How does art make you feel? Whether you feel happiness, sadness, joy or disgust, all emotions are welcome and valid when witnessing, experiencing and even making art. For many artists, producing work allows space for their internal worlds to be released onto the page or canvas, establishing an intimate experience of contemplation, flow and a sense of timelessness. Utilising her own internal source of inspiration, South Korean artist Hwang Sunyoung produces paintings that speak to us on an unconscious level. The expressional and whispery gestures that pull paint across the surface of the canvas are delicate and strong, forming a sense of rhythm within her work. Hwang draws inspiration from her own experiences. The influences of her surroundings, emotions and relationships become the material of her paintings through an intuitive process, whereby she allows instinct to take over.

Photo © Courtesy of Hwang Sunyoung 

After completing her MA Painting at the Royal College of Art, Hwang was awarded the Chadwell Award in 2016 to facilitate her transition into professional practice and was later a finalist in the Young Contemporary Talent Purchase Prize in 2018. She has since gone on to produce and exhibit her work in multiple solo and group shows across the UK and internationally, including two solo exhibitions with Galerie ERD in Seoul, South Korea. Hwang has also engaged in residency programmes within London and Lisbon and has even been featured on the Delphian Gallery podcast. 

Primarily working as a contemporary painter, Hwang also produces drawings and collages as another means of cathartic expression and transformation. Examples of these complementary mediums were exhibited together within her last solo exhibition ‘I Feel Guilty About Missing You. Because I Didn’t Feel Guilty About Leaving You’ (2019) at Galerie ERD. This was a body of work, which reviewed and reconstructed experiences of self-contradiction and longing through colour rich, multi-layered, textural and fragmented compositions. Pieces such as ‘One Last Hug’ (2018) and ‘If you Stroke My Hair’ (2019) embody that sense of presence and disconnection through their non-perfect, smudged lines and floating shapes that appear caught amongst the layers within the surface. We therefore interpret a sense of passing time and regret, as the moment we witness is about to pass, yet never fully came into being.  

Photo © Courtesy of Hwang Sunyoung 

When viewing a piece of Hwang’s work, we are viewing an emotion, a response, a feeling. Her energetic brush strokes and translucent colours encourage a physical response within us, a desire to move. This is not unexpected since the artist herself loves to walk and absorb her surroundings, internalising the layered experience of a location to later release these influences like music onto canvas. To find out more about her intuitive practice and artistic career so far, we recently caught up with Hwang to discuss the experiences that have influenced her work, the benefits of participating in residencies and the initiatives that she has been involved with throughout this uncertain period of time. 

Photo © Courtesy of Hwang Sunyoung 

Since graduating with an MA in Painting from the Royal College of Art in 2016 you have gone on to have multiple solo and group exhibitions in Seoul, London, Lisbon and Barcelona, as well as participated in residencies within London and Lisbon and featured on the Delphian Gallery Podcast. To date, what has been the most exciting or rewarding experience in your career as an artist? 

I was presented with the Chadwell Award in 2016 when I graduated from the Royal College of Art. The award aims to provide a bridge between art school and professional practice by giving a recent Fine Art MA graduate a free studio at Bow Arts for one year. It was significant for me because it provided a lot of stability when I made the transition from student life to professional life, which can often be a challenge for new graduates. With their support I could fully focus on my studio practice, developing ideas and paintings in a supportive environment. Along with the free studio the award also gave me the opportunity to have a solo show at Nunnery Gallery in London. 

Participating in the Delphian Gallery Podcast was also a rewarding experience. This was my first podcast and I really enjoyed recording the episode. Besides visiting exhibitions, there are [many] different ways to understand artists and their work. Listening to artists’ interviews or podcasts is one of the most direct and intimate ways of gaining information, not only through what is said, but how it is said.

Which artists or design references have inspired or influenced your own art practice over the years?

I like paintings by Nick Goss and find myself drawn to his layering of personal and collective history on the canvas. I like how he exposes the psychological qualities of place through a diverse set of techniques, accretion and erasure, construction and reconstruction. His paintings make me think more about my relationship to the surface of the canvas as background and foreground as well as the space within my work. 

Michael Armitage has also become increasingly important to me in recent years. What first attracted me to his paintings was his dream-like imagery and rich colour palette. More recently I’ve been fascinated by his use of Lubugo, a traditional bark cloth from Uganda, as I have started to experiment with collaged elements in my recent works. I have also found inspiration in architecture, including the work of architect Peter Zumthor. I really admire his sensuous materiality and his use of light and shadow to create depth, atmosphere, and silence. 

Photo © Courtesy of Hwang Sunyoung 

Growing up in Seoul, South Korea, had you always known that you wanted to be an artist? 

I can’t remember when and how I decided to be an artist because I don’t think I ever had a decisive moment that made me start creating art. I’ve been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. When I was young I was always doodling and I still remember how I felt while creating something. It was a feeling of such an intense concentration, a kind of separation between me and the world. I didn’t consider the possibility of being a practicing artist until I was studying at Slade School of Fine Art, where I met a lot of great artists and mentors who understood my concerns, the challenges I faced, and the path I was on.

