Traditional images of Jesus Christ tend to come off on the somber side. There’s Jesus on the cross, the shepherd morosely carrying a broken sheep on his shoulders, and the footprints-in-the-sand image, conjuring up a benevolent picture—and yet, still a faceless one. On the flipside, contemporary art leaps in a different direction when reimagining the Christ—it gets creative, political, and sometimes outright anti-orthodox (look no further than Andres Serrano’s incendiary Piss Christ).
But Yongsung Kim is trying for a different approach. Indeed, the Korean artist is taking on the steep challenge of changing how the world pictures the crucified religious leader.
Kim became a Christian in middle school and a cartoonist as a young adult. When he was 20, he had a dream that God asked him, “What are you doing with the gifts I’ve given you?” From there he felt compelled to paint an image of Christ he hadn’t seen very often. “So many depictions of Christ are already dark and somber,” he tells The Creators Project earnestly. “I want my paintings to share some of the light and hope that Jesus offers.” A simple message, but a sincere one.
Each painting shows the religious figurehead reveling in light, or offering it (sometimes directly to the viewer). Even the shouldered-sheep image, reimagined by Kim, feels less disheartening and a little lighter, suggesting that there’s something redemptive running parallel to that traditional image of pain.
Recently, the artist flew to Utah for a Q&A as part of a collaboration with Foundation Arts. Over 150 people filled the gallery at the University Mall in Orem as Kim spoke about the creative process behind his paintings. “Every time someone asked a question about him, or his art, he said he wanted people to find hope through his work,” Tammi Garlick, Director of Gallery Operations, tells The Creators Project. “He’s not had any formal training either—he said it was God who taught him how to paint.”
It’d be easy to dismiss this irony-free work as of another religious enthusiast with an agenda—but let’s let the work speak for itself for a moment. Kim seeks to encourage. He believes something sincerely and shares it, and he specifically doesn’t preach a message as much as he aims to give “courage and hope to those who have suffered deeply.” Neither does he address every controversial idea about Jesus’s character, nor attempt the greater problems pervading the debate about art’s place in religion, or about the more difficult elements of it.
And yet, maybe he provides a glance at the faith as a little less of a burden than an invitation. “Maybe God isn’t particular about what medium hope appears through,” continues Garlick. “And if it’s through art, then surely it would be something like this—inoffensive and bright.” If nothing else, Kim takes something old and storied, and does something new. And that's art.
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