Hein Koh’s work uses whimsy to explore heavy emotions.
How many artists are able to give you strong feelings about a woman made out of broccoli? Hein Koh’s green, vegetal protagonist—with her single, huge eye and brightly lipsticked lips—may look lighthearted, but she’s going through some things. The paintings in “On The Edge of A Precipice,” on view at Anton Kern through June 18, put this figure in unexpected, occasionally morbid scenarios.
In Buried Alive, for instance, we find the character entombed in a grave, blithely puffing a cigarette. Elsewhere, she’s gobbling pills, or fighting to escape a burning building. Oh, and there’s also a giant anthropomorphic carrot sculpture on view, if broccolis aren’t your taste.
FF0083 recently spoke with the New York-based artist about her creative process, therapy, and the color pink.
Your new paintings pair the broccoli woman with a faceless figure who you’ve said ‘represents her shadow, in a Jungian sense — the undesirable, darker parts of ourselves that we don’t want to look at.’ As an artist, what are your tried-and-true techniques for overcoming your own ‘shadow’?
I’m a big believer in therapy, and I’ve been in therapy for at least a decade now. I’ve had to do a lot of work to deal with past trauma in my life — which I used to run away from — and face my own shadow. I’ve only been able to start accepting my own shadow in recent years, hence the shadow’s appearance in my work. My therapist used to tell me I was fragmented — I’d split off different parts of myself and compartmentalize them — but now that I’m becoming a more integrated person I am much more self-accepting. In turn, this helps me make more fully realized work.
Besides therapy, I practice meditation and exercise regularly in order to keep my mind and body healthy for a creative flow. I recently took up skateboarding again because my daughters got into it—and I’m obsessed. I skated a bit during college when my friend gave me one of his skateboards. I was never that good, though I persisted in learning to how to ollie.
Now I’m just learning to navigate the skateparks, which is an entirely new experience. It induces so much fear and self-consciousness, and I feel such a huge sense of accomplishment each time I get over [those feelings]…. I want to feel completely free, brave and unselfconscious in all aspects of my life. Also, I just want to have more fun.
What’s one thing you love about the contemporary art world? What’s one thing you absolutely hate?
I love being part of a community of artists who understand and value my weird life and ideas. I hate fakeness and inflated egos.
Can you tell me about a time in your career where you were intensely frustrated, and maybe considered quitting art? How did you overcome this?
I probably have a crisis once every few months when I question everything I do, but I use those times to reflect on what I am doing and ask myself if I really want to be doing it.
Just recently, after finishing my work for my show, I asked myself a lot of questions — if I even wanted to keep painting anymore, if I wanted to take a break, or maybe get back into playing music again, etc. I think it is good to ask yourself these questions to make sure your connection to your work is solid.
Eventually, after a lot of reflecting and experimenting in my studio, I realized I wanted to keep painting… but I wanted to make different kinds of paintings, so that’s what I’m doing now. I take mini breaks here and there but generally I don’t like to be away from my studio for more than a couple of days, unless I am taking a planned vacation. Otherwise, I start to get antsy and depressed. It’s an obsession I can’t get rid of.
Our blog, FF0083, is named after a specific shade of pink, hex code #FF0083. I’d love to do as sort of ‘Rorschach color test’—does the color conjure any feelings or specific memories for you?
This is hilarious, but I actually started to paint my canvases pretty much this shade of fluorescent pink, as I am experimenting with colored grounds.
It makes me think of my daughter Oni who is obsessed with pink, and how pink is a color that makes many little girls happy. I was very anti-pink when my girls were first born, because I was frustrated with how color was so gendered, but now I’ve come to appreciate pink as a color on its own, regardless of the socialized gender constructs surrounding it. Pink is beautiful!