Suk Choo Kim smiles like a happy baby. At 62, his hair is wispy and silver, but his broad face is still smooth and rosy like the persimmons heaped on the granite counter at which we sit. I open one of his folios, a black 8 x 10 archival paper envelope with a dozen or so photo prints inside, and gingerly lift the pictures in my fingertips, wishing I had brought cotton gloves. In one image, mercury-grey clouds roil above a bleak, white house anchored on a chartreuse hillside. Grinning, he takes the photo from me, wags it in his fingers and says I needn't be so careful. He rubs his hands together and explains that the photographs should be touched, that holding them is part of the pleasure.
Kim is an engineer by training and a businessman by trade -- he is the owner of CPR Aquatic, an aquarium supply house -- and as an artist, he's in the enviable position of being his own patron, as his day-job finances his passion and the armory of equipment and supplies it requires. Still, for years he was deflated if his photos didn't fetch a high price. Brooks Jensen, photographer and editor of LensWork, introduced him to the idea of selling his work in folios for a relative song. The object was not validation through big-money sales, but for more people, some of whom might not otherwise buy art, to own the work. It was a revelation for Kim, who says that he'd been "insecure" before this philosophical shift. His hands fly back and forth as he shares his plans to make 40 limited edition sets of archival folios and sell them for around $150 for a set of 12 prints. He chuckles a little at how surprised people are by the price. Recently, he even broke up a set to sell a pair of images to a bartender. "All I want to do," he says, "is to make images so people can see it and collect it, and I want my images to be part of their everyday life."
Perhaps because of the ubiquity of photo images and cameras, even on our phones, audiences don't always give the medium the same respect as painting or sculpture. It's an idea Kim plays with and against in the folio entitled "Wall," in which sections of paint-splattered, rusted and battered walls are photographed like painterly compositions.
As David Swisher, curator of the Humboldt Group Collection, points out, "There's still this sense that if I take oil paints and make something, it's this magical thing, but photography is something any jackass could do." He illustrates the distinction between fine art photography and other types, noting that with "conventional photographs, you take a picture of something. [Fine art] photographers use cameras, lights and ideas to create something." Nonetheless, even among artists, photography has not always enjoyed equal status. According to Swisher, "Photography was a craft, and it had to claw its way into the art world." He credits Alfred Stiegletz with pushing for the medium's validity in the 1930s, and adds that it was only accepted as high art once "galleries, museums and dealers and critics decided to support it." And yet the same system of commerce and criticism that granted photography its wide acceptance as an art form can be a yoke on individual artists, both financially and creatively.
Winding through the house Kim designed, it's clear he wants to try everything. An ersatz gallery lines the hallway floor and 6-foot panoramas lean vertically against the wall. The tangerine-walled studio is anchored by a tanning-bed-sized printer and crammed with piles of matted images and loose proofs, as well as large prints that have been painted over with thick, super-saturated color that resembles melted crayon. While it no longer seems to hold him back, Kim laments how galleries can pressure artists to establish a style or subject and stick with it, as opposed to following their appetite for the new. It's a sentiment fellow photographic artist Jim Lowry echoes. Artists are in danger, Lowry says, of becoming a "product" the gallery owner doesn't want to change. He adds, "I get bored if I can't change ... and I can't see [my audience] not getting bored." Lowry has escaped this peril partly through the Arcata Artisans co-op, of which he is a founding member. He laughs saying, "Arcata Artisans is really my petri dish." The gallery's co-op structure and low overhead releases it from the financial burdens that push conventional galleries to show only high-priced work. He also notes with wonder that the gallery is thriving in a recession market, supported by a community that's hungry to buy local. Like Kim, Lowry enjoys the more direct connection with a broader audience and the freedom to experiment with less expensive pieces. "It's almost like guerrilla art marketing," Lowry says.
This week, Suk Choo Kim is showing his own work at Upstairs Gallery, in Umpqua Bank, where he is curator. He's actually filling in for a painter friend who had to back out, with an Arts Arcata exhibit of his work entitled "Great Britain." He's already dreaming about the next project, an installation in which visitors would move through and brush against a kind of photographic bamboo forest. "Art shouldn't be something you cannot touch. If it gets damaged," he laughs, "make another one!"
Arts! Arcata is Friday, Dec. 9, 6-9 p.m.