Based in Savannah, GA, Namwon Choi received her BFA and MFA in traditional Korean painting from Hongik University in Seoul, Korea in 2002 and her MFA in Drawing and Painting at Georgia State University in 2014. She is a Professor of Foundation Studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Choi is represented by Sandler Hudson in Atlanta and Laney Contemporary in Savannah, where she had a solo exhibition, En Route, in 2022. Choi’s work has been exhibited at the Korean Culture Center in New York, the Korean Culture Center in Los Angeles, MOCA GA in Atlanta, and the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech, among many other museums and galleries. Most recently, Choi was named one of the five “Women to Watch” by the Georgia Triennial Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and her work appears in the Georgia NMWA New Worlds exhibition at Atlanta Contemporary in early 2023.
The defining characteristics of Namwon Choi’s current work are its subject matter (landscapes of transit on the open road through a streaming tunnel of trees), color (ultramarine blue punctuated by DayGlo neon shapes), mark-making (illusionistically-realistic landscapes rendered in fine strokes and sensitive detail), and shapes (simple, bold geometry of circles, squares, and repeated lines). Choi is exceedingly thoughtful, clear, and deliberate in addressing her compositional choices. We discussed how her identity and cultural/artistic influences determine her designs.
As a professor of Art History focused on researching landscape and place, I was especially interested in Choi’s ability to create landscape paintings that are both personal and universal, simultaneously “somewhere” and “nowhere.” Our wide-ranging conversation is best organized into these categories of subject matter, color, mark-making, and shape.
Holly Goldstein: You are a landscape painter by self-definition. Do you depict specific places? Are your locations from memory, or invented?
Namwon Choi: My recent paintings depict specific highways: the interstate in Georgia between Savannah and Atlanta, highways outside of Seoul, Korea, and roads around Lacoste, France. I paint from photographs, nothing is invented, and I take “bursts” of photographic images during long drives.
I see photography as a tool. When I make a landscape painting, I take a scene from the side of the road. I call it landscape, but I’m on the run. The scene is constantly moving. I think that’s a pretty cinematic experience. I see myself as somewhere in-between. I’m not really either – I’m Korean and American, Artist and Teacher, Mother and Daughter, all this stuff. That awareness comes when I’m on the road. In my studio I’m 100% artist. When I’m in the classroom I’m 100% teacher. The in-between, I find it very interesting. To me, there’s boring roads, the same old scene again and again. The scene looks exactly the same no matter where you go. I’m here and there. I’m both. I pull out my camera and burst out while I’m moving.
These landscapes are specific to me, but everyone relates to them. They could be anywhere, elsewhere. They represent the in-between, like me, like all of us.
This liminal space is significant.
These in-between spaces worked out perfectly during the pandemic.
People were disconnected and they started to see my work in a personal way. Everybody has their own ideas of what is disconnected and what it means to be reconnected. Parents relate to this when they drop off their children. We are always traveling to go be with someone.
The road, it becomes something new. I like that idea of the road becoming something new in a personal way, an emotional way. I think that’s beautiful.
My repeated fragmented landscapes and sequences refer to cinema. My inspiration for these compositional decisions was (Sergei) Eisenstein, and intellectual montage. I suggest two images and audiences organize what that means. We are all on this disconnected, fragmented journey in a liminal space.
My images are neutral. Commonplace. Let’s meet at a common place. I’m not different. I’m not the other. We’re human beings. Universal. The geometry is universal. We all go through liminal space. We all go through the pandemic. Let’s meet at the common ground. It’s about human experience.
HG: Why do you make monochromatic blue landscapes? Your paintings are rendered so naturalistically, but the color is so abstract. How do the bright neon shapes fit in?
I always ask myself, “What medium and what materials,” “What way and what manner?” I want my work to be not boring, to be inviting, fresh looking. I use blue because it represents distance. We all know atmospheric perspective – everything seems slightly bluish in the faraway horizon. Everything scatters and seems bluish. Everything washes away, and blue might be the color of distance. My paintings are about approaching the distance, making the faraway intimate. But which blue? Ultramarine blue is demanding. It brings us in.
Eventually I felt the need to introduce more colors. Blue on blue is not enough. I needed to contrast the blue. The neon colors are not quite related to the traditional artist’s palette. These colors are super artificial, but we see them wherever we go: there are in the road signs, signals, and electric lights that grab the attention of the audience. The DayGlo colors are also inspired by flickering blue screens, which demand so much attention. People can’t stop staring at them.
