Donut Give Up On Your Dreams 

South Korean artist Jae Yong Kim sculpts donuts to remind himself why he doesn't sell them

When the 2008 recession hit, South Korean artist Jae Yong Kim, living in New York City at the time, took multiple monetary bodyblows. He and his family lost a pile of money in the stock market crash, and the cash he'd invested in a new restaurant in the city's iconic Meatpacking District disappeared for good.

"I thought about quitting my job as a professor and as an artist," said Kim. "Forget about the dream, forget about being an artist and just open a donut shop with a friend of mine, because he'd been looking at opening a donut shop for many years."

Kim sat in on hours of discussions about the potential shop, and soon his head was spinning with financial terminology, which he described as a language he couldn't speak. That fug of jargon sparked a realization for Kim, who saw a Scrooge-like future for himself if he gave up on art in pursuit of money. He turned down a stake in the donut shop and headed to his studio to craft a statement against temptation, telling himself, "Let's go back to the basics, and let's make a donut out of clay."

click to enlarge JAE YONG KIM, DONUT EVER FORGET ME (DETAIL), 2018, CERAMIC, LUSTER GLAZE, GLAZE, AND SWAROVSKI CRYSTALS, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND LYONS WIER GALLERY, NEW YORK
  • Jae Yong Kim, Donut Ever Forget Me (detail), 2018, ceramic, luster glaze, glaze, and Swarovski crystals, Courtesy of the artist and Lyons Wier Gallery, New York

More than 10 years later, Kim's Donut Ever Forget Me exhibition at the Boise Art Museum is a continuation of that moment. His beautifully sculpted and hand-painted donuts—which now number in the thousands and have been displayed across the globe—embody the allure of what one might call "selling out."

"I grew up a Christian, so [the donut] is more of, it's like an apple in the Garden of Eden. Because once you have a bite, you'll see things differently. And I didn't want to to have a bite of something I'm not supposed to as an artist," Kim said, standing in front of a display of 483 of his brightly colored donuts at BAM, mounted on a wall in neat rows. "...Knowing me, I thought that if I go in that direction I'll do well, but I'll be very unhappy."

It's not lost on him that taking a bite out of the donuts he makes today is all but impossible, and perhaps that's part of their appeal. In addition to confronting his materialistic side, Kim said making the donuts challenged him to face one of his fears: using color. In the early 2000s, when he was sculpting large, expressive snails in grayscale, Kim purposefully avoided using color in order to keep a long-worried-over secret.

"Back then I was kind of hiding, but now I'm out of the closet—I'm colorblind," he said, laughing. In America, that may not be such a big deal, but in South Korea, Kim was barred from attending art school because he tested positive for the trait.

click to enlarge JAE YONG KIM, DONUT EVER FORGET ME (DETAIL), 2018, CERAMIC, LUSTER GLAZE, GLAZE, AND SWAROVSKI CRYSTALS, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND LYONS WIER GALLERY, NEW YORK
  • Jae Yong Kim, Donut Ever Forget Me (detail), 2018, ceramic, luster glaze, glaze, and Swarovski crystals, Courtesy of the artist and Lyons Wier Gallery, New York

Still, you'd never know by looking at his sculptures, which are bright and bold in their use of both color and pattern, layering Jackson Pollock-esque drips with intricate Andy Warhol-type dotwork. Because the donuts are painted with underglaze, Kim said the colors he uses while painting look different than the finished product after firing, anyway.

"I don't really understand the end result but I use it anyway, because it looks good at that point. And the once it's fired, sometimes it looks good, sometimes it's not. So I end up usually throwing out many, many donuts," he said.

A share of the finished donuts are studded with Swarovski crystals, which Kim discovered while partnering with a jeweler years ago on a separate project. He has a particular affection for them, describing them as a kind of "makeup" that it takes a certain eye to apply. Kim has multiple assistants both in the U.S. and South Korea—they make the donut forms, while he does the more detailed work—but he doesn't trust anyone else to apply the crystals. He recalled that years ago while working in New York, he used to carry his crystals and unfinished donuts on the subway in a lunchbox, completing the sculptures between stops.

"It was fun. People might think, 'What the? What is he doing, he's weird!' but I liked that, I saved all the time that I could possibly save," he said.

There are plenty of other subtle, personal touches in Donut Ever Forget Me. The donuts come in a variety of shapes, from hearts and squares to circles with devil horns or rounded ears. Kim added the horns after seeing the film The Devil Wears Prada—he's a big fan of the brand, having bought three pairs of Prada shoes in grad school after swearing to invest in art—and the rounded ears recall the teddy bears of his childhood, which he credits for helping him see the world in three dimensions.

At the end of the day, Kim looks at his donuts with with same pride he did more than a decade ago. Admiring the installation at BAM, which will be on display though Sunday, July 7, he said, "I love donuts. This is what I love. Working with clay and making art is what I'd love to do for the rest of my life."

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