LOS ANGELES — In Sweet Discipline from Koreatown, a new series of vibrant, colorful, thickly textured landscape and portrait paintings on view at Shulamit Nazarian, Korean-born Ken Gun Min introduces an exotic fantasy world that reflects his personal experiences and longings as a gay Asian man living in the diverse melting pot of Los Angeles. In the landscapes, most of which are based on real locations and their histories, he expresses nostalgia for what he calls the “classic gay cruising” of the pre-hookup app days that occurred in places such as MacArthur Park, where more recently trans women have been stabbed by a street gang. Several of the landscapes are populated with narratives in which naked men are at one with nature and each other in a paradise where virtually anything goes. In other examples, humans are represented allegorically by animals who find themselves in perilous situations.
Min’s vision of a gay utopia is exuberantly revealed in “Ambiguous Yoga Club” (2023), where two naked muscular men engage in an erotic encounter in an idealized outdoor setting of lush flowers and bristling trees. The idea that this could be a place for uninhibited sexual freedom is suggested by the pulsating rays of a radiant sun as well as the abstract gestures that swirl throughout the composition as sexual energy, forms that the artist considers to be gateways to states of meditative transcendence. Drawing on Western and Eastern art historical traditions, the figures’ poses derive from both European representations of Hercules wrestling Antaeus and early 20th-century Japanese woodblock prints.
In a related work, “Stranger by the Lake (Bare Ass Creek)” (2023), Min pays tribute to a once-popular nude sunbathing and trysting spot in Angeles National Forest that was ravaged by fire in 2009. Although the scene recalls pastoral, nonsexual representations of communal outdoor bathing by Puvis de Chavannes and Paul Cézanne, the unnatural complexions recall the dissonant palettes in early 20th-century German Expressionism, lending a foreboding tone that points to the health and legal risks of public sexual display. Other dangers associated with the parks are the central focus in “13 Missing Ladies” (2023), where botanical forms symbolize trans women who have disappeared from the Westlake neighborhood near Min’s residence, and “You May Disappear Here” (2023) features a peacock whose back is on fire while being threatened by a cascading waterfall. The artist chose the bird as a metaphor for marginalized individuals.
With the portraits, Min depicts a variety of body types and shows Asian men as strong and confident, yet vulnerable. Adhering to the Jungian concept that all people comprise both male and female qualities, “East Hollywood Red Chair” (2023) depicts a muscular man in a sexually suggestive beefcake pose, wearing high heels. Surrounded by plants and flowers, the mature man in “Daddy Lives in Hollywood Hills” (2023) could be mistaken for a Buddha-like figure espousing his wisdom.
Min’s particular recipe for creating the distinctive textures in his paintings is twofold. First, he pays homage to his Asian heritage by preparing each surface with layers of Japanese bookbinding glue, which creates a rough tooth to capture the Korean pigments that he employs. More importantly, he embroiders sections of painted canvas with threads and beads, thereby joining other queer male artists who repurpose craft techniques that were once considered to be “low art” or exclusively feminine. As an artist drawing on traditions and processes from multiple cultures, and enjoying some of the freedoms brought about by the sexual revolution, Min brings a complex and celebratory perspective to LA’s queer history.
Ken Gun Min: Sweet Discipline from Koreatown continues at Shulamit Nazarian (616 North La Brea Avenue, Hancock Park, Los Angeles) through December 20. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.