INTERVIEW ‘Feign’ Series Shoots Audacious Artist to Fame

Young artist Kim Hyun-jung is renowned for her audacity, which is often described as “feisty and provocative.” The 29-year-old “arttainer” delights in entertaining the public with her unconventional paintings that she hopes will play a part in expanding the global presence of Korean art.

“Feign: Sweet Whispers (feat. Limit Excess).” 2016, Ink and light color and collage on mulberry paper, 120 × 176 cm.

The sign on a small building on Nonhyeon Street in the heart of Gangnam in southern Seoul reads “Kim Hyun-jung Art Creative Center.” This is what artist Kim Hyun-jung calls her studio. Occupying two floors of the building, including office space for her 10 or so employees, it could be likened to an art start-up.
Kim is known for her paintings of women dressed in hanbok (traditional Korean costume) placed in a modern setting, which she has registered as a trademark. She won the 2015 Korea Creative Innovation Award in the art category and was named in Forbes’ list of “30 Under 30 Asia 2017: The Arts.” With requests for lectures flooding in, she has had to hire an assistant to manage her schedule.
Dressed in a gorgeous hanbok for the interview, the artist appears to have popped out of one of the paintings in her “Naesung” (Feign) series.
“Hanbok has become my trademark. In fact, people don’t recognize me when I don’t wear one. I own around 30 sets, and combine the tops and skirts in various ways with the help of a stylist. The more I wear hanbok, the more I appreciate its graceful and glamorous beauty,” she said.
In the Korean dictionary, naesung is defined as “feigning innocence on the outside, but being wily inside.” Kim had a hard time coming up with the equivalent in English, as she felt it was a uniquely Korean term and no English word could fully capture the exact meaning.

Elegant Yet Daring
The duplicity of human nature is the theme that runs through Kim’s work. The “feigning women” in her paintings portray a striking incongruity between their attire and actions. Elegant in traditional Korean dresses, one rides a motorcycle delivering McDonald’s hamburgers; another sits on the floor with her voluminous skirt rolled up, eating pizza or scarfing down instant noodles. The translucent skirt reveals the silhouette of the body and the crisp texture of the fabric is rendered in collage. The juxtaposition of traditional Korean costumes and modern city life seems to be at odds, and yet presents an offbeat exuberance, the audience being drawn to the beautiful young women in the paintings.
“I was inspired by the elegant and enigmatic image of hanbok,” said Kim. “I thought, what if I painted women dressed in formal traditional attire, but in a casual everyday setting. Deviating from the norm and freeing oneself from other people’s judgment are filtered through the concept of ‘naesung.’”
Her strategy seems to have worked; her solo exhibitions attract tens of thousands of people. Aspiring to make art that connects with the public, this clever young artist makes active use of social media and has amassed a sizeable fan base of over 110,000 followers.

Double Major in Business Administration
Kim first had art lessons when she was eight. “I’ve been doing art my whole life, so there is nothing I can’t draw,” she confidently declared. Even so, she wasn’t without worries when she entered an arts middle school. When she decided to pursue art in earnest, the words “artists are poor” made her hesitant. But not dissuaded, she was determined to break this stereotype. How awful it would be if all that aspiring young artists could look forward to was worrying constantly about how to make ends meet.

Kim Hyun-jung, dressed in hanbok, works on a painting at her studio in Nonhyeon-dong, Seoul. Like the subjects of her paintings, she is fond of dressing in traditional costume.

Kim double majored in Oriental painting and business administration at Seoul National University. She studied the ins and outs of the art market and the biographies of famous artists who have achieved financial success. To survive as an artist, she pursues ambitious projects, such as developing a wide array of products imprinted with her paintings and forming collaborative art marketing partnerships with several companies.
“I’m interested in the commercialization and popularization of art. Art doesn’t have to be highbrow,” she said. “What concerns me most these days are the limitations of the Korean art market and the hardships young artists are faced with. I try to communicate with the audience to come up with ways to make art more accessible. I’ve even worked as an art dealer. My philosophy of arts management is connecting with the public. By producing artworks that everyone can enjoy and appreciate, I want to help popularize art.”

