(Photo by Claressinka Anderson.)
The Unreal Reality of Steve Kim.
Steve Kim stands in front of his canvas, the image of a dog slowly appearing from the white. But it’s not your normal dog. This dog is melting and merging, contorting itself. Part of it is alive and moving and other parts are still or maybe even frozen. This, after all, is Steve Kim’s dog.
Steve Kim is an artist. And his journey to becoming such is one hell of an odd story. “Shitty,” as Kim puts it. Kim arrived in the United States at age two from Seoul, Korea and from that point forward his path has been filled with ups and downs, turnarounds and dead ends.
The evasive quality to Kim’s personality allows for a truly original kind of artistic vision. In his artwork he focuses only on the important aspects of a scene [he works from personal photos that he has taken]. The resulting pieces seem to be trying to escape themselves as well as being captured on the canvas. They are instances caught in the midsts of the before and after. Flashes of intimate memories that recall our own pursuits to hold onto what is dear and loved.
I was able to keep Kim around for a good four hours recently where we spoke of many different subjects, from Kim’s early life all the way to his future aspirations as an artist. The resulting conversation is the portrait of a young Artist in command of his own revolution. It’s only a short amount of time until every one else catches on.
SE: Ok, so tell us a bit about your background. Where were you born? What are some of your favorite childhood memories?
Steve Kim: I was born in Seoul, Korea. I came here when I was about two years old with my Mom. But my siblings didn’t come until way later. My older sister came when she was 16 and my older brother when he was 18.
SE: Wow, interesting.
Steve Kim: So they are kinda fobby and I’m all like, educated and artsy. When I was pretty young, before third grade cause that’s when I had to move, I had this really good friend named Cameron who was really good at drawing. Crazy good — It made me mad.
SE: This is in Seoul?
Steve Kim: Nah, I came here when I was two so I don’t remember anything from Korea. This was in a city in LA called Paramount. Anyway, we would draw together all day. He’d draw the dinosaurs cause he was good at them and I’d, like, tech them up with rockets and stuff. And we both drew lots of ninjas.
SE: Ninjas and dinosaurs were definitely a favorite subject of mine as a child.
Steve Kim: Yeah. [Laughs] Like this one time I ‘discovered’ the ‘curved’ angry eyebrow. Before we’d always do a straight line. But if I curved it like so, it was far more naturalistic and ‘real. ’ I was so into dinosaurs. I had some cool dinosaur books I’d read over and over and over. That and fighter jets. I was very into the SR-71 Blackbird.
SE: Yeah! Me too man!
Steve Kim: I’d just stare at it. Kind of weird in retrospect.
SE: I had models of it and stuff.
Steve Kim: Oh my god, I had a model of it too. Except I got all intimidated by all the parts and didn’t really do the best job.
Steve Kim: So this friend, Cameron… I had to move away from him when I was in third grade. That was definitely hard. I remember crying so much. Wanting nothing more than to stay. After that art was always this solo thing. Something I did, something others saw, you know.
SE: Do you know where Cameron is now?
Steve Kim: No idea. We didn’t have Tumblr or Facebook back then. I kind of don’t want to know. It’d be really sad to find him not doing something super cool and creative.
SE: So true… Do you think that experience, the joy of having someone to draw with was a big influence for you to continue as an artist even though most kids grow out of it?
Steve Kim: Hmm, I never thought about it along those lines. For sure it makes it easier, to have a buddy when you are trying something new and you yourself aren’t quite fully fleshed out. I remember liking drawing, but I don’t how much I drew before him. He was better than me that’s for sure, so maybe I emulated him? It’s hard to say. It’s kind of scary, the notion that maybe I would never have picked up a pencil if it weren’t for him. I was a really nervous and self-conscious kid and you should know, self-consciousness can be both the friend and enemy of drawing. Especially when you suck.
SE: Do you feel like you would have done art with or without that experience? Somehow, eventually?
Steve Kim: I’m sure I would have wanted to. But it could have been like the way I am with music today. I’m 29, but I’ve been wanting to play music and I think on some level, perform, for as long as I can remember. But I never got around to it. Or did a little and got intimidated because it felt like I’m not that kind of person or whatever. Drawing could have functioned the same way. Drawing is different though because you can do it by yourself, without anyone looking over your shoulder, without having to perform and be the thing, itself, gathering attention. There’s a distance in time and space between you and your art. With music the art and the maker is fused. Not that making art is easy. Even though I draw and paint now. And have my BFA, MFA and look like I know what I’m doing. It’s all happened through small spurts of activity. I’ve had long stretches of inactivity and procrastination and doing-nothingness. I’m just now coming to terms with it.
