KangHee Kim: Dreamer at Benrubi Gallery

BY Stephanie Cash, March 3, 2020

Like a crystallized daydream, KangHee Kim’s photographs seem to capture serendipitous moments and surreal landscapes. Her exhibition Dreamer, on view at Benrubi Gallery through March 7, contains 12 digitally composed photographs in which it’s not always clear whether fantasy is encroaching on reality or the other way around. 

Kim is literally a “dreamer,” having moved from Korea to the U.S. with her family in 2005, at the age of 14. Her DACA status means she lives in a state of limbo – she can’t leave the country and be guaranteed reentry. Like many immigrants, Kim can only dream about her home of origin. In interviews, she has said that her works provide a form of “surreal escapism.” The scenes are indeed dreamy and surreal, like vacations of the mind. Instead of constructing images with personal references or specific photographs of Korea, Kim taps into a broader notion of dreaming and yearning. The human-sized scale of the works – about half of them are six feet in height – makes it easy to imagine stepping into their alternative realities. 

Kim is able to travel within the U.S., and one striking photograph was taken while on a highway out West, where a sign overhead  reads “Hope ½ mile,” and a gauzy rainbow reinforces the promise. But actual locations don’t typically matter. In the mid-size Dreamers Dream, a palm tree pops up through the clouds into a clear cerulean sky, while in Hope St, the street sign hangs from a traffic light floating in the clouds. 

Some works convey optimism, as when Kim renders the improbable possible in works like Twilight Dusk: a hole in a chain-link fence is the same shape as a distant tree, whose branches cleave in just the right way to reveal a crescent moon. Similarly, a nondescript prefab hotel in Texas is unremarkable, save for two windows that perfectly capture a glowing sunrise over a body of water that is nowhere in the vicinity.

Kim has attributed much of her success to her Instagram feed, where the duds and the doozies intermingle, and the artistic process is laid bare. No doubt her work has mass appeal – she has received commissions from the likes of Nike, Hennessey, and American Express – and they can verge on facile. But when she hits it right, the impossible dream seems within reach.