Memory, dream and light in the paintings of Minyoung Choi

Painter Minyoung Choi’s fascination with visual art initially took the form of an interest in animation. Throughout her BA and beyond, however, she developed a growing preoccupation with painting as a medium for conveying a narrative, mood or feeling within a single, fixed frame. That said, Minyoung’s works, which straddle the boundary between surrealism and real life representations, often function in relation to one another as a series of meditations on a particular theme or concept, not unlike the frames that comprise an animated film. Objects, images and patterns of light frequently recur among her paintings, creating a sense of cohesion, as if these pictures all belonged to the same dusky, strangely lit dream. Light is of utmost importance to Minyoung’s pictures, its various, radiating sources – the moon, a laptop screen, a television, a lamp – often providing the focal point of the composition. By harnessing and amplifying the effects of light upon the atmosphere of a scene from everyday life, Minyoung infuses her paintings with a singular quality of sublime fluorescence. The everyday is thus viewed through the lens of the extraordinary. As such, Minyoung conveys the vaguely unreal reality that pervades imagination, dreams and memory, and which settles over familiar environments, people and things.

Now living and working in London out of her studio in Hackney, Minyoung discusses the effect of living in different countries upon her practise, how her childhood memories of her hometown in South Korea have informed the imagery of her paintings, her understanding of the relationship between humans and animals, and her continued pursuit of the imagined and the half-remembered in relation to the present and the tangible.

AMM: To start off – can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to become an artist?

MC: I obtained an MFA in Painting from the Slade School of Fine Arts in 2017, having previously studied in Seoul at the Seoul National University, the College of Fine Arts. Since my graduation from the Slade, I have been working and living in London. I have a studio in Hackney, where I work every day.

My interest in art began when I was very young; I was fascinated by animations and cartoons and I wanted to work in the animation industry. During my BFA course in Korea, I started becoming more fascinated by painting as I discovered more and more about contemporary art.

AMM: How has your experience of living in different countries shaped your approach to painting?

MC: So far I have lived in Korea, the USA, Japan, and the UK. These experiences have allowed me to analyse things I initially took for granted. Every year I go back to Seoul for a few weeks and I find lots of changes in the city. I find some buildings and places which have a particular beauty which I had never been aware of before. I realised that the city has its own emotions. This is why I started to paint car parks, bridges around the Han river and drivers in my recent paintings. I find this yearly trip quite effective in terms of stimulating my thoughts.

Also, I presume the physical distance from my hometown makes me yearn for that certain time and place. I am constantly thinking about my childhood and teenage years back in my hometown in South Korea. I think about what my room, house, schools, the town and the surrounding nature looked like. I have both nostalgic and anxious feelings when I recall the scenery I grew up with. High-rise buildings and large empty school playgrounds, modern concrete rooms are something I used to pass by every day but now they have become something I can only see in my dreams and memory. It is quite interesting for me that these places, especially my old flat where my whole family used to live, have become some of the default stages in my dreams. Some of my paintings have started from these fragmented memories.

Perhaps I am idealising the memories of my childhood a little. They are not always happy memories but still, I admire the time when everything felt new and magical as a child. The fact that I remember things from the past also gives me a sense of continuity in life, or a sense of self, although those memories might not all be accurate. There are some things that haven’t changed in me. However, my painting doesn’t necessarily represent an exact image of my hometown or of the scenery around it. In other words, I do not paint my memories as they are. It must be the concept or the quality of imagined childhood that is visualised in my works. I am fascinated by imagery that has the potential of being someone’s memories.

AMM: What are the main ways in which your style and technique have developed since your earlier work?

MC: I feel my work is developing constantly as I take a lot of new things on boards. At times I am not so aware of these changes but I am always pleasantly surprised to notice them when I take a step back and have a break to put some order into my thoughts.

Night Drive, oil on canvas, 170 x 160 cm

AMM: Is there a particular painting among your works which you feel exemplifies what you hope to convey as an artist? Or are the paintings intended for viewing as a cohesive series of works?

MC: My paintings work very well as a series, as one work will lead to another. This is true both for me as an artist and for the viewers as well. What I mean is that one painting can make me think about the next one by giving me ideas and making me excited about starting it and at the same time, the viewers can take a lot of things from one painting which will help them in looking at the next one. This way, a strong link is created throughout my works.

AMM: What is the significance of colour in your work?

MC: I get very excited when I start thinking about colour in my works. Often, I will start making works with certain colours in mind. It is very interesting for me that I tend to use colour very instinctively, but I don’t think that my colours have a particular symbolic meaning.

