An Interview with Ken Gun Min
See more of Ken Gun Min’s work in Vol. 41.2 here.
Ken Gun Min’s paintings strike the onlooker with their highly varied textures and themes. Where his landscapes bring together seemingly disparate vegetation and natural elements, his portraits often feature nude Asian men confidently facing the viewer.
His paintings explore intimacy, masculinity, and representation across different cultures. Of his work, his artist statement details:
Employing a mixture of European oil paints, Korean pigments, embroidery, and beading on canvas, the artist incorporates styles from various regions across history to consciously practice outside the Western gaze. Often featuring nude and queer-coded men, his portraits and lush landscapes concoct fanciful idylls where longing, melancholy, and euphoria manifest irrespective of societal expectations. For the past several years, Min has focused on the creation of cross-cultural figures and spaces by integrating Eastern and Western painting styles. In both his technical application and the scenes he composes, Min challenges conceptions of sexuality, gender, and race, especially as it is depicted in Western art history.
In this interview, we seek to discuss specific ways in which these stated goals manifest in our published suite of paintings from Ken Gun Min.
— Haley Laningham
Haley Laningham: In a previous interview with Wallpaper, you mentioned that much of your work is inspired by real events—specifically violent ones—in recent LGBTQ+ history in the Los Angeles area. In your own words, how do you feel your art engages with this local history, or what is your goal?
Ken Gun Min: I am generally interested in the human experience as a marginalized identity, and so I seek to explore issues around race, gender, sexuality, and the immigrant experience.
I recently finished the last part of the series of the Los Angeles trilogy, following the first one, Silverlake Dog Park, then Westlake and Sweet Discipline from Koreatown. These pieces deal with cultural assimilation/mutation through the immigration experience by highlighting repressed people and their history as a big part of this body of work. My art could be a platform to represent untold history from under-represented communities besides exploring my personal emotional state.
I have engaged in LGBTQ+ issues in South Korea since 2015, and have worked with like-minded communities, which continued in Los Angeles when I began residing on the east edge of Koreatown near the Westlake community.
HL: Does this engagement inform very immediate artistic decisions, such as blurring the faces of the figures in the Night Cruiser diptych?
KGM: Most figures/portraits appearing in the Westlake series have red embroidered stitches on their faces. The idea starts from “documenting the story of undocumented people or deleted people,” referring to illegal immigrants and marginalized identities.
HL: What is your inspiration or intention behind depicting so much plant life where it may not be in actuality?
KGM: One of the first things immigrants do when they settle in the new land is to plant a homeland tree and or piece of vegetation. My neighbor Gerry planted a Saba banana tree that he believed connects Los Angeles and the Philippines and gives his family food. We planted a Yucca tree when my parents visited me from Korea. Plants in Los Angeles are an immigrant history book in a way. It is beyond what it looks like.
HL: The fact that you mix Western and Eastern textures in your work has certainly already been noticed. Still, can you note in your own words how the choice to mix textures (oil, Korean pearl pigment, embroidery, beads) feels subversive or freeing to you?
KGM: I love the physicality of how embroidery and beads meet paint. That expands the depth of images and subject matter which also connects with my background.
HL: To go specifically into your use of oil paint, there is a certain (excellent) chaos to what you do with oil paint. Is your use of oil more representative of the mark of Western art on your work, or would you describe your choices in using it as subversive itself (even perhaps at the level of the brush stroke), or a combination of both? Feel free to speak generally about your negotiation with Western influences.
KGM: Painted swirls—often interpreted as chaos—are my attempt to encapsulate certain energy reaching out to a meditative state of mind. The same swirls are not necessary to depict the sun's heat in the landscape paintings. You can see this work in the lower corner of paintings or figures forming a certain shape.
My canvas surface is prepared like a rice paper texture with multiple layers of Japanese book binding glue. It gives a very rough tooth for Korean pigment to sit on and also helps embroidery threads attach to the surface nicely. So, making smooth fluid swirls on rough surfaces is kind of against nature in this case. I apply fast-drying glue and execute the composition in a very short amount of time. [See a demonstration of this kind of painting here.]
HL: Several of the pieces we plan to showcase include nude bodies. What about nudity is beautiful to you, and what about it serves your public intention to reclaim queer Asian masculinity?
KGM: All the portraits in the show reflect my experience as a gay Asian man living in the West, exploring the notion of “masculinity and vulnerability.” Both tender and powerful, these portraits render men—some known, others imagined—surrounded by flowers, gazing confidently at the viewer. My subjects operate as both self-portraits and portraits of others contending with Western culture’s desexualization of Asian men, as well as its exclusion of Queer men from the realm of masculinity in general. Like my landscape paintings, these portraits offer a platform to express a range of complex emotional states. For example, roses in men’s hair. It may be considered feminine in the Melancholy and Infinite Sadness, where he is a femme, sissy-boy hero surrounded by roses.
I once heard that one Asian gay porn actor rejects all the “bottom position” sex roles to fight against the stereotypes that portray Asian men as passive, emasculated, and lacking sex appeal. East Hollywood Red Chair explores this idea of Asian masculinity.
HL: Is there any new work or publicity to which you’d like to direct our audience’s attention?
KGM: My current show, Sweet Discipline from Koreatown, in Shulamit Nazarian Gallery, Los Angeles, goes until the end of this year. I have a forthcoming solo show at MCA Denver. Please visit my Instagram (@kengunminn) for the news.
HALEY LANINGHAM is a PhD student in Poetry at Florida State University. She holds an MFA from the University of Oregon and acts as Art Editor for Southeast Review.