You moved to the UK in 2009 to study your BFA Fine Art at Slade School of Fine Art (UCL). What influenced your decision to move and study in London?

My father is an art lover. He used to talk about the exhibitions and museums that he visited in Europe and I grew up [surrounded by] the prints that he bought at those museums. I would say that he influenced my decision to move to London when I considered studying art in Europe. I think having many great art galleries and museums is definitely one of the benefits of living as well as studying art in London.

Aside from all the museums and galleries on offer, in what other ways has the experience of living in both Seoul and London nourished or influenced your own art practice? 

I explore different cities and landscapes by walking. This has inspired my approach towards painting and often provides spontaneous ideas and materials for my work. Walking in Seoul, for me is like breathing out, whereas walking in London is like breathing in. Offering magnificent views, beautiful forested mountains with lots of hiking trails surround the urban sprawl of Seoul. It’s easy to break away from the city centre and go hiking. I find that climbing the mountains helps me to take a step back from my emotions, thoughts, and feelings, and think of myself as a separate entity. This self-distancing gives me some space and allows me to focus on the larger picture. On the other hand, walking in London makes me observe myself internally. As one of the most walkable cities in the world with interesting architecture and many green spaces, I spend a lot of time walking across the city alone and discovering its hidden or forgotten parts. It allows me to get in touch with my inner world and be completely disconnected from my surroundings.

Photo © Courtesy of Hwang Sunyoung 

Last year you participated in the Hangar Residency (2019) in Lisbon, Portugal and The AucArt Lab (2019) residency in London. How have these experiences nurtured or developed your work? Would you recommend residencies to other artists? 

Participating in the residency programmes provided me with a broader perspective on my work, as well as on myself and the world around me, and kept me motivated as an artist. So, I would definitely recommend the experience. The best thing about these residency programmes was that I could be away from my studio. This allowed me to make something new and experimental, whilst re-examining my ideas and materials. As the entire process of my work happens primarily on canvas, drawings only existed as part of the painting process not as separate works. However, during my stay in Lisbon I made drawings and collages on paper, which became the starting point for a series of drawings that I made. Another advantage is that you can experience a city that you find interesting and live there for a month or two, or even longer depending on the programme. Lisbon is well known as a city of stairs, and because I’m interested in exploring cities by walking through them, I would walk uphill, climbing the stairs in Lisbon every morning and evening. 

Your last solo show ‘I Feel Guilty About Missing You. Because I Didn’t Feel Guilty About Leaving You’ (2019) was exhibited at Galerie ERD in Seoul, South Korea. What was the inspiration behind this body of work? 

This was my second solo show with Galerie ERD. The exhibition brought together a new body of paintings and some earlier works, which focused on my sustained exploration of physical and psychological layering. Along with the paintings, the exhibition also presented 7 drawings that I made last year when I participated in the residency programmed in Lisbon. 

Dealing with psychological and emotional impressions of my mind, the show was very introspective. The title, ‘I Feel Guilty About Missing You. Because I Didn’t Feel Guilty About Leaving You’, came from my personal experience of self-contradiction and self-reflection [when navigating relationships]. There have been many experiences over the past few years in which I was desperate to leave and did so without hesitation, but I now long for their return. Lots of the works in the show reconstructed and re-approached these experiences. 

Is it true that you do not work with any visual references prior to approaching the canvas? Do you ever have an intention for what you would like to explore?

Open to all possibilities, my work doesn’t begin with a particular inspiration or idea and I don’t have the end result of the work in my mind when I get started. I work directly onto the canvas without preliminary sketches, drawings or photographic references, as I don’t want to dissociate planning from making. Believing in the process rather than the end result, I see the canvas as a place in which my achievements, failures, mistakes and experiences that I have gone through during the painting process are recorded from the very beginning to the end.

I often gain inspiration whilst travelling and wandering around cities, observing my surroundings, urban spaces and landscapes from the places I visit. My work isn’t intended to be recognisable, as it doesn’t directly depict anything and therefore remains ambiguous. However, some of the layers in my paintings might suggest a sense of figuration or landscape. Maybe this is because the references and motifs in my work are all very personal to me. They are based on my physical, psychological, sensory, and emotional experiences and my relationship with them. My work can be described as a tangible representation of the unconscious, incoherent flow of metaphorically internalised thoughts, emotions, memories, impressions, and as an attempt to see the invisible accumulation of these phenomena through the tangibility of paint on canvas.

Photo © Courtesy of Hwang Suyoung 

Your practice is very intuitive. Can you tell us more about your work process? What influences have a significant impact on your unconscious workflow?

I explore physical and psychological layering through an intuitive approach to painting. My initial marks are a starting point for a development of ideas and images drawn from personal memories. I then overlap multiple layers that represent time and space, through various tempos, rhythms, gestural marks and brushstrokes, responding intuitively and instinctively to the earlier layers [on the canvas]. It is an organic process. For me, the act of painting is a form of meditation that has influenced my unconscious workflow. When painting, I intuitively reflect on what I have seen, felt or experienced. It is almost like experiencing a flashback and this dictates the direction in which my work evolves. 