The DayGlo colors are high-key and grab attention, and with the blue the colors are in conversation, not competing.
HG: In terms of mark-making, why do you represent these ordinary landscapes so realistically? Is this related to your training in traditional Korean painting?
I use line and mark to find intimacy. My experience of distance is intimate. My significant people – the ones I love most – are faraway from where I live in Savannah. Faraway is not a distance, it is an intimate experience. To make this an intimate experience, I make small and intimate mark-making. Very tiny. I started with #4 brushes, then reduced to #2 brushes, and even line brushes. When I use small mark-making, the audience comes close. Their experience is closer to my experience of mark-making. I can dictate the experience of the audience by controlling the amount of touch, and marking my touch – if the mark-making is bigger, then the audience steps back. But If I make the mark small, the audience steps forward and the experience is intimate and personal. Then the audience has an intimate experience of the distance.
The effort is labor-intensive. Painting is labor-intensive and I appreciate that. I accept challenges from photography and digital images. Art has become flexible. I take that challenge seriously. I’m challenged and inspired by digital photography, cinema, and even TikTok. How do I demand the attention from the audience? People are willing to spend hours of their time online, but how do I demand their time? Artists have to be clever and deeply aware of what’s happening and try to avoid being stubborn. This is why I’ve been using intimate small mark-making and intensive colors. Audiences understand better if I am direct and they can instantly see it. Realistic and small mark-making is direct. Traditions of mimicking nature have been discontinued, but it’s what I want to do. This is the moment to continue it.
HG: Why do you contain your landscapes, and situate repeated landscapes, in large simple shapes? Is this related to Korean culture, or to Minimalism or Conceptualism?
I am trained in realistic painting and yet my big abstract shapes also relate to Korean heritage. Everything is geometry. Everything is planned. I draw a lot and plan a lot. The abstract elements of the shapes I’ve been using are intuitive. I’m inspired by the Korean language that is completely abstract. The language consists of thousands of characters. When Koreans in the 16th and 17th century built their own language based on Chinese language, they knew the need for simplicity. Geometry is symbolic. It gets at what it means to be human, using symbolic pictograms. Planets, water, land, squares, lines connecting and mediating.
I am also inspired by minimalists … John Baldisseri, Ed Ruscha, Anne Truitt, Al Held. I discovered these artists in the US, and saw potential and opportunity. Their discovery of minimalist ideas is different than mine, as all artists respond to the challenges around them. I find my own understanding of using geometry and limiting the color palette, and I use universal geometry as shown in Korean language as a compositional decision. The origin of the Minimalists’ ideas and mine are different, but I appreciate and understand their problem solving. I see how they approached shape, material, and geometry. They put a lot of effort in but it looks effortless.
HG: Let’s discuss your representation and current exhibits. What has it meant to be a part of Laney Contemporary, and can you talk about the 2023 Atlanta Contemporary exhibition? What’s next for you?
I feel very, very fortunate to be a part of Laney Contemporary, especially right after my solo show. They are the people who trust me, who trust what I do. Having them trust what I do is a beautiful relationship. They support me and it’s a beautiful experience working with them.
My upcoming show at Atlanta Contemporary is part of the Georgia Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts Triennial exhibition, New Worlds. Curator Melissa Messina did extensive studio visits, and the exhibition opens at the end of January. We are working on installing it … my work is demanding to install – there is an odd shape combination, and it has to have a certain wall painting aspect to create a space for each piece, to create a unified whole. I use wall painting to visually guide the audience, giving space for each work and unity to the whole.
In the future I hope to explore printmaking. There is a need for and potential for work on paper. Printmaking might give me unexpected results. There is something repetitive and photographic about printmaking. In painting, I will keep responding to the critical questions I ask. I think, what can be revised or added or eliminated. I examine what excites me, constantly responding to questions. I might go bigger, and explore different shapes.
Interview conducted on January 5, 2023 at the artist’s studio in Savannah GA
Holly Goldstein is an Art History Professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She earned her AB at Princeton University and her MA and Ph.D. at Boston University. At SCAD, she teaches courses in Modern and Contemporary Art History, the History and Theory of Photography, and Hidden Histories of Savannah. Dr. Goldstein’s research involves landscape, community, and public representations of place.