Haeeun Lee won the Abstract/Non-representational Category Award in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with her work Chopin – Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2. In this interview, Rhiannon Inman Simpson, who won the award the previous year, asks Haeeun about her studio practice, setting the scene for a painting, and how she knows when a painting is done.
Rhiannon: Can you tell us a little about your artistic background and how your practice has developed over the years?
Haeeun: My mother was a music teacher, my father worked for a financial institute with a hobby of collecting paintings, and the music that most closely resembles the abstract form of my paintings served as my teacher. Playing and listening to classical music, my mother’s hobbies, I was a happy child mimicking the conductor of the orchestra.
I had a strong attachment to realistic techniques since high school and during university. So I studied art every day, from right after school, several hours and sometimes the whole night, for five years. After honing the technical aspects, I started to focus on more than realistic expressions, but I was interested in painting itself. The realisation that painting is more and more like music came to me, and listening to music allowed me to immerse myself in unknown emotions.
From the beginning, the music helped me greatly when I was working on the painting. So I searched for various composers and accidentally listened to Messiaen: Le merle noir pour flûte et piano by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), who made music with reference to birdsong and its mysterious magic.
Immediately, with the will to visualise, I followed the complex structure of a single natural plant, depicting the plant in 12 colours, and focused the entire painting on the rhythmic melody like music. I then extended the subject to stadiums, stock markets, and big cities. The energy, vibrations and rhythms in these places were attractive, and the possibilities for imagining were endless, so I saw new possibilities of painting that I was satisfied with. Influenced by the aggressiveness of Joan Mitchell and Jackson Pollock in Abstract Expressionism, he liked Monet, Bonnard, and Matisse. I wanted to add light and space to the abstraction. Ignoring perspective and ignoring the weight of objects, it has become more abstract as in music, composing the screen with colours instead of notes.
Rhiannon: There is a strong sense of freedom and spontaneity in your paintings. Do you plan each painting and work from sketches, or work instinctively on the canvas?
Haeeun: I work on paintings just like a music jam session. In an improvised jam session, each player plays as they appear, but strictly follows the rules of music in harmony, composition, and progression. In this way, beautiful chords can be heard and become music. I also work in a way similar to this procedure. My paintings are sketches from start to finish. What colour to start with is planned first, and the rest follow.
When a few important colours are decided at first, the imagination is quickly activated in the space between colours and draws like weaving a net with the planned gestures only in the head. This is the most important sketch stage. As I enter, I decide on the next colour and direction. Then I draw with great fun subconsciously changing the rules in the relationship between light and objects in realistic description.
Then, the picture forms a space, and I recall a scene at this time, and as I begin to feel that I have entered a certain place, I quickly draw some shapes on the screen as if exploding, and it is further amplified by riding the first sketch rhythm.
Rhiannon: How do you know when a painting is finished?
Haeeun: When I am satisfied with the beautiful moment in the painting, I stop working for a minute and doubt its completion for a moment. I have to decide when to finish according to the flow I was immersed with, just as the members who play the jam session decide when the music will end.
Respecting each moment I have experienced while painting the picture, whenever I find the most beautiful chord in a picture, I go back for a while and look at it over and over again. Then, when the picture comes to my mind, like the face of a certain person, as if it were born that way, I don’t touch the picture anymore. I just wanted to leave it like that forever.
The music that I select is songs that have their own beautiful climax moments that can be repeated when my emotions flow in and out and then back in and out. When I finish painting, I also check the autonomous relationship in which the movement of energy in my screen is not boring, and the rhythm comes out of the screen and enters the emotions of the viewer and finishes the drawing. If you feel enough emotions in the music, you won’t remember the end of the music well. Rather, continuity should be working. So in my case. The continuation should flow into the spectator’s point of view.
Rhiannon: I see there are sometimes references to music in your titles and am interested in its role in your painting practice. Do you listen to music whilst painting and if so, how does it influence the works?
Haeeun: When I arrive at the studio, the first thing I do is play music, relax and enjoy, and when I get focused on the music, I have a desire to express myself through pictures. Music serves to set back everything in the physical world around me.
Music is a very important element because it gives me the power to evoke very personal emotions. I do not reproduce the music of the title I gave to the picture, but borrow the melodic power of the music and give the title to the music in the sense of empathising with the lyricism and passion of the music.
I feel like a child more than ever, and happiness floods in. Then I have a good reason for what I can do, so I can enjoy drawing. When I draw, when I feel that I have enough power to direct the screen, I turn off the music and focus on the screen. When the screen is too big and the range of a few colours that are central to the picture is widened, it feels like solving a maths problem, and then the music gets in the way. I draw it as if composing with colours as an extension of the flow of music I was already listening to in my body. Conducting the entire screen is to make the music itself. After I finish work with great satisfaction, I go home and keep thinking about it. And when I take a break, I listen to the music I used to listen to in the studio, and the scene and music of the work overlap and I enter the painting. I give the title in such a way that the music is substituted for the flow.
Rhiannon: I feel a strong landscape presence in your work and I’m curious about your relationship with place – do you see your paintings as internal or external environments?
Haeeun: I create synesthesia by connecting paintings and music, so I use places and landscapes similarly. When I listen to a piece of music, I imagine a place or scenery that matches the music. When I hear heavy metal, I think of a dark basement or bunker, and when I hear Bach’s music, I think of a beautiful meadow. My synesthesia mainly consists of lyrical landscapes and various emotions. Then the climax is created by deliberately relating exciting feelings.
Just as a place in a dream changes absurdly according to an event, as several scenes in my head change, I fix the changing place with colour. The place and object implied by colour invade and dominate the space of the painting.
I have longed for exotic landscapes since I was a child, and now I prefer to imagine with music rather than experience it myself. Therefore, the spatiality in my paintings should be viewed as purely an object of inner longing.
Rhiannon: What does a typical working day in the studio look like for you? Do you have any important routines or rituals?
Haeeun: An important part of my work is to put me in the atmosphere first. I have a strong tendency to monopolise spaces around me, and I enjoy fully enjoying the things around me. At that moment, within that space, the music I listen to should feel like it’s only coming out for me.
The music I listen to often is… Classical: Schubert, Piano Music, J.S. Bach, French Suites, Liszt – Piano Sonata in B minor. Also, my favourite heavy metal bands: Five Finger Death Punch, Disturbed.
Metal or rock music is necessary for forgetting things I shouldn’t think about, and it helps me express my boldness. Schubert: Piano Music is what I listen to when it rains and J.S. Bach: French Suites helps to establish my emotional state and calm my mind and body.
Emotions come and go easily, so when I think of work, I try to go to the studio as soon as possible. Colour is important to my paintings, so I have a habit of putting my palette first and putting my brushes in a cleaner. I usually use a knife to remove lumps of paint from the palette, then select new paint and place it on the palette. Even when I enter the studio, I try not to habitually look at the work. Taking a break for at least a day, painting always wants to be a new subject for me, and I think that painting should be faced with a fresh eye.
A perfect space alone is essential, and there is almost silence during the pre-painting stage, until the painting is finished, and for a day after the painting is finished.
I never sit on a chair while painting. When I put down the brush after finishing painting, I have a habit of leaving it on my desk as much as possible and leaving the painting right away, trying not to look back on my decisions and choices.
Rhiannon: What’s your relationship with colour and how do you decide on the colour palette of a painting?
Haeeun: If I am a conductor, colours are my instruments. It is the colours on the palette that I am prepared to move as closely as possible with my command and control.
When the moving light of the sun shines on the objects, they become another instrument to me and enter my painting. Regardless of whether it is an imaginary landscape that I have never seen before, I aim to use and reassemble all images. In a painting, the image is a colour and becomes an instrument.
Primary colours play an important role in the palette as they act as the subject of the screen. With these colours, I once again expand the range of colours to express grandeur. Colour works as a moving sound from start to finish when I complete a painting, just like I make music.
Sometimes I get inspired by palettes. The accidental arrangement of shapes and colours is reminiscent of a certain place, and I try to incorporate it into the screen as it is.
