For Mie Yim painting is like falling backward without a net. Her approach to painting is highly intuitive and her process seems to grow organically out of her life experience. In the interview with Art Spiel she shares some background on her art, process, and current show at Ground Floor Gallery.
AS: You were born in Seoul and currently live in NYC. What can you tell me about this journey and what do you think affected your art along the way?
Mie Yim: Yes, I was born in Seoul, then moved to Hawaii, then moved to Philly for school, then moved to NY – I keep moving East.
I wouldn’t mind keep going, maybe Northern Italy when I’m older.
The fissure that happened from moving to America when I was twelve, informed my art in the most profound and fundamental way. Because there was no moral support and very little explanation, the world seemed topsy-turvy. I had to cope with alienation and loneliness.
I remember the first day I attended school – it was 7th grade. I couldn’t speak a word of English and that day they were doing an oral report. That feeling of vulnerability and humility is an emotional source material for my art. The act of painting is like falling backward without a net – It’s quite scary to try to create something out of nothing.
I also find prepubescent age to be metaphorically ripe with raging hormones and hyper sensitivity, which I want to imbue in my art.
AS: Can you tell me more about that state – of creating something out of nothing?
Mie Yim: Sometimes when I’m in my studio, I may want to not push as much. I may want to stick with what I know, be in my comfort zone.
Or I’ll try to plan my paintings with sketches or a concept. For example, I will paint a pink background, than I will paint this figure that I have drawn, but it never seems to develop in a linear or logical way. If it did, I would be terribly bored by it and it would not be very good. So this feeling of uncertainty is something I embrace, which circles back to my life experience.
AS: You are a painter. What drew you to painting?
Mie Yim: Italy. I’ve been on the fence about fine art. When I was little, I wanted to be a fashion designer. When I was older, I thought maybe I can do graphic design or Illustration.
In fact, I picked commercial art as a major starting out in school. Then on a whim, I applied to go to Tyler School of Art abroad in Italy. I went for one semester, ended up staying a year, and changed my major to painting. I was like a sponge that soaked up everything that was there in Rome. The paintings in all the churches, for example I walked through Piazza Del Popolo everyday from the dorm to school and often would pop in at Santa Maria Del Popolo to see the paintings in the church. I think there was a Caravaggio and a Raphael or two. That’s art immersion – I had to make the leap to making art and glad I did.
AS: What can you share about your painting process?
Mie Yim: The beginning is hard. There’s the pristine, virgin canvas staring at you, full of hope. I know it has to go through such grind, ugliness, doubt, change. Turning it upside down, turning it around, forgetting about it. Then, looking and looking to see if there’s something I can work with – it’s such a cliche but I’m in there, thick and thin. It’s a battle field.
Every new freshly gessoed canvas is difficult to “ruin” but it must be. I start by just applying random paint thinned with medium, moving paint around and hoping something sticks. In this way, it’s a pretty typical ab-ex 101. I have tried to start a painting by having a concept or a plan or a concrete source material but it just doesn’t work out that way because I have to veer off.
That “wheels off the bus” feeling is what I need and if I know what I want to see already, then I’m not interested. After a while, say anywhere from a week to a month, some shape starts to form. It could be a linear shape that’s vertical or horizontal, these lines makes me thing of building blocks or skeletons, which is appropriate because I do think of my imagery to be somewhat anthropomorphic.
Eventually the image forms and becomes very present. I build the paint in layers with a very dry brush to cause a matte, fuzzy texture. I also give some areas to become focused, to play with the push and pull.
AS: Can you elaborate on “anthropomorphic”?
Mie Yim: It is a derivation of my older work, when I was making figurative paintings of plushy bears and bunnies in dreamy landscapes. I have gradually gone away from that and kind of gotten underneath the figures to see if I can form a vocabulary that’s more complex in abstract term and not just story telling.
As the image solidifies, a character emerges. I do use the method of turning it upside down a lot. It’s quite useful, because as I start to get attached to the imagery, I start to get conventional and tight. I need to un-see it. When I turn it upside down, I have about 15 minutes to get something crazy going before it starts to become familiar again.