SE: Somehow both things strike internal chords in the same way, though.
Steve Kim: Yeah for sure. With art I always had this hunch about things. And everything I’ve done and gotten good at I’ve had this hunch about. But you still delay and run away.
SE: What were your high school years like?
Steve Kim: Shitty. Basically my whole childhood was shitty. My mom worked all day so it was usually me watching TV until she came home. I wasn’t the type to go out and make friends and have adventures. For a while I’d draw stuff to show her until she came home. Batman mostly. Those were productive days.
SE: [Laughs] Very nice. The refrigerator door is the best gallery showing of all time.
Steve Kim: I recall quite distinctly when I was 11 years old, telling myself, “Steve, it’s time to get your act together and start working really hard and do all these awesome things.” But it was a level of pressure and ambition that I couldn’t really handle. More often than not I’d run away from it. I did a lot of running. Ditched class. Dropped classes. Junior High, High School, Junior College and even in Art Center.
SE: I dropped out of school as well… You grew up in LA right?
Steve Kim: Yeah, different parts of it. In grad school I had a very perceptive instructor who said that I was constantly evasive, avoiding things, and I was so stubborn about that [Laughs].
SE: What did your Mother do?
Steve Kim: My mom runs a shop in a swap-meet in Inglewood. Back then it was heavily a black population but nowadays it seems about half Mexican, half black. So if I wasn’t home, I was there. At first just hanging around with the other swap-meet kids because I was too young to do anything really. Later helping out with the customers and embroidery.
SE: What about your father?
Steve Kim: Dunno. My mom and dad split up in Korea I guess. Only thing I know is that he might be a teacher or something over there. High school.
SE: Very interesting. I’m guessing your mom has always strongly supported you?
Steve Kim: Financially yeah. But for the most part she left me to my own devices. When she came here she didn’t speak much English so it was up to me to figure things out. She said as much. Literally, “Figure it out.” Not in a mean way.
SE: So you figured out you needed to go to art school? When did you decide on art school?
Steve Kim: When I saw the catalog for Art Center at High School. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen. The design, and art, etc. Nowadays these Tumblr kids would be like, “pfft, whatever, seen shit like that on FFFFOUND a million times over.” But this was a different time. And I thought, oh shit maybe I can go there.
SE: What year was that?
Steve Kim: Mmm, well I “graduated” in ‘99, so I guess about ‘95?
SE: Why did you put graduated in quotes?
Steve Kim: Because I had gotten kicked out and had to finish my credits via adult school and this thing called secondary school.
SE: How are you not a street artist? [Laughs]
Steve Kim: [Laughs] I’m wasn’t cool enough for that. I was on the internet playing QWTF and busy running a clan.
Steve Kim: Quakeworld Team Fortress. A “mod” of the first real online FPS, Quake.
SE: Ah, awesome!
Steve Kim: It’s why Team Fortress 2 has a 2 in it.
SE: I played online text RPGs.
Steve Kim: [Laughs] I remember playing Everquest too while I was doing adult school homework. The downtime was so long I’d have these huge stretches of time to do the homework. Most of my adolescence was spent in front of a computer. Hmm. Just like now. Not much has changed. [Laughs]
SE: How long were you in adult classes?
Steve Kim: A couple of months? Not too long. I remember liking it though. Just going in, doing the work. Not having to worry about other kids and the social hierarchy. Once I turned in an essay and this lady was, what are you doing here?
Steve Kim: I didn’t say anything but I was like, “duh can’t you see I’m this forlorn, rebellious artist type?”
SE: What happened next?
Steve Kim: Junior college. Art Center has these liberal art credit requirements and I wanted to save some money taking those at JC while building my portfolio. I withdrew from about 90% of my classes I imagine. Which meant I had to apply to Art Center twice because my transcript was so shitty.
SE: Did you have a job?
