The Garden of Dreamscape Delights: A Conversation with YoungHee Woo

YoungHee Woo’s major source of inspiration is the idea of interconnectedness of life and death processes. Scrutiny of this question yields her intriguing, often mesmerizing works.

YoungHee Woo in studio

YoungHee Woo is a classically trained artist, whose paintings weave together reality, fantasy, and dreams. Each one of her paintings invites the viewer to explore a mysterious world, reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch, Max Ernst, or Frida Kahlo. Woo states that her major source of inspiration is the idea of interconnectedness of life and death processes. Scrutiny of this question yields her intriguing, often mesmerizing works.

YoungHee Woo in studio

The artist often combines elements of landscape, still life, and portrait in one piece. While she attributes each of these elements a rich symbolic value, she leaves these symbolic narratives open to interpretation. In “The Irresistible,” for example, she divides the canvas into a nighttime scene by a lake on the right, and a female portrait on the left. The woman wears a sort of living-bird-headdress, while another magical animal gazes at the viewer from deep within the painting. In the foreground, yet another mysterious creature carries an hourglass on its back. The strange human-like figure that holds the hourglass is painted with another torso where there should be legs. While the hourglass is an age-old memento mori, the figure suggests an inability to move. Is the passage of time, then, only illusory? Or is this figure crippled and inhibited by time? These are some of the questions the viewer will inevitably ask when contemplating one of YoungHee Woo’s paintings.

The Irresistible, 2017 | Oil on Canvas | 36″ x 46″

What attracted you to painting?

I loved drawing since I was a child, and was outstanding at it. Naturally, I had a vague dream that I would be a painter. As I grew up, so did my dream. It was fascinating that I could keep a record of the things I wanted to express. Later on, I wanted to paint ‘good paintings’, in my own style, and life without painting became meaningless.

What is your process? Do you paint quickly, or work on each piece for a long time? Do you make preparatory drawings or “invent” your painting on the spot?

Earlier in life, I had preferred quick intense paintings. Not all the work is done with a preparatory sketch. These days I make 30% of preparatory drawings and 70% is done on the canvas. My process takes a long time because of modifications and painting over.

Each of your paintings contains a story. What inspires these narratives?

I have loved reading since I was young. I enjoy contemplation, and I’m often lost in wild fancies. The sensibilities formed by this process affect me in my work. Scribbling in a sketchbook and gazing upon the canvas lead me to the metaphoric figures that deliver the theme I want to express. Sometimes the scenes from my dreams also help and I often project my ego onto animals. You can say I depend on trans-subconsciousness.

Could you give an example of how a specific painting came into being, for example, “The Irresistible,” or “In Fact, a Monodrama”?

In Fact, a Monodrama, 2015 | Oil on Canvas | 24″ x 24″

“The Irresistible” shows what I realized through all the time I have lived. The bird covering my eyes to protect me from the troubles of life is my dream, my totem, and also my alter ego (which I want to evade). But however hard I struggle, I’m tangled in the chains of life’s trials. This is something one cannot resist. “In Fact, a Monodrama” is about how on the outside we may appear in a certain way depending on what role we play within various social structures and institutions. But this is a kind of mask that we wear, in order to fit within the environment that surrounds us. We are, after all, all alone.

Your titles are often quite mysterious. They seem to add to the already surreal quality of the artwork rather than explain them. How do you come up with these titles?

My sensibilities and my background in literature contribute to my titles. I like to add a little bit of mystique on to the theme of the painting.

It seems that many of your paintings might refer to myths, dreams and the world of the subconscious; for example, “The Shared Story of Two Women.” If so, could you please elaborate?

I’m attracted to the mystique of the mythical world. It makes the mundane ordinary life delightful and vitalizes my working process. “The Shared Story of Two Women” is a painting that re-created the story of a fantasy dream I had one night. There was no one, the floor was covered with round grey rocks. The objects thought to be rocks rose and turned into seals as I changed my path in order to pass them by. Still, there were endless rocks ahead of me… The lady who is going to plant a sapling is a woman with a dream. She believes in a simple, pure, bright way of the world. The rising animals represent what she does not yet know. They are beings that still struggle in a tough world. The lady who returns with powerful buffalo horns on her head is another apparition of the same woman but changed over time. She looks armed to the teeth, but in the end, what she is wearing is a corset: something that suffocates women. We don’t know if she chose to wear it or she was forced to. The theme is the limitation of human will.

The Shared Story of Two Women, 2018 | Oil on Canvas | 24″ x 48″

In your artist statement, you write that the relationship between death and life is a theme of major importance for you. Is there something about painting that grasps and interprets this theme particularly well?

My thoughts about life and death are what affects my paintings. The other way around, I’m not sure about it. I just cannot live without painting.

You are specialized in Western painting. What was your focus within the Western tradition and what attracted you to these artists? Who are your favorites?

If Eastern culture is static, Western culture is dynamic. I read works of fascinating classical Western literature since I was young. Books like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey attracted me to the world of free expression through the medium of oil painting. Later on the soul of Native Americans and their thoughts on nature, the non-possessive lifestyle of the Gypsies, and the Nomads who face life as travelers and accept death captured my heart. You may differentiate Eastern and Western tradition as static and dynamic, but I could find the common denominator.
I was spiritually influenced by Virginia Woolf, Ingeborg Bachmann, and T.S. Eliot. My favorite painters are Egon Schiele, Francis Bacon, and Remedios Varo.

YoungHee Woo student
YoungHee Woo and her early works

Are there artists or movements within the Eastern history of art that have also influenced your work?

The 5000-year-history of Korea started with Gojoseon. The founder of Gojoseon, Dangun, favored the principle of humanitarianism. One of our ancient burial practices was to leave the dead body to be weathered and just live with the remains. In other words, people lived in harmony with the life and death process, so it wasn’t necessary to distinguish them. Therefore, the cycle of coming from nature and going back to it is what I’ve learned naturally, and that is the main theme of my paintings.

Is there a way in which these two distinct approaches to making art—the Western and the Eastern traditions—meet in your painting?

The overall flow that completes my work, the spiritual world, brings this moment of integration.

Collecting art is a highly involving and emotional experience. The artist’s process and intention are some of the factors that make one fall in love with his or her piece. Learn more about our artists’ creative methods and fascinating techniques in the Center Stage and Artist Techniques categories.

YoungHee Woo’s brightly colored, fantastical and whimsical works will be on view at Agora Gallery from September 21 through October 11, 2018. View all of YoungHee’s works for sale on her ARTmine page and read more about her on her Agora Profile.

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