East City Art Reviews—Milk Relics at Lost Origins Gallery

By Ashley Shah on September 24, 2019

“As we stand at the precipice of environmental collapse, how we treat each other, and our planet, will be judged by those who follow.” [1]

At Lost Origins Gallery Tom Kim is showing a series of works that speak to his appreciation of and growing concern about the destruction of the world’s natural wonders.  Milk Relics is intended to encourage awareness of serious current environmental issues—while having a bit of fun along the way. Kim is a Korean-American artist, drawing inspiration from both sources of his identity. In his work, he employs “classical Western oil painting, traditional Eastern imagery, and contemporary illustration to convey his message to the viewer.” [2] He proudly represents a variety of cultural influences, allowing his work to become an extension of himself and his upbringing.  At a time when many in today’s society are forced to quiet their differences, Kim successfully shows that the integration of cultures can result in profoundly creative work.

Tom Kim, Milk Relic 22 – Madonna of the Mountains, oil, charcoal and gold acrylic on wood panel. Image courtesy of Tom Kim.

One subtle, yet powerful, allusion to his Korean background is the red, stamped signature in the bottom right corner of his paintings. While on a trip to Korea to visit his ailing grandmother, Kim’s mother helped him develop a signature of his name. It represents an homage to his heritage, and also, as Kim expresses, is a seal of approval from his mother. For Kim, it is the affirmation that he is “producing works that his family is proud of.” [3] He makes his respect and admiration for his mother apparent, acknowledging the hardships that she faced as both an immigrant in America and a single mother raising two young children.

The inspiration for Milk Relics stems from events that are both global and related to Kim’s personal life. In December 2017 President Trump had been in office for one year, California was recovering from rampant wildfires, and Hurricane Maria had ravished Puerto Rico.  At this same moment Kim received news that his grandmother’s health was suffering, and that he needed to make the above mentioned trip to South Korea to visit her and his family. Referencing this period in his artist’s talk, Kim playfully said, “I thought, ‘what better way to travel across the world than to spread it out over a 4-month surfing adventure?!’” [4]

Tom  Kim, Milk Relic 1 – Day 0 Bather, oil, charcoal and acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of Tom Kim.

During his surfing trip to parts of South America and Asia, Kim embraced the curiosities of his surroundings and also took note of the injustices of inequality and environmental negligence.

For example, he felt and understood the stark contrast between his view and local communities’ association with water, specifically mentioning this observation in a coastal town in South America. While Kim noticed the visceral calmness and beauty of the ocean, he also saw the local population’s struggle to access clean drinking water. Kim went to the ocean for peace and tranquility, yet he realized that the lack of clean drinking water can be a cause of suffering for some in those communities. Kim finds that milk embodies a similar concept – one that “evokes feelings of both scarcity and sustenance. Like potable water, many of us have never known a time when it has not been readily accessible to us.” [5] Although the concept is a bit unclear, it seems that by titling this exhibition Milk Relics, Kim was alluding to the idea that the environment, and fundamental substances like clean water and milk, are necessary to human survival.  They have always been so, since the dawn of human existence. The environment provides vitality, and we, its beneficiaries, are slowly contributing to its death.

Tom Kim, Milk Relic 18 – The Fire, oil, charcoal and acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of Tom Kim.
Tom Kim, Milk Relic 17 – The Fire, oil, charcoal and acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of Tom Kim.

Additionally there is Kim’s depiction of the Baekdu Daegan mountain range, “often referred to as the ‘spine’ of the Korean Peninsula” [6]. Specifically, he represents his interpretation of the mountains in North Korea given that it is a region inaccessible to visitors. He imagines them as majestic, untouched and striking. Yet, at the same time, it is a part of the world that we are unable to appreciate due to human restriction. In his depictions of Baekdu Daegan, the viewer can transport his/her mind to an unaltered and unbothered landscape. The larger scale paintings in Kim’s exhibition allow the viewer to embrace the breadth of the environment and nature.

Tom Kim, ApocaTaco, graphic cartoon. Image courtesy of Tom Kim.

Although Kim is calling attention to the detrimental consequences of human impact on the environment, he successfully incorporates elements of fun and humor into his show.  In a separate part of the exhibition Kim presents ‘ApocaTaco’ and his breakfast sausage dog sidekick, ‘Salchicha Jones’, effectively balancing the more grave works. This graphic cartoon project chronicles ApocaTaco’s adventures through a barren wasteland post-human civilization.

Performance space at Lost Origins Gallery. Photo: Ashley Shah for East City Art.

Another of the artist’s major intentions with Milk Relics is to promote accessibility of the arts to the community.  As part of the programming, Kim and Jason Hamacher, the owner of Lost Origins Gallery, have organized music, dance, and reading performances for the duration of the exhibition. Each of these events is free to the public, encouraging community engagement and interaction. The artworks and gallery spaces are activated when the public participates, making the subsequent conversations that arise about environmental impact less daunting.

The scheduled event on September 15th was a slide guitar performance by Erik Mendoza, followed by Kim’s Artist’s Talk. Kim addressed the heavier aspects of the exhibition, but at the same time encouraged playfulness by poking fun at himself and expressing gratitude. His approach to addressing these topics inspires the audience to immerse themselves and unapologetically question their relation to and impact on the environment. As a result, Kim promotes reflection and additional discourse on the growing concerns around the effects of human impact on the environment. Yet, Kim adheres to the theme that he proposes in his exhibition text: like milk, “the apocalypse is best served with cookies.” [7] The performances in conjunction with the artwork leave room for new stories and memories, appropriately mirroring the narratives represented in Kim’s works. They are meant to bring the community together to celebrate current relationships, and to optimistically develop new connections.

As the viewer leaves the exhibition, Kim seems to hope that it will beg him/her to question: how can we live in the present and be kinder to one another and our world to develop a better future?

Milk Relics is on view until September 29th. For more information, visit the gallery’s website at www.lostorigins.gallery. The gallery is located at 3110 Mount Pleasant St NW, Washington DC, 20010. Gallery Hours are Saturday and Sunday 12pm to 5pm, and by appointment. Additional programming for September can be found at www.tomkimstudio.com.

[1] Exhibition Text

[2] Lost Origins Gallery statement about the Artist

[3] Artists Talk 9/15/19

[4] Artists Talk 9/15/19

[5] Exhibition Text

[6] Mountains Image Text

[7] Exhibition Text