Steve Kim: Nope. Never even occurred to me. In my mind, I was like I need to be working on my art and nothing else and this is all that matters and I don’t have time for anything else. But instead I’d game or watch anime all day.
SE: What year did you start Art Center?
Steve Kim: 2003. I wasted a lot of time at JC but eventually got my act together, applied to Art Center a second time, and got in with tons of student aid and a partial scholarship. Basically every semester I had about $5k surplus to do whatever.
Steve Kim: But I was still a fuck up. That hadn’t changed. I would drop from classes and stuff and my grades tanked. Lost my scholarship. Etc. I would get so anxious and down on myself and procrastinate so much that at some point, the solution for me was to stop showing up.
SE: Well obviously something happened, because you went on and graduated Art Center…
Steve Kim: Yeah. Well, at first I quit Art Center. I cried like a baby and told my family I can’t go anymore and played World of Warcraft for, like, three months. I was a level 60 Fire Mage back when that meant something and I had just nabbed the Cap of the Scarlet Savant. Second on the server. But then I decided to go back to school. Before, I was commuting from home and that sucked. Then this friend of mine, this girl I really admired (terrific work ethic, attitude, smarts) said she needed a roommate along with this other girl.
SE: [Laughs] Awesome!
Steve Kim: That’s when I really applied myself. Worked really hard.
SE: Was it because they worked so hard? Or did you just buckle down?
Steve Kim: Both I think. The hard working aspect of it impressed this girl, and we started going out. That changed a lot of things. The other roommate had a crazy work ethic too. So I’m sure that rubbed off on me. But I don’t know. I guess I’d hit my bottom or whatever. I’d still get anxious, but I’d do the work for the most part. Art Center is a year round school, if you were nut-so you could finish all eight semesters in 2.5 years. I ended up graduating with my original class. I finished in seven semesters by overloading on units.
SE: Wow. Very impressive. Your art was completely different when you started art school.
Steve Kim: Well I first went to Art Center for concept art/entertainment design. Spaceships and robots. I had been a member of Concept Art for several years (still am).
SE: (Me too.)
Steve Kim: But I’d see these illustration students doing this, what I perceived back then, crazy avant-garde shit. I was like, “this isn’t art!” [shakes fist]. Naive was hot back then, not this Tomer Hanuka-y tight line drawing and photoshop stuff. And I totally didn’t get it [Laughs]. I could draw, but I didn’t have shit for taste. But eventually I grew to appreciate it. And at some point, I got bored of it. I wanted something more, but I didn’t know what.
Steve Kim: So it happens Art Center has this thing called “TDS,” Trans-Disciplinary Studies.
SE: You started taking fine art classes, right?
Steve Kim: Yeah. Well, I had to take this one, it was required. The fine art instructor, John Millei, was the guy who changed everything for me. I was an illustration student, didn’t know shit about fine art.
SE: Why did he have such an impact on you?
Steve Kim: I had this intellectual side that was, by that point, just dying. My illustration instructors were great, don’t get me wrong, but John Millei is one hell of an instructor. (This was my second to last semester.)
SE: Do you remember the moment you thought to yourself, “this is what I want?” Like the piece you were working on?
Steve Kim: Yeah. Sec. [Steve looks for a picture.] Ok. So I was in this painting class. And I had this style of painting that was like, roughly expressionistic but still, in the end, really cheesy.
SE: I like it!
Steve Kim: My (illustration) instructor was loving it. I liked it to, especially in the beginning when things were looser. But the more I worked on it the more I got irritated. And the more I worked the whole cheesiness of it was getting to me. One day I was so frustrated! Out of frustration I started painting differently. High key, high chroma, opaque paint. Experimenting. My teacher sees it and he’s like, “what the fuck! Are you fucking around? Are you not taking this seriously?” Something like that.
Steve Kim: It sucked. And I didn’t rebel. I ended up wiping it off and finishing it to his satisfaction.
Steve’s experimental painting from class.
SE: Ah man. But within that moment had you stumbled upon something?
Steve Kim: I don’t know about stumbled upon. Cause whatever I painted wasn’t that cool. I have a cell phone pic of it somewhere I’ll find it. A little bit after that, I did this:
But they still had this… painterlyness about them, that called attention to itself in a way that bothered me.
SE: Together - I can really see your later work starting to show itself in it.