“Art doesn’t have to be highbrow. What concerns me most these days are the limitations of the Korean art market and the hardships young artists are faced with. I try to communicate with the audience to come up with ways to make art more accessible.”

“Feign: Oops.” 2012, Ink and light color and collage on mulberry paper, 145 × 117 cm.

21st Century Korean Genre Painting
Kim seeks to incorporate unconventional techniques to dispel the preconception that traditional Korean paintings are old and staid. While adhering to traditional techniques using hanji (Korean mulberry paper) and pale ink wash, she boldly combines them with modern elements. For instance, she borrows the storyline of Western fairy tales like “Cinderella” for the theme of her “feigning women” paintings. She has also extended her “Feign” series to photographic works. In some of her paintings, she places a modern woman inside a masterpiece of the 18th-century Joseon period.
“Kim Hong-do, the master of genre painting of the Joseon Dynasty, and Shin Yun-bok, also of the Joseon era, whose bold genre paintings were ahead of their times, have been major influences in my work,” said Kim. “The candidness and humor in their paintings, the bold composition and ingenious brushwork have been a great source of inspiration. Following in their footsteps, my dream is to create Korean genre paintings of the 21st century.”
Kim is currently working on paintings of feigning women at a laundromat, sauna and jjimjilbang (Korean-style bath and sauna complex), a portrayal of our times through the lives of women in contemporary Korean society.
“My current work is figurative,” she explained. “Using a slender brush, I try to express even a single strand of hair as realistically as possible. Eventually, I want to expand into installation and media art. If the concept of ‘feign’ is expressed in a tactile form, it will be easier for the audience to grasp the idea than just by looking at a painting.”
With her sights set on the global art world, she considers installation artist Suh Do-ho an example to follow.

“For his installation ‘Home Within Home,’ Suh created a life-size traditional Korean house with traditional fabric, reinterpreting the distinctive Korean aesthetics and producing an artwork with global appeal,” Kim said.
“I want to introduce the unique aesthetics of Korean ink-and-wash painting, hanbok, and hanji to the world, and achieve international recognition,” she added. “In that sense, I should take some pointers from the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. His collaborations with foreign luxury brands are a good example of how fine art can be translated into commercial products that blend into our everyday lives. My dream is to make art a part of everyday life like music, so I need to learn from his expertise in integrating art and commerce.”
A young artist with remarkable potential, Kim obviously places priority on the quality of her works rather than the number of exhibitions. As a popular artist whose exhibitions draw large crowds, she receives quite a few exhibition offers but doesn’t agree to them all.

“Feign: Where is your rainbow?” 2016, Ink and light color and collage on mulberry paper, 178 × 127 cm.

Identity, Judgment, Popular Belief
“I usually start my day at nine in the morning and paint all day until seven o’clock in the evening,” she said. “Once I focus on a piece, I don’t eat anything all day and just paint. Then, after I’m done, I eat ravenously. The painting of the woman binge eating as she sits in front of an open refrigerator is actually me. I need to be in tune with the painting if I’m to complete it. I’ve produced over 300 paintings in the past few years, and each time I try hard to approach my work with a fresh perspective. I couldn’t tolerate myself more than anybody else if I became complacent and kept painting the same old stuff over and over.”
Kim’s paintings have a strong presence that often overpowers the interior décor, so it’s hard to hang them up just anywhere. This is probably one reason why her paintings do not sell so well. But she has no intention of toning them down and making them nice and pretty.
“I can’t compromise when it comes to my paintings; they’re my babies. Most of them are self-portraits, so how can I deny who I am? It feels good when people look at my work and laugh at the subject matter and title. I feel they have understood my intent to defy convention,” she said.
Kim has big aspirations to play a part in expanding the global presence of Korean art and dreams of the day it gains worldwide recognition.
“I’m thinking about connecting the themes of personal identity, people’s judgment, and popular belief. I’m a young artist at the starting line, so there’s no need to rush. I have the grit to roll up my hanbok sleeves and move forward with determination.”

Chung Jae-suk Editorial Writer and Senior Culture Reporter, The JoongAng Ilbo
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer
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