Colour is my concept in a way. This is what makes up my sunglasses. The unchanging notion is my religion and it is also the basis of all my judgments. In this sense, colour plays a dominant role on the screen, and I always have a few of these colours in my palette. It’s blue and green. Blue is almost the sky, and green almost acts as the earth.
Rhiannon: What materials or tools could you not live without?
Haeeun: Soon after I started learning painting, I boldly applied oil paints to the screen with a knife for the first time, extending my current work. Now I can’t work without a knife. I paint while changing brushes and knives from time to time.
When I enter my studio, the first thing I do is fill with the smell of oil. Oil painting is the main material I have been using since I was in college. At first, I actively used linseed and turpentine to make some parts look like watercolours and some parts were muddy, using the nature of the oil paint as it is. But now, the shape of the knife is more important to me than Linseed and Terefin.
Oil painting can be transformed while moving three-dimensionally, like texture expression and sculpture on the screen, so a brush and a knife work well together. I don’t work on multiple projects at the same time. Before the paint dries, I draw using the property of moving like a sculpture. So a medium that makes the paint less dry is essential. Many brushes and many paints must be seen at a glance to think and create what colour to use when drawing. So I need to make room on a large desk to arrange and place those paints and brushes. A dry towel is also essential to apply various colours directly to the screen with the cleanest and clearest possible colour. I always have a towel in my hand when I change one colour to another right away. Also, I need to wear gloves to keep the physical condition where I can get ideas from paint on your hands. I don’t mind getting paint here and there on my work clothes, but I hate getting paint on my hands so much that I get angry.
Rhiannon: If you could own and live with any artwork what would it be?
Haeeun: While I was immersed in the exploration of painting with the common denominator of autonomous composition such as music, I took a deep approach to what freedom is. In my experience, my paintings are music and complex, but the free form did not satisfy me without following the inner order. I knew it, but when I actually did it, it really was. Of course, everyone has different ways of thinking about order, but I valued the expression of courage and will to freedom while drawing my paintings.
In Jackson Pollock’s paintings, it melts away. Without running away from the environment, He proudly drapes paints on the canvas, and the colours that express his will are truly beautiful. Pollock’s work One: Number 31, 1950 (1950), made in 1947, ironically, the result of such a bold action, the paint surface, gives me the impression of listening to Bach’s music, which is so peaceful. This work is perfect in that the ending of freedom has two sides. I don’t think freedom is a pleasure when given so easily. Considering the monumental actions and efforts that led to the result of that picture, I think that human sacrifice and courage were something that someone had to do.
Rhiannon: What are you currently working on and do you have any projects or exhibitions coming up?
Haeeun: Currently, I continue to present and exhibit works on expressions related to rhythm and movement, which I am interested in expressing. For vivid, pure colours, I’m going faster and more concisely.
Also, I often meet with artists and entrepreneurs from other genres who have interests in my work to discuss how we can collaborate to create more interesting and valuable results.
Music is also deeply related to the creation of choreography for dance movements, so I usually look for performances by modern dancers with a strong theatrical nature, such as my favourite contemporary dancers Hofesh Shechtor and Akram Khan. The abstract expression of the moving rhythm in my paintings can also be used in the performing arts with the help of the latest digital technology. I think there are a lot of things that can be done if you think that movement expressed in colour with abstract shapes is closely related to the movement of nature. I listen indoors, and the wind, rain, clean air, and light bring joy to human happiness and expression, and increase the value of life. By maximising these elements in pictorial expression, we are also planning an NFT that converts them into digital art. Digital art allows virtual experiences regardless of space.
As the CEO of an AI tech startup, my husband sees the picture from different angles and we often discuss the future of computer technology and NFTs. We created some digitally converted NFT arts and uploaded to Opensea platform, burning some of the etherium. A few months ago a blockchain entrepreneur asked me to participate in his NFT art creation event and I was glad to join in the event. There are more and more such events like bridging digital technology and traditional artworks and it’s affecting my work one way or another.
Painting arts are also changing with technology and I am astonished by the new wave of different artworks and opportunities for artists.