Then I painted that. I AGONGIZED over that painting. I was like, this is such shameful bullshit. Look at this isolated head gimmick. Then I painted:
Which was kind of a regression, and not as good. And my girlfriend and my instructor said as much.
Steve Kim: The first one was what catalyzed things for me I think.
The next semester I painted that. And that’s all she wrote. That piece got into New American Paintings and made me feel really good about painting in general.
SE: [Laughs] Wow. How would you describe your style? It’s seriously it’s own thing, I feel.
Steve Kim: Well. The grad school teacher who said I was evasive also said my work was about intimacy. I kinda rejected it because it sounded so loaded and kind of artsy fartsy pretentious. But the fact is, almost all my best paintings have two or more people in close proximity to each other. In fact if you look over all my paintings, the worst are invariably the ones with figures apart from each other. The other thing I find it important to work from my own photos. Part of it is a resolution thing. But mostly I think my own photos are going to have people that I know personally and I think that matters.
SE: I was about to say, you work from photos too. So are the blending of figures - do you think about it in terms of intimacy and where those figures are blending?
Steve Kim: I do now. Though I don’t know if it’s a case of me drinking my own Kool-Aid. Hearing something and being like “OH MY GOD! THAT’S SO ME.” But when I can fuse objects or people together I’m definitely happier. As long as it’s done right. I mean if I go in there and say, I need to merge these figures because that’s the kind of thing I do, it’s probably not gonna work out.
SE: It’s sort of even going back to your beginnings as an artist, or at least I’m making this connection, the act of drawing with Cameron has resulted in you trying to search out intimacy in your art now.
Steve Kim: Well. One thing we’d do is work together on the same drawings. I remember he would draw the actual dinosaurs and I’d add stuff or augment it in some way. I always liked that, the editing of what was already there. I think I already said that. But I dunno if tracing things so far back is not bat-shit crazy.
SE: And then you’ve always tried to separate/run from things. It’s interesting that intimacy is your theme.
Steve Kim: Yeah I think there is a tendency to run away from the things you want the most. Because the more you want it the more you think about it and something pathological starts to happen. Even outside of art, the desire for intimacy is a pretty strong feeling. It’s a big reason why I like writing, for example. In graduate school we had to write artist statements and advancement papers, right, standard issue.
Steve Kim: Except I would work so hard on them, I’d put everything I had in me, way, way beyond standard issue. In this kind of fantasy that I wrote this thing, the people would come. Art’s kind of like that too. At first you go searching for the people you want, and when you fail, you think maybe if you do something really amazing they will come to you and like you and love you. Of course, the papers failed in their goal. And that’s what made me feel extremely alienated in graduate school. Here was this amazing place, with these established artists for instructors, where it’s all about searching your soul and making your art. But it still wasn’t enough.
SE: This is Claremont, right?
Steve Kim: Yeah. Claremont really helped though in terms of getting out there and socializing though. I’m not bashing it at all.
SE: Claremont is extremely nice.
Steve Kim: I just have very high expectations about things. Of myself, of others. Maybe unrealistically so. I’m not trying to justify any of it.
SE: Well let’s talk about your process. From the photograph onwards. I know you really like technology. Does that at any point influence the piece?
Steve Kim: [Laughs] I definitely love technology. The aesthetics of tech. When I first saw Ghost in the Shell when it came out I was just so blown away by how beautiful and perfect it was (art wise). But anyway. With the photos, I usually start with as accurate a drawing as possible. I used to start out very loosey goosey, and kind of correct things as I go along. But over time this need for accuracy has become more and more important. You don’t really understand what you are looking at until you start drawing it. Like these Tumblr people drawings I’ve been doing. The last one was very pin-up-y. There’s no nudity or whatever but when you start drawing someone’s boob or butt or whatever, it’s kind of uncomfortable with how close it feels. Almost like touching. It’s like touching stuff with your brain.
SE: [Laughs] Definitely. Do you do this in pencil?
Steve Kim: No I draw with paint. All those lines you see in the paintings come from the original drawing. I paint with different colors because one color gets monotonous.
SE: That’s what I thought.
Steve Kim: I used to be into sim racing. And there’s this part from this racing book that talks about a race car driver “walking” the circuit, literally, with his feet because he needed to see things on a slower scale and even if he wanted to see things faster, he couldn’t, physically. I totally relate to that whenever I draw something. You can only draw so fast. Whenever I try to speed things up, I’ll think I’m hot shit until I realize: ‘oh this is wrong, and this and this and this.’
