The Chicago-based artist on the illusion of painting and finding community.
A lot of your recent work really focuses on the materials of certain objects and recreates really specific textures, like ceramic figures. What about those objects sparked your interest?
I don't really worry about intentionally directing myself to certain areas of focus–I just let things happen. When I first got into vintage porcelain figurines, I was in the second year of my MFA program, and my school really pushed us to explore things you haven’t touched on in the past. At one point, I was thinking, "OK, I seem to like these porcelain figurines, and I've been saving images of them onto my computer." I had a whole archive of them in a file even when I hadn't made anything about them yet.
It was a habit to save images I found on the internet, and I was trying to figure out why I was so attracted to this kind of object. I think it goes all the way back to my childhood when I used to live with my parents before I came to the States to study. They had very specific interests and taste in things. And if I had to sort of categorize what they were into, I think they both liked things that were a bit fancy. Both my parents had a common interest in things that were well-made and crafted. When I was looking at the figurines, I thought, “It's like a still life, but if I crop and magnify the object, it could almost feel lifelike.” I had to bring them into my art practice.
You seem to really like tricking the eye by making certain materials mimic the look of other, very different materials.
I would say I do that because I'm looking at other artists I admire who are interested in a similar way of working. These artists were creating trompe l'oeil sculptures–half of my practice is devoted to making 3D works, and the other half is devoted to making two-dimensional paintings.
Sometimes, I think it also has to do with my budget. Let's say I want to take a huge block of white marble to a shop and have it carved out. I know some contemporary artists do that, and I love those works and seeing them in person, but even if I had the resources, I think I prefer doing things domestically in my studio with my own hands.
I question myself and ask: "Am I really into these high-end or expensive things that my parents were sort of into?" When I look at an artist like Charles Ray, I really enjoy seeing the subtle humor in his sculptures. I take this very cheap industrial-grade insulation foam and fabricate it into something people might think is expensive stone. There's a humor that I want to put into my work, whether it's my paintings or sculptures.
Shifting gears a little bit: You grew up in Korea but have been based in Chicago for a long time. What originally took you to Chicago, and why did you decide to stay?
Not the weather [laughs]! I came to Chicago to finish my degree, an undergraduate program in painting. I liked the community, and I've never really experienced the West Coast, but I did go to school on the East Coast in New York. That was ten years ago, so things might be different now, but my impression of Chicago was that there is more of this very tight community than in other cities.
When I was done with my BFA, I could have returned to Korea, but instead, I decided to apply for grad school at the same school, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I did two more years in the program and in the meantime, I got this studio. Things have accumulated to a point where I cannot imagine myself even moving to another state [laughs]. So it might be that things have gotten convenient for me to stay in Chicago and work. But I think it really has to do with the people I've gotten to know over the years, and it's almost impossible to imagine starting all over somewhere else. I'm 35, and this is my tenth winter in Chicago, so I've spent about one-third of my life in the city. Chicago has become my base, and I don't feel the need to be anywhere else.
Most people couldn't make 10 winters in Chicago! I was scrolling through your Instagram earlier and I noticed that you DJ on occasion.
Yeah! I started like everyone else–as a bedroom DJ. And then I started taking my equipment out of my bedroom to play at smaller gigs for people that I know, or at small events. Then I played at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago one time and that started me off as a regular for the school. They've basically designated me as their DJ, so I'm there whenever they need music.
There's something about DJing where I find relief afterward. For example, my wife used to be a classical ballet dancer, which means she has to be on a stage live in front of people where you cannot undo mistakes. I think, with my studio work, I only bring it outside my door when it is ready. I don't get to do these live performances with variables as much. But in my studio, I always felt like I was in a comfort zone, and although I try to get out of my comfort zone within my practice, there's something that feels safe about it.
DJing is very nerve-wracking. As soon as I queue up the first track, it has to continue. There's no stopping. I want to do it well every time I do it, so I get nervous. I'm sweating when I'm DJing. But there's this relief that I get after a successful set, which I don't usually feel making a painting because I'm painting until I think it's perfect.
Other than music, what are some of the others things you really love engaging with?
My latest interest is going out into the woods with my wife with our telephoto lens to spot wild animals. Two years ago, I probably would have said: "Oh, that sounds so boring. Why would you spend hours looking at birds or squirrels and take photos of them?"
It was my wife who first got into bird photography. We're in Chicago, so we only have three good months to see these birds because they don't want to hang out during winter when it's cold. But when we're out there, we're out there for hours taking photos of these birds, especially during summer. Sometimes we find these photos that are just so special. It's like how I choose to paint some of these figurines. Certain ones have their own emotions.
OK, last one: Is there anything you wish people asked you more often?
I immediately take myself to an imaginary opening of my exhibition because that's where I have most of these conversations. What do people not ask? I don't know. I guess if I think about it they don't feel the need to know the background of my work, which is my life and family.
Both my parents are Korean and are based in Korea right now. My dad used to be an actor, and that's in the past tense because he's in his seventies, and he's not as active in films anymore. My life was different living in Korea. It's not comparable to Hollywood because I think Hollywood has way more attention placed on it, but I did have more attention growing up than most other kids probably did.
I first decided to move to the United States to finish my degree, but I ended up working full-time as an artist in Chicago. People would always ask me about or bring up my dad when I was in Korea, and I was very, very tired of that. Someone would come to my show and not talk about my work at all but talk about my dad or my family or things other than my work. It's different here. But maybe it's just that the world has become so standardized that wherever you go, you meet different people from different worlds. Maybe it's necessary to have the opportunity to give people insight into my heritage, my background, the influence that my parents had on me.