October 28 – December 13, 2023
Roll Up Project is pleased to present paintings by Michael Hyun Gu Kang. Kang’s recent work reflects on current events, the passage of time, and the anticipation of fatherhood. He uses saturated blocks of color and expressive linework to bring levity to serious topics. The two largest works in the windows are painted on rugs, giving new life to discarded objects.
In the window on Harrison Street, Taming a Dragon (2023) features a male figure riding a tiger and a standing female figure with a small dog, both wielding swords in a battle with a green dragon. Referencing Renaissance paintings, Kang depicts the figures as gallant heroes facing their challenger amidst a serene blue sky. Kang and his wife are expecting a baby that will likely be born in the year of the dragon, and he sees this painting as a way of processing the future ahead of them. The physical surface is crusted with acrylic paint, creating a crackling and dimensional surface that buzzes with activity. Beside it, For You (2023) shows two hands coming together, passing flowers. For Kang, flowers symbolize the passage of time, and the urgency of our existence. Flowers are offered at births, weddings, illnesses, and deaths to mark the momentous occasions that color our lives. Seen together, these paintings speak to love, devotion, and the need to stay in the moment even when we face challenges.
Three paintings fill the Third Street windows, sitting edge to edge in a salon-style arrangement. Since the protests of 2020, Kang has expressed advocacy and support through his paintings, finding imagery that reflects deeply on the topics that divide our nation. In We Are Your Friends (2023), three political figures with forked tails and horns stand at a podium, while an eclipse covers the sun. Kang notes that early Christians thought eclipses were signs from God, foretelling important events both good and bad. In this context, the implication leans more toward the bad, with the devilish politicians vying for attention and power. Their arms reach out in every direction, creating a dynamic sense of movement. Kang inserts his Korean heritage into the scene, collaging hanbok fabric in the upper right corner, and replacing the eagle on the podium with a magpie, Korea’s national bird. Protest (2023) is a response to the war in Israel and Gaza. Layers of wood panel are covered in an ashy gray, with the words “cease fire” visible on the tightly cropped composition. Though the imagery likely drew inspiration from protest posters and images of collapsed buildings, the cut off text is also a reminder that news is delivered to us through a framework, which can be skewed at different angles depending on the audience. The third painting in the windows is Wings (2023), which depicts a male figure with exaggerated arms and hands that twine in a dancer’s pose. In We Are Your Friends and Wings, text lifts out of the surface, painted over but still visible, bringing to mind scar tissue or erased notes. While obscured, Kang leaves evidence for the viewer who chooses to lean in closer.
Kang has described his painting style as “wilful naiveté” but that belies the care and labor he puts into the multilayered compositions. His imagery is distilled down to the barest of lines, letting abstraction take root and thrive. Here, color is the star of the show, and Kang’s ongoing investigation of color theory makes the challenging topics approachable and worthy of deeper viewing.
About the Artist
Michael Hyun Gu Kang is a Korean-American artist based in San Francisco, California. He has shown work internationally and locally, at venues including Vessel Gallery, Bass and Reiner, Land and Sea, Paolo Meija Fine Arts, and the Salesforce Tower. Born and raised in Southern California to immigrant parents, his work is informed by resourcefulness and the processing of day-to-day events. He uses mixed media to create sculptural, textured paintings. Kang received a BFA from California College of the Arts in 2015.