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Layers of paint, paintings of feelings: the abstract works of Sunyoung Hwang

Sunyoung Hwang
Image courtesy the artist

Brush stroke after brush stroke, an artist can create a wonderland for the heart to explore feelings, emotions and, perhaps, also memories.

The depth of life, the human emotional world and the experiences we go through can’t often be easily conveyed to others or even explained to oneself.

Some argue that art is healing to the soul as it, indeed, speaks to us in a different, more profound way, something we cannot achieve with daily speech about our victories or struggles, and helps us voice our inner world.

The approach to abstract painting adopted by Sunyoung Hwang suggests a desire to address human emotions as they are and enjoy the process. The overlapping layers of paint in the works created by this young artist invite us to reflect on the nature of the inner human emotional world, made up of experience after experience, feeling after feeling, with one hiding or showing the other, just like her brush strokes do in her abstract paintings. The colours of the paint are the colours of our life, translated into a material visual language.

I got curious about the artist’s approach to her works and asked Ms Hwang a few questions about her art practice.

1. Would you introduce yourself to our readers?

I am a London-based Korean artist. I studied my BFA at the Slade School of Fine Art and then completed my MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art.

My work has focused on exploring physical and psychological layering. I overlap multitudinous layers on canvas through an intuitive approach to painting, without preliminary sketches, drawings or photographic references. My paintings can be described as a tangible representation of the unconscious, incoherent flow of metaphorically internalised thoughts, emotions, memories, impressions, and as an attempt to see the invisible accumulation of these phenomena through the tangibility of paint on the canvas.

2. Have you always been determined to become an artist? If not, when did you decide to actively pursue a career in the arts?

It is hard to say when I first wanted to be an artist. I have been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember and I had always wanted to become an artist since I was little, yet it was more about wanting to keep on painting than wanting to pursue a career in the arts. I think I began to consider the possibility of being a practicing artist while preparing for the Slade School of Fine Art.

Echoes of Forgotten Nights, Nunnery Gallery, January 2018
Installation view: The Echoes of Forgotten Nights, Nunnery Gallery, London, January 2018. Image courtesy the artist

3. Art can take many forms of expression, and you rely on painting to free your imagination and communicate with the world. What is about painting that makes this art form your chosen one?

Painting for me is about a journey of which the purpose is to wander around. The process of my painting is similar to that of walking without a destination and without knowing where I am heading to, not taking shortcuts. There are so many possibilities that sometimes it is hard to decide where to go, which makes me anxious but also excites me. I really enjoy working this way as I can explore all possibilities in my work.

While I paint, I find myself in meditation or silent contemplation, and at the same time dancing internally. It leads me into a completely different world with a totally different flow of time creating a sense of temporal and spatial boundlessness that makes me feel as if I am inside the painting that I am working on or becoming a part of it.

4. Have you ever considered or are you currently looking into other practices such as sculpture, installation or performance?

Although I am also interested in other practices such as film, ceramic and sculpture, I think I enjoy them more as a viewer than as an artist. I might want to try them in the future, but for now it seems there are no other mediums that I would enjoy more than painting and I am going to be dedicated to developing my own painting language as I feel I still have a lot to explore within it.

5. Your works come in different scales. What are the different challenges arising from different sizes of the canvas?

Working at different scales is so important to my practice as there are different approaches to painting depending on scales that influence the relationship between me and my work, and between my work and the viewer.

I have always been fascinated by working on large-scale paintings. I really enjoy the feeling of physically painting on a big canvas—the process of physical action and interaction with the canvas and materials—and an immersive environment it creates. The experience of being physically immersed or involved in a large painting while I am working on it, facilitates intense emotional and psychological immersion into my own process, making me feel like I am going into the work or becoming a part of it. I hope the viewer experience my work this way too. The only problem about working on a large-scale is that it is too big for my studio, storage space and sometimes even for exhibition space, so the biggest painting I am working on at the moment is almost the same size as the door frame of my studio.

Making a large scale is great fun and exciting, but there is something really appealing about making a small scale too even though it takes longer for me to finish a small work than a large one. Working on a small painting creates a sense of focus that draws me into what I am doing and makes me have more intimate feelings about the painting process. It can also draw the viewer into what they are looking at and they can, taking a closer look at the work, have more intimate feelings about their viewing experience. More recently, I have also become very interested in working on medium-size paintings, and these are also great fun to work on.

6. You work with abstract designs. What guides your hand and brush while you paint? What determines what the next stroke will be like?

I explore physical and psychological layering through an intuitive approach to painting. Open to all possibilities, my work does not begin with a particular inspiration or idea and I don’t have the end result of the work in my mind when I get started. I work directly onto the canvas without preliminary sketches, drawings or photographic references, as I don’t want to dissociate planning from making. Believing in the process rather than the end result, I see the canvas as a place in which my achievements, failures, mistakes and experiences that I have gone through during the painting process are recorded from the very beginning to the end.

For me, the act of painting is a form of meditation that has influenced my unconscious workflow. When painting, I unconsciously reflect on what I have seen, felt or experienced. It is almost like experiencing a flashback and this dictates the direction in which my work evolves. My initial marks are a starting point for a development of ideas and images drawn from personal memories. I then overlap multiple layers that represent time and place, through various tempos, rhythms, gestural marks and brushstrokes, responding intuitively and instinctively to the earlier layers on the canvas. It is an organic process and development within the canvas.

Sunyoung Hwang, Gallery ERD exhibition 2019
Installation view: I Feel Guilty About Missing You. Because I Didn’t Feel Guilty About Leaving You. Gallery ERD, Seoul, November – December 2019. Image courtesy the artist

7. If you could describe your art practice in three words, which ones would you choose and why?

Emotional archaeology: My work is about psychological and emotional layering, inviting the viewer to unearth the accumulated or buried histories and to explore their echoes within my paintings.

