8fbd035081bd09934004bfc61d79c31c5d5d9ee4

In Eunnam Hong’s Paintings, Clothes Tell the Whole Story

I first came across one of Eunnam Hong’s oil paintings on Instagram: two female figures standing inside an empty room, dressed in matching polos tucked into pleated khakis with easy leather pumps on their feet, one in all black and the other in all white. Their hair is blonde—almost white. Their skin is also white but not exactly skin-color white. It’s marble-statue white. Canvas white. An empty-page white. The figures are incredibly stylish but mysterious. I immediately needed to fill in the space between them—they felt both familiar and alien at once. More importantly I need to know who created them.

“I was really into this idea of doing a fictional thing that blends with some of my realities,” Hong told me on a recent morning in the Park Slope apartment that doubles as her studio. “I wanted to counterfeit an Asian American woman character.” We were sitting in her bedroom, the nine oil paintings that would comprise her upcoming show at Lubov—her first solo show in New York City—placed on the walls and the floor around us.

A former art director who worked in fashion magazines and ad campaigns in her native Korea, Hong studied at the prestigious Seoul Institute of the Arts. “As a child I really wanted to be an artist, but my parents didn’t like the idea,” she recalls. “At the same time, the idea of going to art school was scary—like, you learn art through this academic course, and then what happens after that? It was a question that nobody really answered. So I studied graphic design.” After graduation she found work with a small agency that allowed her to travel around the world and collaborate with some of the biggest names in the fashion industry, including Edward Enninful. “I spent all of my 20s working,” she adds.

Women in Blonde Wigs, 2022. Oil on canvas, 43 x 33 in.

Women in Blonde Wigs, 2022. Oil on canvas, 43 x 33 in.

Charles Benton

In 2006, she took a leave from her job and moved to New York with the idea that she’d try to be an artist. “My boss gave me a one-year sabbatical to do whatever I wanted because he understood that I started really young,” Hong says. “I didn’t really plan anything. I just wanted to explore art on my own terms and check out a lot of galleries.” She began to work on her paintings. “It was a very natural choice for me to do figurative painting.” She was especially inspired by the work of Elizabeth Peyton. “She was fearless, and her subject matter was just so engaging.” One year gave way to another and then another. She met “an American man.” They got married and had a baby.

She was painting all the time but had not yet found something that clicked for her. “Before this I was making very different artwork,” Hong explains. “I was very obsessed with Korean beauties and—I shouldn’t say strange things—the behavior around it, the obsession with plastic surgery. I was fascinated by all these things.”

“I was very serious about my work, but I was not totally satisfied with it,” she says. “There were a lot of trials and failures, and I was in this space where I was unable to connect to the outside world.” She stayed home raising her child and continued to work on her art. “It was a very conscious choice, but by the time he started kindergarten, I realized I was comparing myself to other parents, and I felt kind of worthless,” she remembered. It didn’t help that there was a famous artist parent at her son’s school. “I didn’t make money from my art, although I spent a lot of hours on it, and I thought when people saw [my husband and me] from the outside, we looked very traditional. I was just a housewife.” Hong adds, “I felt like, from a feminist-mom point of view, I was doing something wrong.”

White Collar, 2023. Oil on linen, 24 x 33 in.

White Collar, 2023. Oil on linen, 24 x 33 in.

Charles Benton

Influenced by Robert Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket as well as The Wings, a 1936 novel by Yi Sang, she began exploring the concept of freeing herself from what she called her “realities,” or “the external constructs of age, gender, status, work, and relationships.” “[The Wings] is a book that everyone [in Korea] reads in high school,” she explains and later sends me a quote from the book via email: “It is worth trying to counterfeit yourself. Your creation would be sublime and conspicuous among the ordinary products you have never seen.”

“I never really liked painting myself because I was obsessed with really beautiful things, but then I thought I could use me performing as a more powerful tool inside my paintings,” she added. “I always admired performers like Miranda July and the way she can invent these characters in her books and movies.” And that’s how she began experimenting with taking photos of herself wearing the blonde wig—inspired by the woman in the blonde wig in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express—and using those photos in her work. “I’m sort of doing what I’m good at because I’m trained as an art director. I like being behind the camera.” She adds, “At the beginning, I had tremendous doubts about it, but at some point I began looking at myself like a totally different person.”

She continues, “When you look at the mirror, you think that’s what you look like, that’s you, but when you’re taking photographs with a camera, you see different images and different versions and, in those off-the-cuff moments, you can find somebody else. And I’m just never bored of finding that.”

Enemy, 2023. Oil on linen 29 x 38 in.

Enemy, 2023. Oil on linen 29 x 38 in.

Charles Benton

The characters that she creates for her paintings are sort of autofiction versions of herself. She can explode a feeling—of loneliness, of regret—and the narratives can feel expansive even within the confines of the apartment rooms they’re set in. Through it all, it is clothes that are the main storytelling vehicle. “In all these different paintings, clothing is like a souvenir from my lifetime that I can share with many people around me,” she says. On the day we meet, her style most closely resembles the women in Jean Jacket, which is one of the few works where she is not wearing the signature blonde wig. But her paintings are not about self-reference or nostalgia.

In Lunch Break, a group of five female figures fill the canvas, some sitting down and others standing, dressed in the sort of skirts and shirts favored by working women in the 1970s and 1980s, holding sandwiches and little paper cups full of coffee. It is a scene from the break room at a factory but transported into an apartment interior. “I wanted to go into the feelings of how you are really constantly working inside your own place,” she explains. “I was feeling low and invisible but also, you know, craving Asian food,” she laughs.

Meanwhile in White Collar, two female figures face each other reclining on a bed, both wearing white button-down shirts tucked into belted pairs of blue-steel-colored canvas pants. “My dad’s parents were farmers, and he was desperate to be a white-collar person, so he became a banker,” she tells me. “That’s how he achieved a change in status for his family, and he really pushed that to us, to be very educated, to ‘do things.’ And in a lot of ways, he was very realistic and, you know, not wrong. But I was also living with that reality, and in a sense it doesn’t go away.”

Jean Jacket, 2023. Oil on linen, 23 x 37 in.

Jean Jacket, 2023. Oil on linen, 23 x 37 in.

Charles Benton

Souvenirs, will be on view from April 29 to June 18 at Lubov, 5 East Broadway #402, in New York.

Originally Appeared on Vogue

Related Posts