Commonwealth and Council presents Spartan Ruin, a new exhibition of sculptures and prints by Young Joon Kwak stemming from their term as 2020-21 Artist-in-Residence in Critical Race Studies at Michigan State University. Kwak recast the campus’s iconic statue of The Spartan—itself a bronze replica of Leonard Jungwirth’s 1945 terra cotta original—in cold-cast metal as a way of working through, and beyond, the familiar iconography of the Neoclassical militant. Kwak’s exhibition stages a recuperative reinterpretation of the affectionately-dubbed “Sparty” through different techniques of material transmutation, fragmentation, reproduction, and shifts in scale and orientation. Transposed to Los Angeles, Kwak’s works meld impressions of Sparty with those of the artist’s own body, further dismantling the idol in ways that are as disorienting as they are erotic.
Kwak created silicone molds of the statue to produce reverse-cast “skins” that capture the slightest surface details and textures on the statue, affording an intimate view of its construction and other human interactions with the statue. Marks made by the original artist’s hand in modeling the statue, the ritual of pennies being glued to different parts of its body by athletes praying for good luck, and signs of its wear at the hands of time and the elements all shed light on its vulnerability and liveness, and with it, the potential for its reimagining and reconstruction.
While faithful to their subject, these fragmentary skins comprise a vivid, seductive ruin which we replenish with our own desires. Kwak teases moments of camp from Sparty’s body, further destabilizing whatever staid and stoic masculinity might yet remain among these dissociated vestiges. Kwak zeroes in on Sparty’s buttocks, on its hand gathering its skirt to the groin as it appears to sashay forward into battle. Sparty’s idealized washboard abs now read almost like drag hyperbole on macho athleticism. A larger-than-life-size breastplate (made using a cast from Sparty’s chest) glimmers in the gallery, bejeweled in holographic crystals—an iridescent skin that shifts in form and color. Emerging from the shattered disarray of Sparty’s shed skins as a psychedelic portal of multivalent hue and beguiling texture, this twinkling, buxom armor celebrates a glorious, queer state of being—prevailing in constant becoming, fierce and formless, born of light and nascent shape.
The monumental scale of Kwak’s monoprints invite viewers to lose themselves among inchoate marblings and striation—diffuse intimations of body parts loosely held within the blast radius of Kwak’s inky reimagining. Pools of sticky blots, perhaps tracking Kwak’s fingers dabbling sensually across the sculpture’s naked contours, anchor the bits of limbs and torso in configurations both evocative and provocative.
Accompanying the exhibition is Spartan Ruin: A Reader. Available as a free takeaway booklet and an online pdf, the reader is edited by Jeanne Dreskin and contains texts by art historian Karin Zitzewitz, a piece co-authored by Dreskin and Kwak, and a roundtable with members of MSU’s Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) community.
Kwak would like to extend a special thanks to the following people for their support in creating this body of work: Marvin Astorga, Lauren Batdorff, Jeanne Dreskin, Michael Earl, Nicolei Gupit, Michael McCune, Los Medina-Diaz, Walter Peebles, Gala Porras-Kim, Charlie Roses, and Karin Zitzewitz.
Young Joon Kwak (b. 1984, Queens, New York; lives and works in Los Angeles) received an MFA from the University of Southern California in 2014, an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago in 2010, and a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007. They are the founder of Mutant Salon, a roving beauty salon/platform for experimental performance collaborations with their community of queer, trans, femme, POC artists and performers, and lead performer in the electronic-dance-noise band Xina Xurner.
Solo exhibitions have been held at Union Gallery, Michigan State University, East Lansing (2021); Cerritos College Art Gallery, CA (2020); Cloaca Projects, San Francisco (2019); Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, Canada (2018); Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, CA (2018); and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles (2017, 2014). They have performed at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco (2019); Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa, India (2018); Art Museum of the National University of Colombia, Bogotá (2018); Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2018); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016); The Broad, Los Angeles (2016); and Le Pavillon Vendôme Centre d’Art Contemporain, Clichy, France (2016). Selected group exhibitions have been held at Hauser & Wirth, New York (2021), Tufts University Art Galleries, Boston (2021); Lyles & King, New York (2021); deli gallery, New York (2020); Antenna Space, Shanghai (2019); Gas, Los Angeles (2018); 47 Canal, New York (2018); Anonymous Gallery, Mexico City (2018); and Smack Mellon, New York (2016). They are the recipient of a Korean Arts Foundation of America (KAFA) Artist Award (2020), Rema Hort Mann Foundation’s Emerging Artist Grant (2018) and Artist Community Engagement Grant (2016), and Art Matters Foundation Grant (2016). Their next solo exhibition will be held at the Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles in November 2021.