AMM: Do you experiment much with different mediums?

MC: I like to work a lot on paper with watercolours, inks, acrylic paint, and coloured pencils. I have been exploring watercolour intensively this year and I love that I feel no pressure when doing it. It is so relieving to know that I can just throw away the paper if I mess up, as paper is much more expendable than canvas. Watercolour is so helpful in terms of trying out new ideas in a short period of time.

AMM: What role does narrative play in your pictures? Is there often a story behind the image?

MC: My works often look like something is about to happen, something is happening at the moment or has happened already. I imagine situations while I paint, such as what the figures are doing, what their relationship would be like, what animals are thinking, what the environments should be, as well as the time of the day and year.

But the story behind the image is something anyone can freely assume and there is no single definite answer to it. It just keeps me focused and excited while I paint to engage intensely with the situation in the painting.

AMM: What is the concept behind your recurring imagery of modern, digital life, such as laptops and televisions?

MC: I did not plan or have a particular concept regarding this. I feel that I am painting objects that are present in my daily life. They have become part of me and almost like an extension of my body so why should not I paint TVs, plastic water bottles, headphones, lamps, books, laptops or phones as I use them every day anyway. In the end, I am the unifying element that brings all these objects together.

Bonfire, oil on linen, 180 x 150 cm

AMM: What is the relationship between human, animal and modern life in your pictures?

MC: Animals in my paintings are often anthropomorphised and portrayed in domestic settings. I do this due to my close relationship with animals. I have loved animals since I was a kid. I have always been fascinated by animals and they make me think about life. I used to watch National Geographic on TV all day and I also had many tiny pets while I grew up. I often wished I could communicate with animals, and I enjoyed watching their behaviours. My interest in anthropomorphism might also come from watching animations and cartoons which showed anthropomorphised animal characters. In these shows, animals were often depicted as characters that interacted harmoniously with human figures, or there would be human characters that could transform into certain animals when they needed to, which I found fascinating.

I don’t call myself a Buddhist, but am very familiar with some Buddhist doctrines. Animals are regarded as sentient beings in Buddhism which I agree with. I am also familiar with the idea that humans could be reborn as animals, and that animals could be reborn as humans. I think it is interesting that Buddhists believe humans and animals to be part of a single family, that they are all interconnected. I think animals are as important as humans and it is very natural for me to paint them among the figures or by themselves in my work.

AMM: There is a very specific, dreamlike quality to the neon light in your work; in what ways do you use light to underpin the themes in your paintings?

MC: I find the light is inseparable with the themes in my work as the light from lamp, moon, fire, lightning or sky itself is the subject matter in some of my works and often I actually start the work because I am attracted to these elements in the first place. Many people have said that my works are very dreamy, but even in my daily life I focus on and remember scenes of moments that have a dreamy quality to them. I think this is a very important element in my work.

Fish Tank, oil on linen, 45.5 x 40 cm

AMM: Do you paint from photographs, memory, your imagination or from life?

MC: My work is mainly about my personal memory and imagination. But I do paint from photographs and from life as well. For example, I make drawings from my imagination with the aid of my memory and then look for photographs if I need them to get more details. Also, I do look at real things, like observing some objects on the table, my hands, or outside my window to see how the lights, shapes, and shadows work.

AMM: Are there any other artists whose work has had an influence on your own practice?

MC: In no particular order: Wilhelm Sasnal, Caroline Walker, Mircea Teleagă, Piero della Francesca, Rene Magritte, Caspar David Friedrich, Eugène Delacroix, Tilo Baumgärtel, Victor Man, Édouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso.

AMM: Besides painting, how do you like to spend your time?

MC: I try to see new shows, go to the National Gallery as much as I can. I also find traveling very inspiring and refreshing. Luckily this year, I got to visit Athens, Corfu Island, Elba Island, and Paris. I have been longing to go swimming in the sea and do snorkelling, although I am not that good at either!

Besides that, I like to watch movies. I tend to rewatch certain movies such as The Martian, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings, Ghost in the Shell (1995), Spirited Away and others.

AMM: How do you hope to develop your practice further?

MC: There are some images that have been growing in my mind and I hope I will be able to find the right manner in which to articulate them soon.
In general, I hope my work keeps getting more loose, yet precise, lively, enigmatic, poetic, intuitive and surreal, yet plausible.

Find out more about the artist: www.minyoungchoi.co.uk

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

Sleeping Sharks, oil on linen, 120 x 160 cm