La Jolla welcomes home a master of subtle expressionism

When Byron Kim was in his early teens, his mother took him to view a piece of art a family friend had recently acquired. The painting was by Bryce Marden and consisted of four small panels of beautiful monochrome colors. On showing the piece, the friend let slip how much he had paid for the painting at auction. Kim doesn’t remember the exact price - he thinks it was somewhere in the region of $50,000 - but, he does remember the feeling of astonishment that overtook him.

“My jaw dropped,” said Kim. “I couldn’t believe that he would pay $50,000 for just four colored rectangles.”

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Kim’s work will recognize the irony in which this anecdote is steeped. The La Jolla-born artist has made a name for himself as a master of quirky simplicity; of minimalist works born from complex concepts; of abstract expressionism born from such tangled subjects as memory and race. His most famous work, Synecdoche comprises nearly 400 small, monochrome rectangles.

The community will get a chance to welcome home one of its most distinguished artists when Kim’s exhibition, “Byron Kim: Threshold,” opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, May 27 through Sept 4.

The museum has been acquainted with Kim for some years and commissioned some of the panels that became part of Synecdoche. Curator Stephanie Hanor said Kim’s work follows in the footsteps of such artists as Ad Rhinehart.

"(Kim is) interested in using color and different shades of different colors on canvasses,” she said, “to really reduce the canvass to a pure color experience.”

Color is certainly the pre-eminent force working in most of Kim’s work. Bold, glowing works consisting of seldom more than a handful of colors form the bulk of this collection. The paintings are, on the whole, soothing, balanced and enigmatic. But, it is arguably when the stories behind the paintings are told that they really come alive and reveal themselves for the intelligent and deeply personal studies they are.

There is Miss Mushinski (First Big Crush), a rather impersonal slab of olive-green and grey-brown stripes whose title is hard to decipher. The stripes, it turns out, represent the hoops on a T-shirt worn by the artist in first grade. Miss Mushinski was Kim’s teacher - and first love - and once commented on how much she liked the shirt. The amorous young Kim then wore the same T-shirt every day for three weeks straight. With this knowledge, the piece grows emotionally and becomes both amusing and strangely sad.

Similarly, the great piece Synecdoche, while striking and full of life on its own, takes on a whole new meaning once its creation is explained. Each of the more than 390 panels in the piece represents a portrait of a different individual based entirely on their skin color.

As a struggling artist, Kim would periodically take aside complete strangers for 30 minutes or so and create each portrait, studying his subject’s arm intensely to get just the right shade and