Artist Sun Young Kang Negotiates the In-Between

The Korean transplant recently had her work featured at Main Line Art Center.

Creativity in Action: Sun Young Kang in her studio//Photos by Tessa Marie Images.

Sun Young Kang holds the book up to a lamp, illuminating its creamy beige pages as she opens it like an accordion. Only then does the intricacy of its design become visible. Each page is layered with lines, rectangles and arcs, like stained-glass windows on a miniature scale.

The whole thing fits in the palm of Kang’s hand. She calls it a shadow book, and it’s one in a series of more than 10 she has created. 

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Not all of Kang’s work is this tiny. She’s done enormous installations, most recently at Main Line Art Center, which granted her the 2016 Meyer Family Award for Contemporary Art. Kang has won reams of other awards from institutions in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York,
Bulgaria and her native Korea. Her art is in collections around the world, from Washington to Florida, Hungary to Italy

It’s a lot of recognition for someone who mostly uses beige paper and white light. Kang works in opposites: black and white, light and shadow. For the Main Line Art Center exhibit, she put together hundreds of miniature cylinders, all from beige bristol paper of different heights and widths. She arranged them to produce specific shadows on the ceiling and walls. To make it interactive, Kang rigged the installation with motion-sensor lights. Viewers’ footsteps triggered the light; the light created the shadows. 

Titled “In-Between,” the exhibit looks ethereal and minimalistic. But it’s heavy with meaning—a physical manifestation of her father’s death after a long battle with cancer when Kang was 21. That was almost two decades ago, but she remembers the moment she walked into her father’s bedroom and saw his lifeless body. “There was a huge, overwhelming distance between us, and he was in a place that was really far away—but that place was right next to me,” she says. “I wanted to create art that represents that feeling. It’s in between something physical and not, something touchable and not, something visible but not. It’s something we think exists, but we can’t reach.” 

Opposing dualities are the basis of Kang’s aesthetic, which is based on traditional Korean art and is all about positive and negative space. Those terms mean one thing in Western art and something else in Korea. Western artists have a tendency to be deliberate in using light and shadow to distinguish space for viewers. In a landscape, Western-style artists typically paint clouds and sky. Korean artists give viewers room to visually interpret negative space. In their landscapes, clouds are created with white canvas space untouched by paint. The Korean word for it translates inexactly to “emptiness.”

Korean artists also use different materials, namely rice paper and sumi ink. Paper is part of the art, not just a canvas for it. That was certainly the case in one of Kang’s Pittsburgh exhibits. From the ceiling, she suspended six foot-long scrolls of rice paper, each illuminated by warm white light and emblazoned with black letters of Korean calligraphy—her father’s handwriting, taken from journals sent to her following his death. Kang explains that she brought his words to life after his death.

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It’s another example of Kang’s work being heavy in meaning but visually light. That was creative catnip to Amie Potsic, executive director of Main Line Art Center, who fell in love with Kang’s art years ago. “It’s minimalist and poetic and stunning, and it has a variety of very deep meanings to Sun Young,” says Potsic. “You don’t need to know what all of those meanings are to have a rich reading of her work. But if you do, the experience is all the richer.”

Kang masters beauty on a small scale. 

Sun Young Kang’s “In-Between” could refer to the artist herself. She’s between two careers—one with her fine art and the other as a book conservation technician with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. For now, her job is financially necessary. Kang’s miniature works sell for just a few hundred dollars each, and her big installations are largely unsellable due to their size. She’s either too small or too large, an artistic Goldilocks. 

Kang is also in between cultures. She spent the first 25 years of her life in Korea, and although she’s been in the United States for 14 years, she often feels like an outsider. She arrived here in 2002, when her husband, Yong Ho Bae, was accepted to Rutgers University to pursue a master’s degree in chemical engineering. They’d been married for one year, so Kang found herself a newlywed in New Brunswick, N.J., not knowing a soul and speaking only broken English. Those first years in America were difficult. Although she’d worked as a children’s book illustrator in Seoul, Kang was restricted from earning money in the U.S. because her “wife visa,” as she calls it, was tied to and defined by her husband’s student visa. “I felt that I lost my voice,” she says. “Even my visa status depressed me. It meant I was a dependent of someone.” 

Kang says she was in a creative and psychological slump, unhappy and isolated in New Brunswick. She tried to resume her art career, but traditional Korean painting isn’t marketable in the U.S., so Kang shifted from painting to bookmaking. Starting over, she took courses at the Center for Book Arts in New York, later earning her MFA at the University of the Arts in Center City. “What led me to bookmaking was really the materials, ink and paper, which are the same in traditional Korean painting,” she says. 

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That came full circle when Kang and Bae moved to Pittsburgh so he could get his Ph.D. Creatively confident, Kang found a lot of success in Pittsburgh. “I got solo shows and group shows right after graduating from UArts, and I didn’t know how rare that was,” she says. “I just kept Googling places and sending in applications. My ignorance made me brave.”

It’s paid off. Kang has won an award or fellowship almost every year since 2005. She took a few weeks off to have her son, Gryson, in 2010, making shadow books at night while he slept. The family moved to Bryn Mawr that same year, when Bae became a postdoctorate fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. But before they moved, Kang did her homework and found an enclave with a large Korean population. “I wanted to be where there were lots of Korean moms like me, and I found that in Bryn Mawr,” she says. “I’m so glad to have found it.”

There is a Main Line audience for Kang’s work. Potsic saw the overwhelmingly positive reaction at MLAC. She believes the growing ethnic diversity of our area is fueling interest in artists with different backgrounds. “There is a poetry and simplicity to Korean art that speaks to viewers in this area,” says Potsic. “It’s familiar because of Chinese and Japanese art, but distinctly different enough to be engaging.”

Despite the accolades, Kang works two jobs, getting up at 5:30 a.m. and working late into the night. The apartment’s second bedroom doubles as her studio. It certainly would be easier if she pursued something more commercial, but don’t count on it. “This is my art and my truth,” Kang says.

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!