I met Namwon Choi when I was in my junior year at the University of Georgia. She recently had moved to the States then, and one of my professors introduced us to each other, just merely because we both were ‘Korean - women - art - students.’ And he was not too off in his projection of how we would connect.
We usually meet over meals to catch up on things as friends and artists, and this was a good opportunity for me to actually visit her studio and intentionally talk about her practice.
Currently, Namwon is a MFA candidate at Georgia State University. Past two and half years, her figurative paintings have been forming in ways that are more physical, and perhaps less literal. She is battling with yes, ‘physicality’ of painting and imagery of figures. In the midst, her insertion of materials like broken mirrors, glass panels, and copper plate becomes another form of painting that depicts a different dimensionality.
After a playful entrance to her studio with my Tin Drum lunch bag (see the video post below), I gasped as I entered her studio.
That was my first reaction.
Something intense and grueling was going on in her studio. Confrontational eyes, physical marks, wings, and shadows in her paintings were about to just burst at me.
We quickly opened our lunch bowls - Mango Stir-Fry and Masaman Curry this time. I like noodles, but you cannot really go wrong with rice and some good savory sauce on top. We finished the food pretty quickly.
When I shared about this artist project idea with Namwon, she bursted out in laughter. She said, “it’s brilliant! You should subtitle the project, ‘Does art feed you?’” 예술이 밥 먹여주냐?
There is a saying “예술이 밥 먹여주냐? Does art feed you?” in Korean. It is a sarcastic saying that being an artist is not a practical, sensible choice. Typical parents would tell their children exactly that.
She is right. I should subtitle it that -
So the conversation started with a usual this and that as friends would talk. It was, in fact, challenging for me to put our lunch in context of me really getting to know Namwon’s work. Often, I would alter our conversation saying, “so… your painting there…”
And here it goes - a few things we talked about!
Gyun Hur (GH): Namwon, in the past few years of your MFA pursuit, I have seen your paintings evolve. Let me trace back to your thesis in Korea. Although I never saw your older paintings in person, your figurative paintings in print struck me as something that was familiar (we understand figures, and each figure was stacked up to create a landscape sort), yet your fused techniques and aesthetic sensibilities were quite provocative. I see that same provocativeness in your current paintings as well. One thing that stands out to me is an intensity of ‘gaze’ that you depict through eyes in your paintings. That particular painting is quite confrontational with your eyes pinched. Could you elaborate more on that?
Namwon Choi (NC): Now, who would have guessed the word ‘provocativeness’ can be applied on my paintings? I mean do they really go together even? What I mean by that is, it’s a surprise, a nice surpirse that something that I would have never guessed or intended … and from that point, the conversation begins. The gaze painting, I titled it ” - o ” which means below zero, below ground level as a metaphor of whom I am now. Also as an Asian woman artist in America, inevitably certain reading of me is applied and it will be. I had no control or choice on the appearance that I was given, so here I am, take it world!
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The conversation goes on.
One thing that I appreciate about having Namwon around as a friend and an artist colleague is that we can talk about specific struggles as a minority woman artist. Again and again, I run into pre-assumptions and expectations from others, outside of my understanding and intention, and I find that limiting and frustrating at times. I find that African-American artists are really refining their voice as artists with references of the past and present, yet we Asians do not talk about our struggles much. We do not know how to talk about it. Really. Namwon and I attempted -
GH: We talked about ‘feminism’ in a sense that could be relevant to contemporary young women of colors. And as I remember, our conclusion regarding these specific frustrations of being women, being specifically ‘oriental’ women - that it perhaps gives us more room to have empathy and understanding. What have been specific struggles for you as you enter more intensively in this art world? What do you find in your paintings, a spiritual revelation sort (as we talked about)?
NC: Well, first of all, it is too early for me to say what my experience as an Asian woman artist in the contemporary art world is about. It is more like a ‘life hits you with a brick’ experience, I would say. And so as a woman, we take that as a ‘women-only-matter.’ However, I recently realize it is not. Everybody is dealing and fighting on his/her own battle. Thankfully, I am from a country overcoming a tremendous hardship and the spirit of it runs in my blood. I am fighting my own battle soley in my studio everyday and if that is called as ‘one to one combat,’ or a ‘confession,’ that would be fairly well described.
GH: I want to specifically ask you about the painting of your hair and scalp. It is revealing in a sense that you are exposing perhaps one of most unseen and vulnerable parts of your body that is not literal - a top of your scalp?! And each hair strand is divided in a way as if fingers (figuratively) were trying to find a way that hair was supposed to fall… it is quite a beautiful painting. Could you tell me a little more about this painting?
NC: The scalp painting is my interpretation of Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows.” My reading of that particular painting was that the wheat field was not just there dumbly waited to feed the crows, yet the power of the germination of each tiny grain scares the crows away, as if exorcising demons. So one morning, I brushed my hair as I always do and I realized that act (‘everything is going to be alright act’, if you will), a patting on my head with my own fingers as if my mom did when I was little, was somehow very comforting. So I parted my hair just like the path in the middle of the Wheatfield in the Van Gogh painting and all of sudden, the color contrast of the scalp and dark hair seemed like yelling at me, ‘Do a painting!’
GH: Your paintings are teasing the audience in a way where paintings become a sculptural dimension that creates a shadow. That is quite powerful while perhaps it diminishes the image? Painting at the end of the day is meant for an optical illusion for us to believe in an alternative reality, and you are creating this shadow that distorts that idea.
NC: I like it when my paintings get challenged (in other words, dealing with limitations) by the excitement from the making of different objects with different materials. It is difficult to achieve the presence of three dimensional art work gives in painting. No matter how hard I try to make a hole on canvas, it is a still flat canvas. So I borrowed an old Chinese shadow puppet show idea by painting images on a clear glass and let the painted images cast their shadow. That way, painting becomes beyond two dimensional as if it takes you to where you can sense more than what has painted. These are hands painted on a a clear glass linked and connected ever so tightly, but look again, they are wings!
and there, I surely saw wings.
Thank you, Namwon, for making time for this conversation, and thank you Tin Drum Cafe for sponsoring our lunch and also giving the artist a gift card!!!
Next artist is Mark Wentel. Stay tuned!