Thomas Kong at Coco Hunday
Shortly after emigrating from Korea to the United States, Thomas Kong began a job as a “pump man” at a gas station where he learned his first English phrase: “Fillerup.”
Now, as the title of his current solo exhibition at Tampa’s Coco Hunday, the phrase stands in contrast to his decidedly uncluttered collages. Instead, it references the packed car that drove his work from Chicago to Tampa, Florida and, perhaps, the storage spaces his work inhabits in both cities – a convenience store’s backroom and a two car garage-cum-gallery space respectively.
Thomas Kong owns Kim’s Corner Food, a convenience store in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago where he works seven days a week. The self-taught artist creates collages using advertising and packaging materials found in his shop and displays them throughout the store. The artwork additionally fills an adjacent archival and presentation space known simply as the Back Room. Artist Dan Miller, the organizer behind Fillerup, works as a coordinator for the Back Room and facilitates outbound exhibitions of Kong’s work. For the exhibition, Miller drove a sizable collection of Kong’s collages to Tampa and engaged six artists (Dawn Grayford, Nadia Ivanova, Rhonda Massel Donovan, Libbi Ponce, Jessi Ramirez and Emiliano Settecasi) currently studying at the nearby University of South Florida to curate the exhibition.
Kong’s collages display an intensely satisfying self-restraint, patience in their abstract composition and use of color and text. He carefully navigates his source material, largely skirting imagery in favor of emphasizing texture, color and his confident line. The artist slices curves that settle into amorphous shapes before thoughtfully foregrounding them in expansive fields of brown cardboard. Ultimately, it may be his ease with empty space that lifts Kong’s work above a considerable amount of both “fine art” collage and advertising while still having a foot firmly planted in each.
Contrasting with the austerity of Kong’s individual works, though, is the body as a whole. Thomas Kong is prolific – to the extent that engaging a half-dozen artist-curators is surprisingly not excessive. Collages are installed tightly in bands near the top and bottom of the garage gallery walls. The exhibition spills beyond the gallery’s typical exhibition space and into the adjacent patio, up a spiral staircase and into the house’s living areas. Yet, still, collages are stacked on racks, in milk cartons and on the floor leaning against the walls, waiting to be flipped through like used vinyl records.
This prolificacy speaks to a function of Kong’s artwork that doesn’t, and perhaps can’t, find expression in a typical gallery exhibition (or even fully in this relatively atypical one). The works of art are untitled and undated. When that’s paired with the sheer number of pieces, the singularity of each collage begins to dissolve. That isn’t to say they all blend into each other. Rather, considering the work as individual discreet art objects feels as if it’s a misread of the larger body of work.
In an interview with Miller, Kong explained the impetus behind his art-making saying, “The first time I was motivated by the store; the store decorations, you know. So, first of all the shelves of the store, all the shelves, the shelves were kinda empty-like or dirty-like, so I just thought about laying something on the shelves, you know, like the bottom of the shelves, so the merchandise looks nice.”
Kong’s collages, initially at least, functioned as adornment or ornamentation. The work is supplementary to the shop and its products. Yet, to see Kong’s collages on a shelf beside bags of Cheetos or on freezer doors, it is made apparent that the capacity to embellish and the art’s intrinsic connection to the store’s goods doesn’t diminish the work’s artistic merit. Rather, it makes a deep intuitive visual sense. Further, seeing Kong’s collages on white gallery walls, even those of an alternative space like Coco Hunday, it becomes clear that gallery exhibitions largely present an artwork’s use-value awkwardly at best. It’s difficult to imagine a gallery that showcases Kong’s work as effectively as a convenience store. This seems evident to Kong and Miller and, to their credit, it is as if through Fillerup they take it up as a challenge.
“I am also very invested in the exhibition as a form, and have tried in my own practice for several years (to varying degrees of success) to evade or play with its boundaries,” Miller related to me in an email. Indeed, much of Miller’s practice seems to be aimed at tugging at the ragged edges of the capital “E” Exhibition. It’s what pairs him so well with Thomas Kong. Kong’s work doesn’t seem to deal in terms of exhibitions, series or even individual works of art. Though that’s the only language our gallery system generally speaks, it’s within this loss in translation that the two collaborate and may be the exhibition’s most compelling thrust.
Fillerup is necessarily, even self-awarely awkward. However, its incongruities are redemptive and perhaps one of the exhibition’s most fascinating aspects. Fillerup acts almost as a soap bubble test, revealing where gallery exhibiting and curating fails to make space (literally and dialectically) for a body of work like that of Thomas Kong’s. And in that sense, by falling short it hits the mark.
Thomas Kong: Fillerup (organized by Dan Miller and curated by Dawn Grayford, Nadia Ivanova, Rhonda Massel Donovan, Libbi Ponce, Jessi Ramirez and Emiliano Settecasi) is on view at Coco Hunday in Tampa, FL until May 29th, 2016.