art tools will feel slow. 3D software is of course exponentially slower which is why I’ve mostly abandoned it for the time being. I’m deeply envious of musicians for this reason, because they get to have digital audio tools that by necessity keep latency in check.

plague 2 by Steve Kim. On display at Helikon Gallery thru April 2nd.

FF

Much of your work is almost haiku-like in nature – simple statements that carry a certain poetry to them. What are the stories behind your figures? Are they purely fictional or do they originate from experience? Is there one work in particular that has a deeper backstory you’d like to discuss?

SK

The figures are all based on people I’ve photographed or have sent me photos to work from. The titles of each piece are their usernames at the time of creation. They are, for the most part, ‘close’ strangers, people I’ve noticed through my social media accounts.

It’s very, very important that the work begins with an actual person that I have some kind of connection with, no matter how abstract, decorative, or even superficial the work may end up. Every once and a while I will have to work with found photography due to a deadline or the nature of a particular assignment, but it’s never really a pleasant experience, there’s always this feeling of regret or loss or emptiness that comes with it that I don’t fully understand and actively take steps to avoid.

There are no stories really. Sometimes I will get to know a little bit about a model and that is not unhelpful, and of course there’s always my internal storytelling that naturally comes from interpersonal contact. I’m sure it influences the work somehow, but it’s not a conscious thing, it’s encoded in me as a vague feeling instead of a bold narrative. Even if there was a story to tell, I wouldn’t tell it.

From left to right: Greg Silver (FotoFoam, Founder), Jesse Draxler (artist) and Steve Kim (artist) with the FotoFoam catalog in April 2015.

FF

For works like processes (2) and thedoppelganger, there is a unique use of geometric forms. These create really interesting visual contrasts with the abstract human forms they intersect. How do you think about the use of lines and shapes?

SK

Where possible, I avoid invention, so something like a line is in fact very useful for me as it’s very simple and efficient and easy to draw, but also very versatile in how it can divide and connect space, direct the eye, influence composition, and many many other things that surprise me constantly. But it’s just a line, we all know what a line is, there’s nothing to invent, just two points in space connected in the most straightforward manner. In that sense it’s about as binary as a traditional mark is going to get. Either it’s there or it’s not. That’s the kind of easy, simple decision I like best. There are things like line weight and thickness, but the main judgement call is it’s length and placement and perhaps most importantly, what part of the human body it’s going to interact with, and how, and why, since with all my work the body is always drawn first.

And that’s just a line. Obviously, there are many kinds of mark making, but my thought process for every kind of line, curve, shape, color, texture, material property, etc goes through the same gauntlet, and so if the end result happens to speak of the geometric or the minimal, it’s not because I’m deeply concerned with something like minimalism, it’s more that there are only so many variables I can handle if I want to give each one the care and consideration I enjoy and find acceptable. And of course even care and consideration can wear out its own welcome, in which case I’ll feel the need to introduce something random or gestural, but the gestures would then need to be reconsidered, quite carefully in fact, and so on and so forth…

thedoppelganger by Steve Kim. On display at Helikon Gallery thru April 2nd.

FF

You are currently showing work at the Helikon Gallery in Denver. What are some of the critical factors you think about when going to print for exhibition?

SK

Scale and resolution plays a big part. All my physical work skews towards the smallish size, so being able to have prints upwards of 32″ is really quite rewarding.

But scale needs to be supported by resolution, and I mean real resolution, not interpolated stuff. The prints in the show and all my prints on FotoFoam are metallic C-prints with source files at 300ppi or better at all sizes.

Finally, the mounting or framing is really important. For the Helikon show I opted for plexi mounting, as I feel it creates the most art object-like feeling. Also, since the work is digital, and C-prints are exposed with RGB lasers and are continuous tone, and the paper is metallic or retroreflective, I do feel there is a rough analog between the pleximounted C-print and the digital image as seen on a screen.

FF

At a higher level, we’ve seen an explosion of experimentation by a wave of new artists that bridge digital and analog mediums. Do you sense there is a sentimentality or nostalgia that is driving some of the “heavy digital” influence of the last few years back to physical illustration? Do you feel compelled by this – for lack of a better term – “back to basics” movement?

SK

I have no idea what other people are up to or why. I just know people tend to have a team they root for… maybe a little too enthusiastically. I myself have very little team spirit.

Everything I’ve said in terms of my preferences in digital or physical processes, they’re not the cause, or the impetus, or the reason, or the point or purpose. Nor are they pointless. Physical substrates matter. Pigments matter. 0’s and 1’s matter. Undos matter. But they aren’t the point. Maybe they help enable certain things that do matter. Maybe they just come along for the ride, more correlative than causal. Maybe they are useful, agreeable, likable. What does it mean to like to do something? I think it means a lot.

Observer by Steve Kim.

FF

What new projects can we look forward to from Steve Kim in 2016?

SK

I’m in the middle of reevaluating all my work, both physical and digital, on a piece by piece basis, with over 40 pieces I’ve earmarked to revisit and rework. 2016 is the year of do-overs. 

And like I’ve said every year for the past five years, I’ll definitely paint more.

FF

We can’t wait to see.

Steve Kim will be showing (3) works at the Pixel Palette exhibit at Helikon Gallery from March 3 until April 2, 2016. There will be an opening reception for the exhibit on March 3rd from 6-10pm.