AS: What’s your approach to color?
Mie Yim: I never consciously think about color. It is totally intuitive for me. I tried to read color theory and Albers books but it doesn’t help me. I don’t really care that purple acts a certain way because green is next to it. Science of color doesn’t interest me. If it doesn’t work, I’ll figure it out. I trust my gut eye. Hopefully at the end I have something that’s undeniable and real, as if it’s always existed.
AS: You have a show at Ground Floor Gallery. Tell me about your body of work there.
Mie Yim: I’m very happy to have the show at the Gallery. It’s been little over a decade since I had a solo show. I needed that much time to figure stuff out. I’ve been in group shows there and the director came over to see some work for a fair. We talked for a while, then we figured it was time to show the paintings.
This is a special 5th anniversary show for the Gallery and I’m the 5th solo show to commemorate that so it’s quite special. We will be showing work from 2017 to now. The gallery is quite small, so we are careful not to overhang. I have a lot of work to choose from. The work from last year leans slightly toward the minimal (well, minimal for me). I would say the paintings are a bit more refined, lean more toward the abstract. The new ones are kind of wacky, almost surreal, leaning a tad toward figuration.
Together, they make an interesting motley crew. The cohesive thread is the fuzziness of the edges, in which the title of the show circles back to -“Sfumato”, a technical painting term, where the edges are blended softly like smoke and the line disappears. Leonardo DaVinci may have invented it and if not, certainly perfected it.
I will also show a few of my pastel drawings that relate to my paintings. I love pastel. That is my specialty.
AS: In Two Coats of Paint (2015) Sharon Butler described your painting at Storefront Ten Eyck as “playful but emotionally dark”. What is your take on that?
Mie Yim: I hope my paintings have open ended interpretations and multiple readings, but she hit the nail right on the head. I’m curious what people will think when they see my work as they get to learn what my intensions are now. I hope to keep some mystery still.
AS: For your statement in that show you wrote that as a child in Korea you were weaned on Hello Kitty and other cute creatures. There is still some of that in your shapes and color sensibility. What are your thoughts on that?
Mie Yim: I wanted to bring auto biographical elements to the work without spelling it out. When I started to show back in 2003, I was doing allegorical, figurative imagery – Fluffy anthropomorphic creatures in dreamy landscapes. Eventually, I wanted the story to be more sublimated and I wanted form and physicality of paint to come to the forefront. I visualize the cute creature whose gut has turned inside out, what does it look like? What are they feeling? They are sweet and sour, laughing and crying.
AS: You mentioned that you were nurtured by Philip Guston, DeKooning, and Italian Baroque painters like Caravaggio. Can you elaborate on that?
Mie Yim: One’s work is an amalgamation of every influence, love, obsession. I have many others – Zubaran, Pontormo, Louise Bourgeois The fluffy, plushy toys are influences from my earlier years, I like the concept of this mash up. Can I still say East/West without being snickered at? Well, be it cheesy, it’s who I am. I’m hopeful that my work embraces the contradictory elements such as internal and external, figurative and abstract to an interesting and poignant end.
AS: And what about your food drawings?
Mie Yim: My food drawings are an aside project that started with making gifts for friends and family. I think of what food they like, rather than buying the food (expensive) and giving it (impractical), making a drawing of it. Plus the tiny paint chips are free from any hardware stores. I’ve used Martha Stewart paint chips for years until they discontinued the paint, therefor the chips. I’ve moved on to Benjamin Moore. The food drawings have its own life and it’s starting to take off, with a different following and shows. One day maybe I could have a large venue where I can show both.
AS: What’s your next project?
Mie Yim: I’m excited that first time in a while I will be creating work for a show, which is being fleshed out as we speak. It’s a huge space so I will be making large paintings of 6 ft tall. I have about 7 paintings done, and want to do more to have more choices. I will also do more of my pastel drawings – It’s such an immediately gratifying process to get something on paper in a day or so. And then there’s watercolor and more food drawings – it’s endless.