You are showing at NADA this year with Laney Contemporary, have you been to the Miami art fairs before?
Yes, off and on since 2005. I took a break for a few years, other years I’ve come back for special projects.
As an artist, what is your experience here and seeing your work in this context?
There’s good and bad, but I always try to understand how my work looks in a bigger context. Also, to be seen in a different context with different viewers is really important. At this point, I’ve been here so many times that I’m trained to see what’s good, what’s bad, and when not to get too disappointed. For me, it’s been really great practice, but I know what to avoid.
Your work is done in so many materials and formats. How do you know when a piece should be 2-D or 3-D, what material it should be made from, etc?
I’m a painter originally. I ditched oil on canvas a long time ago because materiality is really important to me. The work on paper, people kind of see it as practice or not as serious compared to oil painting. I struggle with that and I try to change peoples’ minds through my medium, but at the same time it’s not always my job. You have to incorporate with the educators, dealers–it takes a lot of peoples’ work to change that mindset. All my work on canvas was done in grad school. When I was a painter in Korea I also used oil on canvas. But then I shifted to materials and I had to re-adopt and work on it for a long time to feel that I owned that material. Hanji paper, which is Korean organic mulberry paper, is what I use with acrylic paint, which for me is a very American material. It gives me a great backbone. Materials speak to me, and I really love that material. I’ve been doing that for a long time and that’s what my work is known for. Then I realized there is something about the material that has its own identity. The imagery can be shifted on other surfaces and that gives people a connection to understanding the imagery. My imagery can be on any surface, but I chose to work on paper. When I found out that the mentality of 2-D is like a cocky boyfriend because it’s on canvas or paper in a beautiful gallery setting, I realized people get a little scared of that. I think because it’s not doing anything, and an art object in a gallery setting makes people afraid to go in the white box space. I thought there had to be another way the imagery could be more free and friendly, so I started looking at other materials and surfaces that are more friendly. I was thinking about painting on the surfaces of objects, like ceramics which are actually really great because it has a lot of rich tradition in Eastern and Western decor.
So I started working with ceramic around five or six years ago and then focus on the surface quality while not so much worrying about the forms. The worse thing that could happen in your studio work becomes the best thing that could happen, so I might as well just learn how to do it because it became such a handicap for me in trying to schedule with different studio assistants. I spent some time learning how to throw, how different craft is from the Fine Art world. People experienced at ceramics are so worried about throwing perfectly and then they see me and freak out when they see me chopping things or deconstructing. For me, it was also like a social study of peoples’ mindset. In the clay studio, they called it Functional vs. Decorative, so to them what I do is decorative. They were functional and highly protected and so fixated on perfection and symmetry. They really worshipped that. But to me, surface quality is high art, but to them it’s decorative. It gave me a lot to think about in my work in terms of traditional vs. non-tradition, Eastern, Western, and also how people in the community see the object. In Fine Art we have fine art vs. commercial art, and those categorizations become so interesting for me to understand, which makes it a social study. I get irritated, but then excited, and being constantly in-between makes it the right medium for me. I’m constantly making things that are harder to recognize or identify.
Even yesterday at the fair, someone said one of my pieces looked like a teapot and wanted to know if it was functional. It’s influenced by functional pottery but it’s not actually a teapot. It’s a sculpture. And this person kept arguing that it had to be function, so the dealer at the booth was kind of irritated. At the same time, I thought I must be doing something right because people are having those conversations. That’s exactly why I’m borrowing from the teapot shape. That’s the starting point to understand something. If you give someone nothing to understand, they have less information to generate something in their imagination, but with this they can relate it to their own experience. I look at historic art, as well as a hot sauce label in a grocery store.
So I feel that painting or drawing on ceramics gives me freedom. Material is important when it’s connected to whatever you’re trying to talk about. The image can also be shifting and moving around rather than residing on one surface, such as a canvas. Painting can be very guarded, but once I move that image to a different surface, people can bring their own experiences and make relationships. It helps people drop that guard.
I’ve always admired the way your work mixes pop culture, history, East and West, etc. Are there big anchor point of influence that you work around or is it more intuitive?
It’s everyday life influences and inspiration. I don’t have a big influence at the moment, but I look at the things around me. A friend sent me an article on artnet about that banana (Basel, 2019) and I was thinking about my own banana work–but the banana as a point of departure to talk about second and third generation of Asian-Americans as “yellow” outside and “white” inside, and how the way they think is very Americanized, but then there are still outside categorizations of those people. I borrowed the banana from Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground album cover and then I made a ceramic form of it and put it with a masked piece that had a form based on African masks. I painted the surfaces bright yellow, then drew Korean folk art style on all the surfaces. So I’ve been thinking about those icons and the color yellow in my work. I used to be really obsessed with peaches and drawing peaches everywhere because Atlanta’s a big peach city. But we don’t see peaches at all except in grocery stores. We don’t see peaches anywhere else. So I have my own imagination of peach trees because in Korean mythology it is a symbol of protection from evil. So that big, iconic thing for me has shifted, and I’ve been thinking about my color themes like yellow and brown, where before it was blue and white. It keeps rotating depending on what’s interesting. If you’re a creative person and can’t really control that, you can think about what you want to do–even when I’m folding the laundry or cleaning my son’s room, I think about something else related that eventually comes into my work. It’s always there.
What work and artists have you seen here that you enjoy the most?
I like so many artists, that’s my problem. Nam June Paik’s work is interesting, as well as how people react to his work. He’s outside the sculpture realm, but inside he changes what’s going on. That’s probably older what’s going on right now. The most noticeable moment was how people react to the piece – sometimes it pisses me off, sometimes it’s interesting. I’m curious about the generation gap. I’ve wanted to make something that’s constantly re-evaluated and re-interpreted. My work has a lot of references reflecting present moments, quite opposite of classical art for example. My work is almost the opposite of that and I wonder if it’s good or bad, but that’s the tendency I like–things constantly shifting and changing and people reacting to that. So when I look at Nam June Paik’s work, I feel it has both of those things. It draws in younger and older audiences, and it has so much energy. His work is kind of the opposite of mine, but I connected with it for that reason.
Do you have anything coming up that you want to promote?
I have a solo project space exhibition at Derek Eller gallery in New York this January. I had a studio visit not too long ago and am excited about the opportunity. I am also in the big group show, State of Art II at Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas