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Interview: Dong Hyun Kang

Updated: Apr 10, 2022

The victims of steamed stingray fish 2 ; agonizing hell / 46x143inch / oil on canvas (five panels) / 2022

1) Could you introduce yourself? Where did you study art? When did you first see yourself as an artist?

Hi, my name is Donghyun Kang and I have studied in FIT (fine arts BFA) in New York City. To be honest I never saw myself becoming an artist at all. I was never interesting in art or fashion or any kind of cultural thing. Now thinking back, I don’t think I was interested in anything at all. My life was messier in my earlier days until mid 20s when I was living in Korea with my family. I needed some big change in my life because I didn’t wanted to waste my life anymore so I went to this community college upstate New York to get a better gpa. There I’ve attended a few art class which was insane. In my little head I have never experience anything so free, expressive and emotional. I had a friend who was from Sweden and we became great friends during that one year I was attending the community college. I was deeply inspired by his artistic talent and thought to myself I want to be like him too. So I’ve started to search for art school in New York City because I mean it’s New York! I don’t know the exact data but I believe NYC is still the center of art. But still I didn’t saw myself being an artist until the end of Junior year in FIT. Because there were countless talented kids who made art since they were a kid so I felt so overwhelmed. I was thinking to myself ‘what if I am wrong pursuing a goal as an artist, that this is path dead wrong because I didn’t start when I was a kid?’ Even in Korea, there is sort of a taboo that you shouldn’t do any sort of art if you didn’t learned it when you were a kid or if you don’t have no talent. As much as I doubted myself, I was hitting my limits every time. I was practically living at the school studio because I know I love the act of painting and I wanted to be a better version of myself. Also I wanted to beat(?) my colleague and friend who is a great painter. We met in sophomore year I remember, and he is so talented and hard working. So time passed and at the end of my junior year, I’ve met a professor who guided me so well. I finally felt that I made something that I am really proud of myself. And yes that time was the first time that I saw myself becoming an original artist in the future. I apologize my story being so long. It is something that can’t be delivered lightly.

Snowman suicide case ; under the heater / 20x20inch / oil on canvas / 2021

2) Who are your biggest sources of inspiration as a painter? I see a mix of influences such as Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Vanessa Prager, and others.

Oh for sure. The abstract expressionists was a huge impact on me as an artist. I could add Max Beckmann to that list for the use of triptychs, grotesque cartoon like pictures and that weird subtleness. I was also into pure abstract painters such as Ad Reinhardt for his unforgiving pursuit for ‘art as art’ which is admirable. Him and other pure abstract painters gave me strength to balance out the narrative / aesthetic by focusing on the ‘paint’ itself. If I back up a bit more, my other influence was the ‘romanticism’. The way how they expressed their feelings and being genuinely authentic about it was very pleasing. At the end of the day, that intense emotions I feel makes me stay on the ground by focusing more on myself as an individual and not trying to discuss sensitive topics or issues. And it is probably the thing that makes me keep going. Susan Rothenberg is also my all-time hero. The way how she applies her paint to the image is so violent yet beautiful. And the images she create! Her paintings to me is a definition of a great painting that does not distracts me from narratives because at the end it’s about the paint. In a more contemporary sense, Dana Schutz is my big influence as well. She was so good at narrating a whole series with such an intriguing subject with that eerie sense. She created these wickedly grotesque creatures and absurd situations that made me so awkward but so interesting.

Agonizing hell / 60x120inch / oil on unstretched canvas / 2020

3) A saying goes, "flesh is the reason why oil paint was invented." Do you agree with this sentiment? Yes or no, and why? Do your paintings represent the flesh on a psychological or metaphorical level?

Yes. I believe flesh is the initiation of everything, and everything starts from a flesh of ourselves to transform to something else. Flesh definitely is something that we cannot separate ourselves from that we are always in constant interaction within. In my paintings, I use flesh as both of the psychological and symbolic way in most of my work but not applied to all of my paintings. Sometimes there won’t be a hint of a flesh at all in any kind of way possible. I don’t necessarily try to make my fleshes exact like human or fishes and by twisting that I am blowing my own life(flesh) into it. For example, most of the time I would never construct a full human into the picture, but rather only a fraction of it such as arms, legs, chest to neck.

The things he carry / 29x36inch / oil on wood / 2022

4) Could you talk about your painting from 2022 titled, "The Things He Carry?" What are the dense and angular patterns of dark lines about? What is the significance of the fish skeleton? Why is the fish devoid of its flesh?

Of course. This painting is a dedication to my friend who lost his father few months ago when I was still in Korea. To be honest we weren’t that close friends until 2020 when I went back to Korea to visit my family. When I went back, fortunately I was able to get a studio and paint all the time. And my friend visited my studio every week to drink, talk and occasionally help me out with paperworks. So for almost a year we builded great friendship. Fast forward it is December 2021 around Christmas, I got a message that his father passed away. I was literally so shook that I couldn’t even speak or move or anything. I know it sounds dramatic but that really was one of the moments I couldn’t let go of. Even though we are in different paths, I felt for him so sad because first I am a very compassionate person second I know where he Is at the moment in life. I could resonate because I am in a similar shoes as well in terms of life. So when I heard that news, I had to really keep my emotion together not to explode. After a few days I had a rush to do something about this emotion inside me unresolved. So I started to composite his place in a very flat but simple way possible. The dense and angular patterns of dark lines are actually a text in Korean that means ‘baggage, load’. It could be either emotional or physical baggage. In this case, it definitely is more weighted on the emotional baggage( emotional things) that he is carrying. I used the same word with the change of scale and upside down repetitively to enhance the idea of the subject matter. But also I didn’t want it to be just a text so I’ve made alterations like that to eventually seen as a pattern and to be merge well with the painting’s aesthetic way. Fish skeleton ripped out of the flesh symbolizes death as a metaphorical to his loss. Fish has always been one of my main subject that I am interested in so I wanted to utilize it as well.

Eight snowmans suicide case / 36x29inch / oil on canvas / 2021

5) In many of your paintings, there are certain forms that are more easily recognizable, such as a hand or arm, and there are also more abstract or ambiguous forms that are very difficult to comprehend. How do you expect the viewers to read your paintings? Through feeling and abstract emotions? Or a literal object-based imagery?

I intend some objects to be unreadable which definitely leads to a more emotional part or maybe a more painterly part. I don’t necessarily think that all of the objects need to be comprehend-able. It’s almost like giving out too much spoilers to a perfect film. Being ambiguous and awkward is my method of making a picture. Some could think maybe I am complicating it too much and yes I agree on that too. But one of my other intention is for the viewers to take longer time in front of my paintings so that they can absorb the essence of it. I do want the viewers to inhale all of my emotions that I have put in while I was in that mode but I don’t think that will be 100% possible. On the other hand, easily readable objects and forms are literally what it is the viewers see and I intend it to stay that way at the time being.

Praying in the dark / 33x23inch / oil on wood / 2021

6) Why do some people carry difficulties and burdens, while others live happier lives? What do you think is the purpose of life? What is the nature of human existence? Were you able to answer some of these questions in your paintings?

I was able to answer that question in different states of my mind as time flowed. In the earlier days, I was only thinking about how unfair life is. That unnecessary burden, stress, anger, sorrow and all those human emotions and struggles. I used to be so angry and furious about it. Why do some have it so hard to just live as a human being deserves? What is it that differentiates these from the ones who have it all? Is it the endeavor ? The smart-mind ? enterpreneurship? So how do we know if some actually tried and never made it while some made it to be billionares? Can we call that fair too? Because life is supposed to be unfair? So what about the people who can’t even afford enough food for themselves or family? Is big corporations evil? Why are we praising them for their CEO’s great mind? Because they brought ‘comfortable and advanced lifestyle while destructing and abusing labors for extremely low cost’ ?

Now these unceasing tail of questions will never stop in my mind nor in the world. Even if we could press a reset button on our clock, still things will be the same. All of this earlier state of mind of mine was a very universal approach towards existential matter.

I felt overwhelmed and somehow going in the wrong direction.

So later on, in the past few years I’ve directed my state of mind towards inside me. I had so much more peace with myself and was able to fight this war pretty more easily than the past in my own way. No joke I am still rebellious about the injustice and inhumane things that happens in the world but I understand that I can’t do this alone. So I’ve chosen art as my vehicle, to use it as my tool to preach. I also know that this won’t change anything in the near future. But maybe, just maybe in the future after I or we die, our next generation of better human beings will learn a lesson and perform it better than we did.

Purify / 29x24inch / oil on wood / 2021

7) Why did you choose painting as your primary vehicle of exploration and expression? What about painting attracts you and pulls you in to keep on painting?

