Underlying the popular disdain for monochrome painting is the belief that looking at a single panel of color for very long is a dumb thing to do. The artists who make monochrome paintings are well aware of this. Sometimes they call their works "Untitled," as if to push to the very edge the unlikely act of staring at a colored piece of fabric or wood with no promise of the view changing. The funny thing about this is that as static as monochrome paintings seem to be, they make things happen, more so than most pictorial scenes or abstracts. They incite rage and devotion; a whole play, Yasmina Reza's Art, was devoted to a white one. They are an artist's way of weeding out the looky-loos and communing strictly with those willing to take a leap of faith. For the high-stakes nature of this interaction alone, monochrome is a fascinating category.
But it is also a draw because of its surprising variety in the face of so much seeming blankness. Mystics and ascetics claim to have sublime spiritual experiences with saturated color canvases. Formalists and structuralists insist on the honesty, purity, and directness of a hue and a shape and a gesture, or, as often, on the conditional nature of those very things if you reflect on them long enough.
Byron Kim first came to prominence in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. He showed a grid of dozens of panels painted the colors of models' skin during 20-minute sittings. These, now up in Kim's traveling show at the Henry Art Gallery, testify to the imprecision both of race and of skin color (which body parts was he using?), while tempting the viewer to "match" herself to one or another, to be seen, pinned down, and documented: known.
Color is the perfect vehicle for nuance, with its infinite, linguistically inexpressible shades, and the way it changes when put in light, shadow, or next to another color. The painting term "local color" refers to the color of an object without the influence of light or shadow, the color that is, but that color is little more than a Platonic ideal. Real color is a performer, not a prop, and Kim both asserts and questions its power as a conveyor of the essences of things. His contribution to the history of monochrome was pairing its indeterminacy with specific titles that referenced small, playful, everyday moments (Miss Mushinski [First Big Crush]; Metropolitan Pool, Williamsburg, Brooklyn).
And then just as he is beginning to apply a formula, he changes it. He makes a series of streaky paintings of the sky, one every Sunday, that bear short notes about his life and, sometimes, about how different the sky looks from the painting. He takes multiple photographs of a scene and layers them into a drug-induced vision. He constructs an homage to his hero, Ad Reinhardt, a night portrait looking upward at silhouetted trees that only become visible slowly against the dark of the forest—a thoroughly romantic painting that dispenses, blissfully, with truth, its colors having eloped into that other realm.