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Jong Sook Kang: Like a Land of Dreams by Richard Vine

Jong Sook Kang: Like a Land of Dreams


By Richard Vine


When the ceramist Jong Sook Kang first came to New York in 1994, two visual experiences—two shocks, really—suddenly imprinted themselves on her mind, at both a conscious and subconscious level. These sights have remained active imaginative resources for her ever since. The first, seen from the plane window, was the city’s vast gridded network of streets, vibrant with traffic. The second was the panoramic sweep of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, viewed across the Hudson River from Kang’s sedate home neighborhood in New Jersey.


      Note that these were both views from outside the city proper. Countless new arrivals have had a similar thrill upon landing in New York from sea or air. Most immigrants, though, soon immerse themselves in the dazzling cityscape, establishing a new life amid the throbbing streets and avenues. But that was not Kang’s lot. Yes, she is an artist—trained at Seoul National University and later Montclair University in New Jersey—but she is also a wife and mother. Like a great many other middle-class Koreans, she made her home in the relatively safe-and-clean environs west of the George Washington Bridge, seemingly a world away from yet in constant sight of a brooding, glistening Gotham.

            This is not, however, a simple tale of thwarted dreams. For Kang was able to use her social restraints to channel her creative energy. Over the past 30 years, she has produced a substantial body of work, including a large variety of ceramic apples—popularly identified as the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in Eden. Desire to know may have condemned Adam and Eve, but it also revealed to them the world we live it. So it is no coincidence that Kang’s most recent solo exhibition was titled “Dreaming Desire.”[i]


    The centerpiece of the show was an installation of ten 3½-foot-tall ceramic structures, composed of rectangular plates stacked with space between each layer, disclosing electric light emanating from within. The sculptural group looked eerily like Manhattan’s office blocks and residential towers at nightfall. These objects of Kang’s desire, rife with fantasies of sophisticated, cosmopolitan living, dominated the gallery space and insistently drew visitors’ eyes. But their very seductiveness, and their proud self-assertion, soon caused one to question their silent claims. They resemble a cluster of Le Corbusier high-rises not unlike his Radiant City plan for the center of Paris, mercifully never built. Urbanologists like William H. Whyte have argued that Corbusier’s architectural strategy—lifting multiple living spaces into vertical shafts, clearing out all shops and other low-rise buildings between them to create either greenswards or empty concrete plazas—is actually an assault of city living. The vitality of urban life, these critics claim, arises from innumerable small face-to-face encounters at street level: parents playing with children in parks, friends meeting on corners, shoppers brushing by and subconsciously assessing each other, etc. Thus it is no surprise that the contentious 1960s brought a classic confrontation between city planner Robert Moses, who wanted to bulldoze a 10-lane expressway through SoHo and Chinatown, and vocal opponents like Greenwich Village activist Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.


    The other works shown in “Dreaming Desire” suggest that, for all Kang’s admiration for the twinkling city of dreams across the Hudson, her ultimate loyalty is to more intimate forms of human connection. The gallery’s walls and pedestals featured stylized bowl-shaped works, each with a central void crisscrossed by brass wires plated with gold or silver. While these wire meshes certainly bring to mind city streets seen from above, the individual strands passing through small holes in the vessel’s sides seem to hold the artwork together, conjuring associations with the strings of a musical instrument. One is reminded of the way families and communities are knit together by person-to-person “ties” and “bonds,” and of how those filaments, when correctly tuned, can produce social harmony. Kang’s shift of emphasis—from outer allure to inner tranquility—chimes with the admonition in Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach (1867):


Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;



            In choosing interpersonal commitment as her theme, Kang connects with the entire history of her medium and craft. Pottery began as a way to convey sustenance (seeds, food, wine, oil) from one person to another. Pots are among the earliest artifacts of agriculture and communal living, the genesis of all higher civilization. Eventually, those vessels—and their derivatives, plates—facilitated mercantile exchange of their contents and then even became trade goods themselves, helping to knit the ancient world together through long-distance transactions and the intermingling of cultures that such commerce fosters. (Remnants of Greek amphoras and vases are found throughout the Mediterranean basin; Chinese porcelain was a sensation in 18th and 19th Europe.) Along the way, the finest ceramics evolved from utilitarian objects to decorative luxury items to pure works of art.

            With the advent of avant-garde modernism, “finest” and “pure” no longer meant, as it had in previous centuries, the most refined designs and facture, the thinnest bone porcelain, the rarest glazes, the most intricate painted motifs, the most exquisitely fragile figurines. Instead, an appreciation of fractured forms and rough surfaces, and above all of concept, came to the fore. Kang, studying ceramics in Korea in the late 1980s, was aware of both the country’s long history of religious and courtly art, epitomized by perfectly shaped and smoothly finished moon jars, and its parallel tradition of “crude” but artfully made earthenware, loved for its material authenticity—a taste that extends even to broken-and-repaired plates and vessels, poignant reminders of the transience of all earthly things.

            Clearly, Kang often simultaneously holds in her mind—and expresses in her art—two seemingly contradictory premises: the big city is glamorous, but domestic life is profoundly meaningful and sweet; ceramic works can offer pleasing shapes, gorgeous colors, and luscious surfaces, but they can also prod viewers into unsettling thoughts that need to be faced. That dual ability has made Kang one of the most prolific and significant Korean ceramicists in the United States. She has had 10 solo shows and participated in many group exhibitions. Her 40-year career is the realization of a childhood dream. As a young girl, visiting grandparents who lived near an abandoned kiln, she would make the old shards of pottery she found into playthings, imagining what life-stories the pieces represented: who had used them, and for what mysterious adult purposes or acts of indulgence? Later, when she encountered real working kilns, she was immediately and deeply fascinate by fire—seen not as a destructive force but as an agent of magical transformation. Eventually Kang was able to combine those two drives: taking up bits of clay, she combined and shaped them at the behest of an aesthetic concept, watching enthralled as lumpen earth changed into expressive artworks in her own skilled hands and her own fiery kiln.


Richard Vine is the former managing editor of Art in America magazine and the author of such critical studies as Odd Nerdrum: Paintings, Sketches, and Drawings (2001) and New China, New Art (2008), as well as the crime novel SoHo Sins (2016).



[i] The show was on view Nov. 2-Dec. 8, 2023, at Paris Koh Fine Arts, Fort Lee, NJ.

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