As you’ve already mentioned, your paintings contain multiple layers and gestural marks. This seems to offer a sense of rhythm or movement across the canvas. Do you listen to music when you paint? 

Painting makes me feel like I’m dancing internally, so I always listen to music when I paint. I like all kinds of music from Latin and Jazz, to R&B and Soul. “Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens from ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is one of my favourite soundtracks. Some of my favourite musicians also include Frank Ocean, Tom Misch, Sunni Colon, and Yerin Baek. 

We love how painting makes you feel like dancing! Aside from listening to music, how else do you get yourself ‘into the zone’ for painting? 

My studio is a place of quiet contemplation, facilitating physical and psychological immersion. The first thing I do when I get into the studio is look at my work, which is the most important part of my studio routine. I sit in front of the paintings and do nothing. I just look at them in silence for a while in order to view them from a new perspective, [such as] from a distance or taking a closer look, and also at different times of the day. It is calm and quiet, but also a very intense time when I concentrate only on the work in front of me. It leads me into a completely different world with a totally different flow of time. A sense of temporal and spatial boundlessness is created. The act of painting then allows me to explore the boundary between internal and external experiences, the visible and invisible, to the point where I feel as if I don’t really belong in any time or particular place in the world. I become a part of the work that I’m working on. 

Photo © Courtesy of Hwang Sunyoung 

The colours featured within your paintings appear earthy and simultaneously vibrant. What draws you to the colours you choose and what do they signify within your intuitive process? 

Colour is a big part of my work, though my choice of colours isn’t a conscious decision. I have light sensitivity and I think this has definitely influenced the veils of translucent colour that dominate my paintings as well as my use of a muted or desaturated colour palette. I have difficulty concentrating and experience dizziness from artificial light, especially fluorescent lighting as it makes me feel uncomfortable, anxious and weird, as if I’m in a dream losing a sense of reality. I also feel uncomfortable looking at vibrant colours for a long time. I therefore play with varying degrees of opacity, translucency and transparency of colours through cumulative layering and wiping [of the surface] to desaturate bright vivid colours if I use them in my work.

Different layers of colour in my paintings reflect not only my personal memories, but also different states of mind while I’m painting. There are various conversations between the memories and the emotions that each colour suggests, and I’m interested in how they interact with each other when they mingle together on the canvas. 

Back in June, you submitted ‘The Endless Drizzle’ (2015) to the ‘Choose Art | Give Light to Refugees’ online art auction created by NG Art Creative Residency in collaboration with Help Refugees to raise money for their Covid-19 response. How did this come about and why was it important for you to take part?

I have always wanted my art to help others and make a difference. When Sohyun Kim, the exhibition coordinator at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, asked me to participate in ‘Choose Art | Give Light to Refugees’, I was happy to be able to help disadvantaged refugees that are without necessary basic needs during this challenging time. All funds received from the sales of artworks have been donated directly to the charity Help Refugees to increase support to medical organisations that provide doctors and nurses, emergency isolation, vital access to medical treatment, water, and the distribution of sanitary products.

Photo © Courtesy of Hwang Sunyoung 

There have also been many initiatives helping artists. Delphian Gallery released a limited edition print of your piece ‘Fizzing’ as part of their ‘#LockdownEditions’. Their aim was to support artists through the uncertainty of Covid-19 by ensuring that the proceeds went directly to the artists. Have you felt supported by initiatives such as this? 

I’ve seen some great initiatives to support artists during the lockdown, but I only took part in the ‘#LockdownEditions’ by Delphian Gallery. For the duration of the lockdown, they released a new print each week from some of their favourite contemporary artists taking no commission on sales. With the cancellations or postponements of a number of exhibitions during the crisis many artists have been suffering financially. Thanks to Delphian Gallery I felt supported not only financially but also mentally.

Many artists have found great inspiration during the lockdown period. How have you adapted to the unusual circumstances this year and how has the disruption influenced the work you have been creating? 

The current global health crisis has affected my day-to-day. During the lockdown I spent more time walking than painting, which made me feel like I was painting outside the studio. I also had to change how I worked and what I’m working on. My studio is an hour’s walk from my home and I would walk to the studio only once a week, working from my lockdown studio at home the rest of the time. Here, I worked on drawings and collages rather than paintings. I was able to spend more time experimenting with collage, cutting out pieces or shapes and sticking them together in different arrangements. I am now slowly getting back to normal studio life, however I am still cutting up old works and making collaged drawings alongside a new body of paintings. 

Photos © Courtesy of Hwang Sunyoung 

Written and interviewed by Georgina Saunders

Featured Photo © Courtesy of Hwang Sunyoung 

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About View of the Arts

We are open-minded individuals, for whom there are no limits. We always seem to spend our last few pennies on the arts instead of bread and butter! Oh well, it’s worth it! You will always find us in a cinema, at film festivals, fashion shows, concerts, galleries or the theatre. We are a group of female film critics, arts journalists, and photographers.

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