Interview with Saatch Art
Interview with Hi Peggy
Finding Beauty in Decay with Wonmi Seo
Artist Wonmi Seo describes her painting practice as the formation of disassembly. Based in Seoul, South Korea, her studio sees collage, drawing and painting practices regularly combined into one, creating artworks both inspired by and in reaction to traditional painting practices throughout history. Exploring the overarching theme of death, Wonmi deftly articulates tenebrism and tactual methodologies to execute artworks that are beautiful conceptually as well as superficially.
Wonmi received her BFA in Painting from Sungkungkwan University, South Korea. She has won several awards for her work including the SDU Art Prize in 2018, and a Creative Support Scholarship from the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture. She has exhibited her works in group shows across Seoul, and had her first solo exhibition at Artspace Boan1942 in 2017.
What are the major themes you pursue in your work?
My works are categorized into three different series. The Anatomy (Facing), Black Curtain and Halloween series. These can be translated into death of the individual, death within history or society, and the celebration of death in modern society. All above are about facing physical death, however the style of painting varies significantly according to whether it’s an experience of an individual, society or a timeline.
I am pursuing the anxiety and insecurity of personal or social experience over death itself. The Anatomy series began from my personal experience of witnessing my brother suffering from Acute Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (AIDP) where he lost a significant amount of weight and muscle. This traumatic experience led to my research on the subject of ‘death’, and later expanded to incorporate ‘death’ as related to the unique history of Korea as a divided region.
How did you first get interested in your medium, and what draws you to it specifically?
Observing and portraying objects visually came naturally to me at an early age, and I ended up attending arts high school where I experimented in oil painting for the first time. I enjoy the flexibility and expressive nature of oil paint, and the time that it takes to dry. In general, I have always preferred depicting people over scenery.
How has your style and practice changed over the years?
I mix a classical style of painting and subject portrayal with a more deconstructed style.
To construct is to destroy. I paint with a repetitive process of construction.
Throughout this process, I seek out the exact right moment of completion, which varies from series to series. Some works are completed at a more realistic state, while others remain abstract.
Inspiration for my colour choices come from various periods in the history of painting. Some derive from a classical use of colour and the Baroque lighting of Caravaggio and Rembrandt, while some are flatter, more modern, and vivid. I constantly develop and search for the most efficient method of expressing the subject matter. Recently I have been working on the Black Curtain series, where every painting is done in a monotone palette, contains surrealistic elements and considers deconstruction within the painting as well as in real life. The tone varies from the classically styled Anatomy series, and from the pop, deconstructive style of the Halloween series.
Can you walk us through your process? Do you begin with a sketch, or do you just jump in? How long do you spend on one work? How do you know when it is finished?
Depending on the series or the characteristics of the work, the process varies. Some starts off with collaging photographs, drawing exercises, and then I go onto the painting process, whereas others may start with a single motif on an empty canvas. Therefore the duration of each work varies significantly too. Despite the size of the work, some are completed in a couple of days, while others may take months. I may start a painting without a sketch when the work values being spontaneous. Even when I do have thorough sketches for the painting, some elements of the painting may change as it evolves. I let the painting itself direct me. Whether I have sketches or not, the final outcome tends to vary from what I have imagined initially and I am satisfied with the change.
The completion of a painting is more of a ‘finding’ — I need to spot that right moment where the painting cries out that it’s done. Stopping to read and understand the painting in depth is the most important part of the process for me.
What are some of your favorite experiences as an artist?
I try to travel for at least a month every year. I prefer non English speaking countries. I enjoy being in an unfamiliar location, where it’s hard to communicate freely, feeling a little naive. When texts and language become drawings and sounds, ordinary streets seem bizarre. I spend most of the time absorbing with my eyes. It allows me to concentrate on people and their expressions; my views are uninterrupted by any knowledge. Coming back to the studio after spending this time away allows me to portray objects with visual honesty and without compromise.
What was the best piece of advice given to you as an artist?
Artist don’t seclude, they work. They are not escaping but participating in the society through their work.
You were born and raised in Seoul. How was it growing up there and how did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Like many other metropolises, Seoul is a concentrated, busy, and hectic city. My generation’s parents tend to be dual-income; therefore, it was common that I stay alone at home and draw by myself. As drawing and painting have been something that I did on most days, I didn’t need a specific event or to make a decision to become an artist. It happened naturally.
Death seems to be an important theme, throughout different projects you worked on. How did this become an important topic for you?
Since I was little, I thought about ‘death’ frequently and was afraid of it. I was curious why others don’t do the same. When I get a sore on my tongue, I continue to feel it, press it. Initially, it stings, then I concentrated on the pain. The sensation itself becomes foreign at last. The same approach applies to my interest towards death. When I continue to be forward towards my fear, it becomes impersonal and I am able to see the landscape of my feelings. In personal experience, my healthy brother, returning from the army (Korean male serves the compulsory military service), suffered from Guillain–Barré syndrome leaving him only the skin and the bone and it left me traumatized.
Black curtain series, inspired by the Korean war, how did the series start?
During the Korean war, my grandfather came down to the South from the North, forming a new family, and had my father. He passed away when my father was 12 of a heart attack.
I have not experienced the war myself; however Korean war has not ended since its outbreak 70 years ago.
As so much has happened in Korean history over the past recent years, each and every Korean family holds the history of Korea, like it is in mine. The family history and the uncertainty in Korean society is the reason I began the ‘Black Curtain’ series. I do not understand how the Korean war could stay in history when it is still on hold today.
Who influenced you the most, when it comes to your work and technique?
I admire classical painters. Caravaggio, Goya, and Rembrandt’s paintings taught me the characteristics of an oil painting. However, as a sole image, the Chauvet cave was the most shocking. The drawing from tens of thousands of years ago has a strong presence and vitality. I would like to remember and cherish those primitive and sensuous lines.