seok ho kang, untitled, 2016, oil on linen, 28 3⁄4 × 28 3⁄4".

seok ho kang, untitled, 2016, oil on linen, 28 3⁄4 × 28 3⁄4".

seok ho kang

It takes chutzpah to make a huge painting of an ass in jeans, especially one about seven feet square. But to develop a viable practice out of up-close and unusual pictures like that, you have to possess something else entirely. Rare talent, for one. Meet the South Korean artist seok ho kang, who before his 2021 death at fifty spent about two decades creating these kind of works. Oozing piquant psychic sensations and toying with portraiture’s codes, they are unforgettable.

The artist used both photos that he took and ones that he cribbed from the media, cropping each one tightly around a body and then blowing it up on linen, his flat and even strokes conveying the texture of fabric and skin. A figure in a gray suit is captured around the crotch, on the move, in a 2004 piece. A smaller 2016 work (all are individually untitled) has a brightly lit neck bathed in pearls. These works keep a Pictures-style focus on the construction of power and glamour, an approach further emphasized in the “Gesture” series of paintings kang started in 2008, reproducing parts of news images in gray scale. We recognize Muhammad Ali from just his raised fists, mouth, and chin; other subjects are not quite identifiable, but we can tell by the way that they grip a microphone or motion to an unseen crowd that they mean business.

More often, though, kang’s alluring art homes in on everyday sights, delivering an intimacy that can spill over into fetishism: bra straps framing a back, a hand tucked between two naked thighs, the pleats of a striped skirt (it could be a modernist abstraction), or a waterfall of curly brown hair, like a casual Domenico Gnoli. To be in public with these bodies can be unsettling, and the exhibition’s curators, Eunju Lee and Jimin Lee, intensified matters by placing many on shelves arrayed along narrow rows, so that you could experience them alone. You could get near to these people, but you couldn’t quite connect. Their faces are typically absent, and in the one series where they do appear—“Couple,” 2016–21, placing heads side by side—they are cropped so close that they are only two eyes and bits of nose. They see much more of us than we see of them.

As a selection of kang’s tiny source images revealed, he often tweaked as he transposed, adding a faint halo to the back of one woman’s head or quick yellow marks to an otherwise bland blue-and-white checkered shirt. In nine paintings on view, he portrays the same thing over and over: someone with their hands behind their back, fist in palm. The pattern on the model’s jacket is slightly different each time, as are the color and placement of those hands. It is as if kang was struggling to remember the image, maybe hoping to improve it. (He was also enacting what is done to pictures now, as they are filtered, altered, resaved.) He studied early on at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf with Jan Dibbets, and there is a hint of the Bechers to his way of apprehending moments of furtive beauty amid repetitive typologies. (He became a Bauhaus fan in Germany, buying pieces and building charming furniture, both on display.)

In his final years, kang struck out in an intriguing new direction, using a looser brush to depict Rubik’s Cubes—games that, in contrast with painting, allow only limited moves and have a definite conclusion. These cubes float through empty space, some evanescing. Not one looks close to being solved, but a few are mid-move, as if someone were in the process of working on them, looking hard, experimenting, trying to get them the way they should be.