Jeannie Rhyu’s Moody Paintings ‘Float Between Surrealism, Folklore, and Dreams’ [Interview]
“I've always been really interested in light and the way it glows, blazes, and warms,” writes Jeannie Rhyu on Mint Tea, an online platform where the painter shares a warm cup and a conversation with her favorite artists. “I love including mutable elements like light, fire, smoke, and water […] their flexibility is really charming to me. I want to capture the exact moment of transformation, which is very magical.”
Born in Seoul, Jeannie grew up in Canada, and is now based in New York City, where she mines the city for creative inspiration. Deeply introspective, Jeannie’s work smolders under the lurid glare of a blacklight, all psychedelic swirls and glowing absinthe greens. Her latest series of oil paintings explore ancestral memories through a smokescreen of moody emotional impressions. “[I paint] fever dreams where the world is tinted with an electric glow and mystical spirits roam widely,” she writes in her artist statement. “[I’m] inspired by history, folklore, rituals, fairy tales, nature, and transcultural femininity, as well as the magic of memories.”
Creatures from Korean folktales often make an appearance in Jeannie’s work—the invincible bulgasari and legendary smoking tiger to name a few—as she restores her connection with nature, spirits, and her ancestors. “There are so many weird, funny, and magical creatures that I am reading and learning more about,” Jeannie says. “It’s fascinating to think about how mythical creatures are manifestations of collective identity, habits of people, and of beliefs at a certain time. So it's really exciting to tap into my unconscious to explore my cultural narrative and to participate in the visual history of my ancestral memories.”
In her painting “When Tigers Used to Smoke,” Jeannie illustrates a common Korean idiom, roughly equivalent to the Western “once upon a time.” Dissipating into the ether, the smoking tiger in Jeannie’s work connects the painter to her roots in Korea, where tigers are seen as guardian spirits. By merging the traditional and contemporary, Jeannie assembles “colorful realms that float between surrealism, folklore, and dreams.” Her work, teetering between real and imaginary worlds, launches the painter from a clouded past into a distinctly unique future.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Jeannie Rhyu discusses her love of thick, globby paint, watching Miyazaki and Disney for relaxation and inspiration, and psychiatrist Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious in her work.
Can you tell us more about the theme of ancestral memories in your new work?
Jeannie Rhyu: I am currently working on a series of oil paintings that explore my emotional impressions of reality while tracing ancestral memories. When I refer to ancestral memories, I’m thinking of the collective wisdom of the past, defined by key moments from cultural history that are distorted and blurred by the passage of time, and yet embody universal experiences shared by many. It helps me to think about Carl Jung’s philosophy of “collective unconscious,” which he used to explain his concept of inherited traits, intuition, and universal knowledge. According to Jung, collective wisdom explains the reason that babies naturally know how to nurse without being taught, or how butterflies instinctively know their migration route.
When I paint, I think a lot about the visual cultural traditions that I grew up with in Seoul, South Korea, Vancouver and Toronto, Canada, and New York, United States of America. I believe that within the thick, complex layers of my transcultural experiences, raw emotions, primal energies, nuanced conversations, and universal ideas all exist. I paint to understand my connection to my past and to share special moments from my memories with people who I hope share a similar collective understanding.
How do you stay creative?
JR: I love to go to museums to see historical artifacts like ancient pottery, water jugs, tools, jewelry, and ritualistic objects that give me a glimpse into the lives of people in the past. I always find going to art galleries to see artworks inspiring. I also love watching nostalgic animations and films like Disney or Miyazaki.
I grew up in Vancouver, surrounded by nature, listening to coyotes howling in my backyard under the moonlight. I lived within a national park and a short walk away from beaches. So I often look to nature and its sublime beauty for inspiration. When I’ve been spending way too much time in my studio painting, I take a break and go rock climbing.
What’s your studio practice like?
JR: Currently, I am focused on my oil painting practice. I usually like to work on about 10 paintings at the same time. I like to apply multiple paint layers of varied opacities on top of each other to build form. Working with multiple paintings at the same time is great for me because it gives me enough time to make sure each layer is mostly dry before I add the next. Also, having 10 projects means I never get bored in my studio. All paintings end up informing each other at the end, which is fascinating for me to watch unfold. I tend to get nervous when I don’t have any empty canvases in my studio, so I always replace the finished ones with newly primed surfaces.
When do you get your best ideas?
JR: I am constantly taking photos and collecting images that I like. Sometimes I remember a random memory from childhood or a forgotten story that I haven’t thought about in a long time, and I decide to paint something inspired by it. I usually sketch or jot down ideas in my sketchbook. I often have very intense, emotional, and narrative dreams. I wake up from my dreams with vivid images burned into my mind. Sometimes I test the strength of the image by waiting until I wake up to see if I still remember. I make sure to paint them if the image is strong enough and if I still identify with it after a while. The best ideas are the ones that have been fermenting in my mind and my sketchbook for a while, until one day they crystalize into clear visions.
What brings you joy right now?
JR: Large, gestural brushstrokes made with globs of thick, creamy, highly-pigmented oil paint. Botanical gardens and conservatories that are filled with weird flowers and butterflies. A warm bowl of kimchi stew and a cup of fruity sorbet.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
JR: I am an artist based in Queens, New York. I love New York because it holds so many people who are different from me, with stories of their own. Hearing their stories gives me comfort in knowing that not only is it okay to embrace who I already am, but it is natural to become the person I want to be. The city holds so many passionate and inspiring people. I also feel very fortunate to have so much access to art and history. I feel blessed to be able to surround myself with so much beautiful art, expressions, people, and dreams.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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