SE: What happens after the drawing is done?
Steve Kim: Um. Sometimes the drawing is never done. There is a point where the potential and beauty of what I see begins to trump whatever concerns I had about paying “homage” to the photograph (reality). The point where I guess I want to make judgement and usually this happens pretty fast. Especially lately. It will go from drawing, drawing, drawing, drawing, seeing something, erasing, done and I’d fell incredibly guilty cause I had spent so little time doing any actual painting. With my earlier paintings you’ll notice that there’s a lot more areas that are fleshed out. It was me feeling like I ‘had’ to fill up this space with some pretty painting. But as time has gone I’ve been trying to see more potential in less. I’m not particularly proud of the strategy. It’s just how it’s happened and I question it all the time. All this white all this white.
SE: You were really concerned about simplifying your Tumblr and your IRC chat.
Steve Kim: [Laughs] My IRC chat is beautiful.
SE: It is!
Steve Kim: And colorful. The colorfulness is pretty important. If I had to draw in black I don’t know if I’d want to paint at all. You know one thing about drawing…
Steve Kim: Ok so you know I told you I felt lost in illustration. At Art Center semesters 1-4 is foundation studies, and 5-8 is the illustration and personal stuff. But in my second semester, I took this class called “Drawing Concepts” and it was all about using the figure/live model as a point of departure and I REALLY enjoyed myself. [Steve shows me the following drawing.]
SE: Oh man, wow!
SE: Early inklings.
Steve Kim: Those two were my favorites from the class. But yeah, they just came out of nowhere. And it was just so amazingly satisfying and natural feeling. But then I forgot. So yeah I dig technology and robots and stuff. Thats where those drafting-esque anatomy drawings come from.
SE: Where do you see your art going?
Steve Kim: I’d like for it to go a lot of different places. I love what I’m doing right now, painting wise, and I see a lot of growth potential in it. But eventually it’ll wear itself out. That’s why I do the technical drawings. It’s something I like to do. Something that’d definitely help in terms of a real job. But more importantly it lays down the groundwork for future expression. Just like all that master copy drawing as a kid laid the groundwork for what I do now. I’m going to be doing this for the next 50 some odd years. That’s a lot of time to be doing stuff.
SE: It’s certainly something only you are doing. I look at art 13 hours a day and rarely see anything similar. I honestly feel it’s some of the most original painting I’ve come across. The most exciting too.
Steve Kim: Thanks. I put everything I have in each painting. I mean that’s the cool thing about art. It’s the sum total of all your experience and judgement, applied to this one little thing that you can carry around and sell.
SE: Ah, let me ask you this artist to artist since you mentioned that you put all you have in to each piece. Do you feel like each time you finish a piece that you’ve lost a bit of yourself?
Steve Kim: No not at all. That’s kind of a weird conception. Where’d it come from?
SE: It’s how i feel when I finish something. I can never go back to what I was before then. It’s not like I’ve gained something, it’s like I’ve lost something because I’ve put myself into it.
Steve Kim: For me it’s more like finding. Finding this thing you never would have though you had in you. It’s heart warming. You do lose something in terms of, um, how you feel about older paintings.
SE: It’s sort of like breaking off pieces of yourself…
Steve Kim: Nah, it’s not like that for me. Sounds a little too romantic.
Steve Kim: Art is like the only thing that redeems this otherwise irredeemable person. I have bad days all the time, most of the time, I think it’s just how I’m wired. And if I didn’t have the knowledge of knowing that on the other hand I can make these wonderful things, I don’t know what I’d do.
“You’re Doing It Wrong.”
SE: Alright, so closing thoughts?
Steve Kim: So, if I can hone my judgement through art, and then be rich and famous and have a chance to direct a film, that’d be cool. Like Julian Schnabel. Um. Thanks a lot, this was fun and therapeutic.
SE: [Laughs] Thank you Steve Kim! A lot!
Steve Kim: And I really like my Tumblr.
Steve Kim’s Tumblr; Steve Kim’s Website; Steve Kim’s Twitter.
Photograph of Steve Kim by Claressinka Anderson.