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A world within a world: creating dreamscapes through painting

– an interview with Minyoung Choi

Minyoung Choi (b. Seoul, Korea, 1989) lives and works in London, UK. She received her MFA in Painting from the Graduate School of Seoul National University, Korea (2013) and from the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, London, UK (2017). Her work has been the subject of several solo exhibitions, notably at Lychee One Gallery, London (2021) and included in multiple group shows, including at the Hive Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China (2021); Saatchi Gallery (2020) and Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK (2020).

"By recomposing elements and amplifying colours, familiar scenes and environments become unfamiliar. My expectation is to enhance and experience the magic and surreal quality of a world in a new context I have created."

Could you tell us about your artistic practice and how it has evolved over the years? 

I am an artist who primarily works with oil paint on canvas. My works hover between real and unreal representations, revolving around my memories, dreams and my imagination. My subjects often function in relation to one another as a series of meditations on a particular theme or concept. In recent works, anthropomorphised characters such as fish, cats and dogs appear in confinement or in open spaces, being observed, or themselves observing the environment. I constantly derive my motifs from my doodles, drawings, photos and from a collection of second hand images. To start with, I only have rough ideas of what I would like to paint, not knowing the exact details. I tend to create a plausible space and time which feels lived in and occupied. Various sources and elements in my paintings are chosen purposefully, although sometimes instinctively, to be arranged in one coherent space with a very particular attention to composition.

If I were to look at my work as a continuum of smaller series, I can see that it started a few years ago with a few particular elements. Fish tanks, small campfire scenes and surreal nigh-time indoor and outdoor settings. I have been constantly expanding and adding to this list and soon there were people gathered around a campfire and figures driving in a car, all bathed in the moonlight. Fishtanks kept coming back, reappearing all the time and because of the lockdown, I’ve developed my routine working from homemaking watercolours exploring this theme extensively. 

l still somehow managed to have a productive time during lockdown studying the materiality of watercolour. Back in the studio that summer, after the lockdown, I continued to expand the idea of the fish tank in oil paint. By the time I was fully back in the studio, I was able to lead my work in a new direction. Last year was quite full on, having had a duo show, a first solo show in London with Lychee One and a group show in Beijing with Hive Center for Contemporary Art. It was really great for me to have a contextualised view of my works all together from the past few years. 

You grew up in South Korea and lived in the USA and Japan before settling in the UK where you now reside. How have your upbringing in South Korea and the different places you lived in influence your practice?

First of all, I consider myself very lucky to have experienced such different cultures in my childhood, which, I believe enabled me to adapt and take in new things relatively easily. It is indeed surprising to view society from such different perspectives through learning languages and by physically shifting from one place to another. Especially when it comes to the use of colours, I noticed that the climate and the culture of a region really affect every aspect of the society and of course their artworks as well. I assume that having been exposed to all this huge diversity of colours from the natural and the human-made world have greatly affected my practice and somehow made me feel both aware and free of conventions. 

Could you tell us about ‘Aquarium? What is the genesis of this work?

In 2020, the fish tank was the major subject matter I was focusing on. Literally, one painting led to another painting and so on. The various dimensions of canvases led me to imagine different scales of fish tanks and of water creatures that would be living in them. With ‘Aquarium’, which is a relatively large painting (150 x 130cm), especially if we were to think of a life-size aquarium, I wanted to be confronted by a large and maybe intimidating big fish gazing out from within the glass walls. 

Minyoung Choi, Aquarium, 2021

View work

Chant, 2021

Still Life with Fish Tank (Smoke and Sand), 2021 

‘Aquarium’ was created in 2020 during the Covid pandemic. The aquarium can be read as a metaphor of confinement and isolation. Was that intentional? And has the pandemic influenced your practice more generally? 

I find the fish tank a fascinating object. It literally represents a world within a world, be it big or small. I wasn’t necessarily associating the pandemic with my paintings then. My audience first started to connect my paintings with the lockdown and eventually I also felt the pressure of confinement reflecting into my work. Afterwards, I did move on to depicting living creatures in open spaces too.

However, the aquarium is still an interesting subject matter for me as a means to draw natural elements into the domestic setting. I believe these paintings will feel differently after many more years when the pandemic is over and probably they won’t be associated with the health-related isolation anymore. 

Your works often feature animals with seemingly human characteristics and emotions. What is your relationship to animals and why do you often depict them with anthropomorphic traits? 

I did tweak the appearance of fish to present them as sentient beings and I have also given some of them a relatively human-size scale. I wanted their personalities and feelings to be depicted through their appearance. When it comes to depicting living creatures, I end up empathising with them and as a result they appear to resemble some part of me. I grew up having great affection towards animals around me. Spending a lot of time with cartoons showing anthropomorphised animal characters has influenced me a lot when growing up. 

Your works often evoke a sense of poetry, mystery, and dream. How important is it for you to convey a mood? And what role does narrative play in your work? Is there often a story behind the image? 

My aim while painting is to visualise something that cannot be precisely verbalised. I pursue evoking the sensations I experience in strange dreams, being filled with wonder.

While building up narratives, I oscillate between being a witness and the subject. I often transpose myself in the characters I paint through a kind of mental self animal-metamorphosis. Light is often the focal point to the work as the elements are always infused with either natural or artificial light and this establishes my colour palette. By recomposing elements and amplifying colours, familiar scenes and environments become unfamiliar. My expectation is to enhance and experience the magic and surreal quality of a world in a new context I have created.

Observing Ants Stealing Melon, 2021

Giorgio Morandi, Still Life, 1920, Oil on canvas

What does a typical day at your studio look like? 

Maybe from outside my days can look quite mundane. I usually arrive at the studio in the morning and spend the whole day in the studio painting or making preparations for paintings. A lot of coffee, tea, sugar and my headphones help my productivity. My studio is a very personal and intimate space and spending a lot of time here is very important for me and my work, even though it might not look so thrilling looking at it from the outside. 

What or who inspires you?

The environment around me affects me the most. So the time of the year influences the colour palette of my work and the subject matter as well. Whenever I travel I pick up the different colours or sceneries, which eventually appear in my work. I also force myself to be inspired. I collect images online. I take snapshots on the street. I read books, listen to music, watch movies and dramas to get inspiration. All these elements end up having a say in my final works. 

If you could own any piece of art, what would it be?

If I could own a piece of art, I would like to get one of Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings. 

What are you working on at the moment?

Over the last few months of 2021 I have been working towards a series of works to be shown at the London Art Fair. Soon I will start working towards my second solo show with Lychee One Gallery which will open in October 2022 and also on a few other projects in China and Korea, so this year will prove to be very busy as well.