Meditative: The references and motifs in my work are all very personal to me, based on my physical, psychological, sensory and emotional experiences and my relationship with them. Painting for me is like an intimate experience of contemplation to encounter what I have seen, felt or experienced, and their internalised, unconscious, and invisible accumulation. I see my work as a place in which the invisible can be seen, the intangible can be touched, and the silence can be heard.

Collapse: My work is not intended to be recognisable or figurative as it does not directly depict anything, though some of layers in my painting might suggest a sense of figuration or landscape. There is an intense, iterative process of construction and demolition of layers within my painting through a repeated application and removal of paint that conceals and reveals earlier layers. This process makes my work ambiguous and somewhat elusive.

8. You come from South Korea, the land of ‘dansaekhwa’. Does this movement or Korean tradition more in general have an influence on your practice?

I was born and lived in South Korea for 19 years spending my childhood there, so I may be to some extent indirectly influenced by Korean tradition or culture without my being aware of it.

I think Dansaekhwa artists seem to have been more concerned with tactility than colour. Through the repetition of marks, lines or geometric patterns, they created the physicality of materials and of painting surface with the emphasis on the process and action. Canvas, for them seems like a surface that is to be filled with their repetitive actions, so what is happening “on the canvas” seems important in their work. In contrast, canvas for me is more about a place than a surface, so what is happening “inside the canvas” and creating a sense of depth through the repetition of layering and wiping the surface is more important in my work.

9. In what way, if any, is studying art abroad and at RCA reflected in your practice?

Having lived abroad, I have often gained inspiration whilst travelling and wandering around cities. Observing and absorbing different surroundings, urban spaces and landscapes by walking, unconsciously gives me some space to observe myself internally and get in touch with my inner world. It evokes personal memories or emotions— often nostalgic memories of the past, my family or home I left behind—even if they are not necessarily directly related to the places where I visit or the scenes I encounter whilst walking. Experiencing those nostalgic feelings provides ideas and materials for my work and influences my moods, which in turn may have a subliminal influence on the moods of my paintings.

Studying at the Royal College of Art helped me better understand my practice: I was able to understand why I was painting what I was painting. During that time, I also realised that the act of painting makes me feel like I am meditating and dancing at the same time, and how significant it is to explore the boundary between internal and external experiences, the visible and invisible while I paint.

Antisocial Isolation at Saatchi Gallery
Installation view: Antisocial Isolation at the Saatchi Gallery, London, November 2020. Image courtesy the artist

10. What inspires you and what, on the other hand, feels limiting and counterproductive when working on your pieces?

There are so many things that inspire my practice in different ways and how they interact with each other when they mingle together in my work is important. Some are very specific, yet they often have subliminal influence on my work: personal memories and things that I have observed, photographed, recorded or documented whilst travelling and wandering around cities. On the other hand, others are more of a response to my surroundings: natural light, shadow, the hues and images I am surrounded by in my daily life, the songs or podcasts I listen to in my studio and different states of mind while I am painting. Anything around me seems to slide into my painting in an unexpected way without even noticing. In most cases, it is not until I finish a painting that I come to know where the motifs, shapes, colours, brushstrokes or moods in my work come from.

My choice of colours is not a conscious decision, though colour is a big part of my work. When choosing colours for my painting, I usually find myself unconsciously drawn to the colours that I like, such as blue, green or purple, so different shades of those colours tend to dominate my palette. It makes me explore different variations of the colours—sometimes muted or desaturated, sometimes vibrant and sometimes both simultaneously on one canvas—but at the same time, it could limit my palette too. I believe it is at times important to explore different colour temperatures and combinations, so, in my recent work, I have worked with pastel shades and earthy, warm colours that I find a more difficult palette to handle.

11. Do you have a dream you would like to see come true or a goal in particular you aim to achieve?

Having a solo show in London had been one of my dreams since I decided to be an artist and I was so happy when the dream came true. But soon after, I began to feel anxious about how long it would take until the next solo show in London and asked myself: what is most important to me? I realised that showing my work in different places around the world is important, but more important is making good works, feeling happy while I am painting and satisfying myself. From then on, I decided to concentrate on process goals, instead of outcome goals: rather than getting stressed about something that I want to achieve and about satisfying others, I decided to be more consistent in creating paintings and be more honest with them in order to make good paintings.

12. Based on your experience, what would you recommend to those who want to pursue a career as an artist?

The best part of being an artist for me is that I have the freedom and flexibility to make my own schedule, instead of having to work specific hours chosen by someone else, and the ability to choose my workload. However, at the same time, artists are more likely to be tempted to work only when they feel inclined to. From my own experience, the biggest challenge as an artist is to keep making art consistently and steadily even when things don’t go my way and thus, I don’t feel like working. I learned pretty quickly that I should be my own boss and that I must carry on working even when I encounter frustration and I feel tempted to run away from my work. Sometimes it is better to refresh myself spending some time away from the work, but most of the time I try to show up to the studio, though not always successfully, and spend as much time hesitating and failing as succeeding. It is not easy to work persistently, especially with uncertainty and anxiety about the future and with loneliness and isolation. I think it is something that most artists struggle with.


After this lovely and inspiring chat, I really can’t wait for the next works to be exhibited and wish Ms Hwang all the luck and success she deserves.

If you want to keep up with her upcoming exhibitions or latest work, don’t forget to check out her Instagram account: @sunyoung.hwang_

Selected solo exhibitions:

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