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Layers of time: Interview with Heo Suyoung

Eazel Magazine

Dec 27, 2022

Heo Suyoung’s latest exhibition at Hakgojae Gallery, Seoul (Oct 14 - Nov 19, 2022) is his first solo show since 2018, showcasing the works as they are seen in the moment of presentation in 2022; as the time spent on each work vary significantly with some works taking over ten years to complete. Made up of ‘literal’ components such as bugs, mushrooms, flowers, grass, and stars, and numerous layers stacked up on top of each other, Heo's canvas looks distinctively different from another solo exhibition at the same gallery six years prior. What the two shows have in common, however, is the expression of the artist through layers of time and space. Heo fills the canvas with thick layers of paint without leaving any empty spots, luring the viewer to be curious about narratives of each and every detail of the elements in the painting; perhaps making up their own stories about what is happening in the bustling scenes in his work.  


On the contrary, Heo himself is less concerned with the overall narratives of his paintings. Rather, he hopes viewers observe the sensuous materiality that is unique to the act of painting itself. As the artist continuously paints and puts on layer after layer, repeating the strenuous process of painting, what is visually left behind is the result of his labor. In a way, the wonderful imaginations that Heo’s paintings inspire us is a fruitful by-product that taps into our visually driven culture; the real essence is accepting the works as they are in that particular moment and experiencing the traces of time.


Heo’s exhibition and many of the works are untitled, in an attempt to open up the possibilities for the viewers to each have a unique relationship with the works without the existing context or specific framework that may limit the emotional connection. In the case of Untitled 02 (2018-2022), the artist has his own memories and narrative behind the work during a trip overseas, but it is at the end of the day, left with each onlooker to appreciate it in any way possible.  


On the last day of Heo Suyoung’s solo exhibition, eazel met with the artist at the gallery, where the ever so vibrant painting by the entrance, Fungi (2010-2022), was drawing passers-by into the exhibition space. We talked about Heo's incredibly labor intense painting methodology that takes benefit from layers of time and experience, as well as listening to the artist tell us about his practice in a bigger context of life beyond the gallery walls. 




Installation view of Heo Suyoung solo exhibition at Hakgojae Gallery, Seoul (Oct 14 - Nov 19, 2022)
Courtesy of the artist 
Photo: Jang Hwal Lim



Eazel: Your current solo exhibition at Hakgojae Gallery has come to an end, which was held four years after the solo exhibition at 63 Art, also in Seoul in 2018. Were there any elements you held important while you prepared for this exhibition? It would also be interesting to hear about some inspirations for this particular show.


Heo Suyoung (HS): I was anxious that I wouldn’t be able to complete my work on time. I am always conscious that I need to make the paintings look more exuberant, which is a strenuous process. I ended up cutting my sleep back to make up for the lack of time as I continuously develop the paintings in various ways. It’s hard for me to know when the painting process ends. A painting takes a long time to develop but viewing it does not. For me, exhibitions create space where the viewers can encounter all this time I spent on painting. I prepared for the show in the hope that my daily input would translate into a slow moment for the viewers to take in. 


When an idea crosses my mind, I tend to put it on the canvas straight away. Sometimes I leave it unfinished, and other times I put much work into finishing it somehow. Until the completion, there are many variable factors that determine the painting such as thickness, density, and color. Nearing the end, as I rectify my attempts, I often come to forget what the inspiration was in the first place. An instant idea, or an inspiration could be the beginning of a painting, but it does not automatically become the result. That’s why I consider the painting process itself to be an important factor in my practice.



Eazel: Among the 23 paintings presented in the exhibition, including the recent works, we would like to talk about Fungi (2010-2022), which is also the first work we can see entering the gallery. As noted from the production year, this painting took much longer than the others. Did you overlap new layers little by little for more than 10 years since the first touch of the brush? 


HS: Fungi was not created under a strict plan. I took it out and worked on it when the situation permitted me to do so, and continued with it in between making other paintings. Regardless of whether an artwork was shown in a particular exhibition or even if the work was previously represented with a different intention, if I see something that I’d like to alter, I overlap new layers on top of the existing one. Fungi also went through this process and ended up as you see it now in the exhibition.  


In the case of Fungi, my prior way of working has been reflected to some extent. There is a whole body of work where a painting was completed after depicting all the images from every page in a book; in a way, the book turned into a piece of painting. I used books like encyclopedias of animal and plant guides. And the moment I finished describing all the images from the book on the canvas, it was the point at which I felt the work was complete.



Heo Suyoung
Fungi, 2010-2022
Oil on canvas
162 x 390 cm (63.8 x 153.5 in.) 
© Suyoung Heo, courtesy of the artist and Hakgojae Gallery, Seoul
Photo: Jang Hwal Lim



Eazel: Listening to you talk about your painting process reminds us of another interview where you said “I keep on painting until I am satisfied with the results of painting”. When do you usually make the final brushstroke to complete your work? 


HS: It used to be very difficult for me to decide when to take off the brush. For that reason, in my earlier years, I tried several methods including the one I just told you about transcribing every image of certain books. Or I would establish my own rule that a painting is complete after a full year of working on it. However, despite the principles I put in place, if the result was not satisfactory, I didn't stop revising the works anyways, hence often breaking the rules I had set myself.


Now I’ve become more flexible and take off the brush when I cannot paint anymore; when my arms or my eyes hurt, or if I am mentally exhausted. There are some works that I stopped working on and left as they are, but usually, when I get them out after a period of time, I notice elements that were overlooked, in which case then I develop them further.



Eazel: Perhaps it's because of your response, but when looking at Fungi, we can feel the maturity as if the work has grown over a long time. The amount of time taken to create the work is left on the canvas as visual richness. Yangsandong 05 (2013-2022) is another work that reflects the layers of many years, as much as Fungi. In the case of Yangsandong 05, however, the flow of time is referenced by seasonal changes. Could you tell us more in detail about this work?


HS: This piece was created in 2012 when I participated in a residency program run by the Gwangju Museum of Art in Korea. The neighborhood was called Yangsan-dong, hence the title of the works produced during the residency. I began to observe the unfamiliar surrounding environments and put a pause on depicting books and started to paint landscapes, but the methodology was similar as the early work, Fungi, in the context of transcribing images onto a single canvas. What was different was that I painted Yangsandong 05 on the basis that the landscape will be completed when a year's worth of time passes. 


Each season was layered on top of the other, piling them up as the weather changed over the year. Even after I left the residency in 2013, I would stop by whenever I was passing through Yangsan-dong, to observe the sense of the season. When the place had fallen into grassy ruins, I continued to visit and carried on piling up seasonal backdrop onto the canvas. 



Heo Suyoung 
Yangsangdong 05, 2013-2022
Oil on canvas
210 x 147 cm (82.7 x 57.9 in.)
© Suyoung Heo, courtesy of the artist and Hakgojae Gallery, Seoul
Photo: Jang Hwal Lim



Eazel: Leaving behind your usual habitat and settling in an unfamiliar city must be a great inspiration and act as a resourceful stimulus. How do your numerous residency experiences influence your practice in general, and affect your work?


HS: The experience of participating in residencies is a repetition of arriving at a strange place and by the time you are familiar with it, leaving again. Whenever I move to a new place, I go out of my way to find something new to paint. I stayed in a residency near the sea once, and I tried to make images using water in a way that I’ve never tried before. Another time, after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, I learned that all four seasons can exist in one place at the same time. 


I came to understand that different places offer their own experiences, and I try to reflect them in my art. I collect these precious moments and create a flow of patterns of time in the paintings. Owing to the nature of my life, where I move often, I’ve always been able to encounter new landscapes, and all my paintings are inevitably the consequence of that experience.


One of the presented works in the exhibition, Grass 05 (2018-2022) for example, originates from daily life at the residency program at Mongin Art Space in Sindang-dong, Seoul in 2014. I often took the grassed route to and back from the residency, and the painting is composed from a top-down perspective as I stood on the grass. The working process of this piece started with putting down natural elements which have hard textures such as stones and soil. Then, on top of that, I piled up other small elements that surround the grass patch; I drew small leaves as they grew in the garden, and I drew flowers when they bloomed, and when leaves fell from maple and ginkgo trees, I drew those, and added snow in the winter. As I stacked up the textures of the elements, I could see that the overlapped images naturally became fragmented. I think that such a process becomes naturally balanced and harmonized to create a single plane.



Eazel: Another work that shows this layering technique is Untitled 02 (2018-2022), where again, the thick texture created by the densely piled images is very noticeable. Unlike other works though, this one has an element of human figure. What was your process of adding figures and objects in this particular painting?


HS: Untitled 02 is based on an experience I had during my trip to Madagascar, where I was passing through swarms of locusts, like the story of Moses in the Bible. I was on a boat to go see a baobab tree, and locusts came out of nowhere and clung to me. I took pictures and recorded videos of this amazing experience, but later I found out that the locusts were moving so fast that none of them were properly captured throught the lens. So I had to search for Madagascar locusts on the Internet and started painting them one by one.


The figure you mentioned in Untitled 02 is the first element added to the painting and it's a woman. Once this female figure was in the background along with the backdrop of the landscape, it felt natural to cover it with the bugs. The blue sky was painted before adding the female figure, placing the previous images in the background like a distant view, and creating new layers on top of that, so they appear closer to my eyes.



Heo Suyoung
Left: Untitled, 022018-2022, oil on canvas, 25 x 25 cm (9.8 x 9.8 in.)
Right: Untitled 182022, oil on canvas, 25 x 25 cm (9.8 x 9.8 in.)
© Suyoung Heo, courtesy of the artist and Hakgojae Gallery, Seoul
Photo: Jang Hwal Lim



Eazel: It seems that the life experiences you have are deeply connected to your careful observation as they appear in your paintings, giving a sense of visual depth. What is your perspective on human life and the surrounding environment, and how do you reflect that in your work?


HS: The process of painting through layering images over time, resembles the human life cycle. The process of human life begins as a small cell, then is born as a child, reaches adolescence, and becomes an adult, eventually turning into ashes. I had to organize and take care of the funeral of my brother a while ago and in the process, I witnessed that humans eventually turn into a handful of ashes when cremated. My brother was born in Korea, became a child, then a student, and served in the army like other males in the country. After graduating, he became an office worker, then married a woman and became her husband, then a father to his children. His journey ended in the form of a handful of ashes. I try to metaphorize the principle of life through my ‘painting method’, in which a small being is born, becomes ‘something’, then returns to being a small thing again. 



Eazel: The subject matter of space in your new series seems like an expansion of our surrounding environment and human life cycle. If your previous works pictured the world where humans ground themselves on, such as flowers, grass, and forest, the Space series depicts the universe, a little far from this world. It feels like the scope of application in your work has expanded. Could you tell us more about this new series?


HS: I'm more interested in how images are built up over time, layer by layer, than a specific subject-matter. More clearly, I'm more fascinated by the form of the painting itself, than the content within the canvas. The Space series was made by downloading images of space via the telescope. I downloaded the pictures sent to the Earth from the telescope and repeatedly painted a universe that does not exist in reality. The method of making this series was also similar to my early works with books in a way that I was transfering images from one place to another [canvas]. 


Astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in his book, Cosmos (1980), “The total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth”. There are about 400 billion stars in the Milky Way that mankind has discovered, and considering the number of galaxies outside of our world, there are many more stars than we have knowledge of. This thought became the starting point for depicting the universe. This place we are standing on will also disappear someday according to the principle of extinction, and if so, we will also become stars somewhere in the universe. So, the process of creation and extinction of countless stars is connected to our lives.



Installation view of Heo Suyoung solo exhibition at Hakgojae Gallery, Seoul (Oct 14 - Nov 19, 2022)
Courtesy of the artist 
Photo: Jang Hwal Lim



Eazel: Having had this insightful conversation with you today, we can gather that you put more emphasis on the substantive elements of painting than the subject matter; but the narratives the viewers can conjure up come so organically as your personal experience is embedded in your work. We could also see that you distance yourself from the semantic interpretation of the images you produce. For those not familiar with your work already and looking at your work in this exhibition, what would you say is the key point in understanding your practice? 


HS: People tend to interpret paintings rather than just take them in as they are. Occupied by the possible narratives of the elements; where the bugs came from, what is happening in the universe, or stories in the landscapes. I think the act of curiosity toward a potential story out of an image comes from the visual dependency in art and literature. I wish visual art could do more than just rely on the existing canon of art, but create something new and unique. 


One solution is that everyone who looks at my art creates their own narrative, or reads it differently. Partly for that reason, I didn’t title this exhibition either. Where possible, I don't bother putting titles on my works and leave them untitled. I hoped that viewers would be able to discover the multi-layered temporality accumulated during the production process and think about the difficulties of life through how complex it is to make a painting.



The solo exhibition of Heo Suyoung at Hakgojae Gallery in Seoul was on view from Oct 14 - Nov 19, 2022. For more information, please click here