The Cheeky, Thorny Utopias of Ken Gun Min

Botanical Landscapes, Frolics, and Flirtatious Portraiture

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Ken Gun Min, Queen of the Night (Koreatown), 2023. Oil, Korean pigment, silk embroidery thread, beads, crystals. 92 x 70 in.

A painting by Ken Gun Min is an entire journey—multiple simultaneously unfolding journeys actually. An almost aggressive conjuring of extreme, appetizing beauty in mystical, botanical landscapes, frolics, and flirtatious erotic portraiture; an expansion of the inadequate term “mixed media” to include textiles, embroidery, beads, and emotional decoupage; a dizzying, prismatic palette and maximalist sense of pattern and layer; a desire to liberate the history of weaving from its feminized characterization. A suite of art historical references from regal tapestries to the Blakesian Romantic, Netherlandish still life, Eastern and Asian decorative exuberance, and post-Pop psychedelia. Intertwining narratives of queer, non-white masculinity, family history, Los Angeles neighborhoods, and under-reported crimes against the trans community.

Ken Gun Min, Night Cruiser (Chestnut Tree), 2023. Korean pearl pigment, embroidery, oil on canvas. 60 x 40 in
152.4 x 101.6 cm

Sweet Discipline from Koreatown is Min's third consecutive exhibition exploring Los Angeles—following Silverlake Dog Park (2022) and his 2023 Chicago Expo solo presentation Westlake. By celebrating and materially re-creating the kaleidoscopic lushness of his favorite pockets of the city, then populating them with a range of jubilant fantasy men, Min reimagines his adopted hometown as a kind of “queer utopia,” that both exalts in and suberts conventional notions of paradise. 

But like all good stories about sunny Los Angeles, this world has its dark hearts, too. The cornerstone piece Thirteen Missing Ladies refers to a recent rash of disappearances of trans women in the MacArthur Park area, where Min lives. The "ladies" are represented among the most gorgeous, appealing, and evocative of the landscape’s carpet of ornate botanicals—mushrooms, fruit, and flowers—but the work’s deeper message is the tragedy of their invisibility. And that is just one more of the journeys within this work—the dizzying bounces between seductive beauty, tactile wonder, narrative poetry, cultural fearlessness, revelations of loss and grief, and metaphors for transcendence.

You could almost just make a word poem out of just the colors—chartreuse, vermilion, oxblood, indigo, crimson, sienna, emerald, fuchsia, goldenrod, ebony, aubergine, mauve, periwinkle, ultramarine, snow. Asked about this vertiginous twist from eye-candy to thoughtful power, Min tells Flaunt that it’s all according to plan. “It’s candy,” he says, “but candy for adults. Candy with a code—the story behind it. That's my strategy on this Los Angeles trilogy. I'm not usually that big of a storyteller. But in order to draw attention to this series, this is my choice.” 

Ken Gun Min, Stranger by the Lake (Bare Ass Creek), 2023. Oil, Korean pigment, silk embroidery thread, beads, crystals. 92 x 70 in.

Min’s world is based on the real city, its real people and their true stories. “It has to give the viewer a familiar feeling,” Min says, “to bridge my fantasy world to the real world.” He even goes outside to sketch on site, like the old plein air painters of history. “Yeah. All the time. The color scheme, like bougainvillea and all the brownish palm trees, is almost based in real life. So that very tangible element of the choice of the foliage and the background is very real.”

Min offers the example of the 13 missing ladies. “That's all about the MacArthur Park transgender sex worker murders that's not really reported in the newspaper or internet. Because they are “less important” people not on the record. So, I would go out running and jogging like super early 5am or 6am during the pandemic. And then one day I found a mushroom. But it looked like a human ear. Like in Blue Velvet! So I thought that might be a real human year chopped off from a dead body. But then it turns out to be just a mushroom.” 

Min identified himself in a version of the Kyle McLachan character’s experience and started digging out the news articles. “I clearly remember that it was on some local news, but it's gone now. So I experienced something like that. There was a police line. Out of nowhere, just blocking all Wilshire/Alvarado. But then nobody talked about what that was about. Then, I have a friend who went to school nearby. And then he said, oh, that lake. We were told not to get too close to that lake, because that lake is full of the dead bodies of homosexual and transgender people. That's what he was told in like, like third grade. So, like, urban myths might be real.” 

Ken Gun Min, Bathers, 2023. Korean pearl pigment, silk embroidery, oil on canvas. 80 x 60 in. 203.2 x 152.4 cm

Regarding the extreme materiality in the tapestries and textiles, Min calls attention to his first show, Silver Lake Dog Park. “There's a painting called Melancholy and Infinite Sadness that's a portrait of a dog surrounded by flowers. A lovely painting,” he says. “So I got offered that show and then two months before the opening, my mother in law passed away. My mother in law that my partner and I had taken care of for almost 8 years. It's a loss of family, it’s the middle of the pandemic. So I cut out one of my partner's mom's cardigans, with flowers all over it and used it in the painting. So I think that's one of the memorable moments, of how I build my emotional state, embed it as an object, and then bring that object into my work,” he says. 

Rich textiles also play a part in the seductive appeal of the portraiture, in which impossibly handsome men with curvaceous buttocks and long eyelashes and flowers in their hair beckon from plush armchairs as their dainty feet dangle lovely shoes from pointed toes and exotic silks beckon and threaten to slip further from the gorgeous flesh. Fabric in these works is more than a material, it is almost a character. “In the missing ladies piece,” Min continues, “some of the fabric is found from the nearby Goodwill—the kind of drag dress the victims might have worn on their skin. And I deconstructed it, and even used that thread to embroider, and made a rebirth of their story into my painting. I’m unapologetic about using these materials, because this is everything, right?”

Ken Gun Min, Mongolian Wrestler, 2022. Oil on Canvas. 30 1/4 x 22 1/2 in. 77 x 57.1 cm
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Ken Gun Min, Flaunt Magazine, Shulamit Nazarian