I don’t necessarily think painting is my primary thing but just the most convenient one currently in my situation. Actually my favorite medium is sculpture, especially installations which I was able to do a first test run in Korea while I was doing my first art residency. But anyway going back to the question. I mostly did paintings because it is easily approachable, meaning I can paint anywhere I wanted to as long as I had a desk or a wall or any supporting tool. Besides the handiness, definitely the material itself is so attractive. I mean how can you not fall in love with that feeling of slabbing chunks of oil paint on the surface. The action of putting the paint on with the wrong color so you have to take it out with a palette knife, rub and scratch the surface with rags and the knife. I enjoy the pain in my fingers, palm, forearm and my arm because of mixing hundreds of colors trying to find the right one for the wrong choice. The constant annihilation of erasing and adding is such a beautiful combination of mental and physical labor. The waiting period which you sit on your multiple paintings not just to dry but also because you don’t know what the next step is. That contemplation! My god that is most definitely my guilty pleasure. I love that time when I hate my paintings in progress especially. Because I know something better than this is coming which is always a mystery and my mind is just literally thinking about painting all the time. Can’t get rid of the thought at all that I have to literally force myself to go to sleep with alcohol sometimes. Will never forget about the pride I felt when I finally got that ‘perfect’ composition after how many times of attempt. Creeping on other artists work is another factor that keeps me going because there are so many great painters that I discover in these days but also in the past always. The unceasing battle inside myself when I paint is the reason why I keep going back to painting and will never stop.

victims of the steamed stingray fish / 14x11inch / oil on wood / 2020

8) Could you talk about your body of work titled, "Red Period?"

Red period is a body of work that I did while I was in Korea after graduation. After studying at an art school with different kinds of medium under different professors I told myself that I want to try something. Initially the idea was black and white only to train my value changes. Now, when I was preparing for my thesis, covid hit NYC and we were all cancelled and our projects were literally trashed because I was doing sculpture for thesis. I was furious that I wasn’t in a better situation and I didn’t do anything about it even though there wasn’t really much to do about it. Under advisement I chose to go back to painting for thesis mid-way to graduation. And at this time I was buying different hues of red to experiment with in my paintings because I was already using much red. I was able to do a lot of experiment with the color ‘red’ in many different ways for about half a year before I went back to Korea. And when I went back, I thought I won’t be doing that for a while. But somehow, something attracted to me get back into that red pool. This is where I got confused. What is it about red that it made me go back? Is it the violence of blood related? The flesh-like when mixed with white? Or is it the challenge that I put up against myself to restrict my abilities? Is it the inner anger off the whole situation going around the world with the virus?

Anyhow I decided to embrace it. So I’ve bought more variation of red paints while I was in Korea and was able to do lots of experiment with it which lead to some good paintings. During that time I’ve had several eye-opening experience with Korean tradition dish ‘steamed stingray fish’. You see, I love fish, especially sashimi since I am a heavy drinker and these are the perfect food for it.

But ‘steamed stingray fish’ is something else. It just doesn’t feel right to me and was a really big influence on my works as well. I never realized this before when I went to get sashimi, but that weird experience was the moment I realized about the life of fishes, especially the ones stuck in that small transparent box filled with water. In front of every sashimi joint, there are always transparent water tanks filled with different fishes. Waiting to be picked, butchered and consumed by human with no choice. Staring at the fishes in the tank gave me a lot of answers to the existential question that I’ve been asking to myself for years.

Now most of these paintings were operated based on one question ‘what if I was that fish in the water tank?’. Immediately a lot of compositions and narratives were surfacing in my paintings including fleshy fishes. It was a good run for about half a year and I felt like going back to color so I’ve switched it up to different series of paintings. I definitely know that I will go back to that red pool in the future because it was such a challenging and intense paintings.

Alter ego / 11x8.5inch / oil on wood / 2020

9) As you mentioned the concept of a fish waiting to be butchered, are the ideas and concepts of flesh, violence, consumption, and destruction relevant to your painting? Is physical existence inherently violent and destructive in your opinion? How do you express these ideas through your work?

Yes, the violence and consumption are very relevant to my paintings. The one big narrative that every series of my work are rooted up to that one concept ‘suffering of human existence’. They seem like different narratives that doesn’t relate at all to this subject particularly but the core is always the same.

I believe that physical existence is supposed to be violent and that is the reason why I keep going. As much as I feel its violent side, I also feel the other side which is the truth. It is supposed to hurt and destructive because it is a sign for me to grow stronger. I’m not talking about negativity or pessimism but just the plain truth to me.

I study different narratives that really is related to the root such as the existing ‘snowman suicide case’, ‘moonlight’, ‘red period’ ‘crucifixion’ and more to come in the future. I loved reading poems and since poems are so deeply similar to paintings it is my greatest source as well to construct my thoughts. I try to express these ideas in a grotesque and awkward but subtle way.

Fish stand / 13x21inch / oil on wood / 2020

10) What are your future goals as an artist? What are your biggest dreams?

In the future I want to live in a quiet suburban neighbor with my future wife, two kids, two dogs and my huge studio.

One of my biggest goal is having a huge studio not just to paint wall size paintings but also continue with my installation project so I can one day present it around the world.

Other dream is pretty simple, become the greatest painter/artist in history.

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