The intimate paintings of artist Jinyong Park are textured by the sociocultural context of language, linguistic experience and the rules that dominate our writing systems. Her practice explores the relationship between painting and language, unearthing its intricacies using a toolkit of mathematical framing, memory and imagination. Exposing linguistic obstacles and ideas of failure through repeating her visual translations of sounds, Park’s works bridge the gap between mediation and vulnerability. In her discovery of bilingual identity within painting, each tessellating shape reveals the artist’s internal processes of psychological and physical familiarisation with language, where scratching, sanding and drawing have helped create these layers of understanding. In the same way that Park has pushed herself in her move across the globe, the artist is continually evolving her practice, with her dramatically changing the scale of her works from small pieces on A4 paper, to large canvases as tall as the artist herself. Rhythmic repetition is the undercurrent to Park’s “imaginative hieroglyphs” that delicately shift in movement and rise and fall in pastel tones, on all scales. Contrastingly, sharp perceptions of sound are translated onto paper using a harsher form of line and colour. These depictions often centralise an emphatic desire to break from established pattern, representing confused, phonetic pronunciation and an unresolved muddling of sounds. I visited the artist during the last months of summer where she explained how communicating in a new language since her move from Korea has been a catalyst for her creative process, with this adjustment being delicately exposed in her works through collected “traces and flaws on the surface”.
Alongside your creative practice, you undertake various people-facing roles, such as being a Gallery Assistant at a museum. Do these complement your work as an artist? How are they opposed?
My day jobs that involve continuous communication somewhat influence my practice as my painting is based on my daily linguistic experience. Sometimes, I pick a new word I encounter in a conversation and sometimes I reimagine a word I hear daily in a new light, though communicating with others is not the only experience that nurtures my practice. In contrast, when I am in my studio, I sink deep into my thoughts and focus on forming my own ideas while being isolated from others. I quite enjoy the dynamic balance between the two opposites.
You undertook your BA in Fine Art in South Korea before embarking upon an MA in painting at The Royal College of Art, London. Did you find studying in this city to be vastly different to your learning in South Korea? How has this influenced, if at all, your mentality and approach to making?
I think the experience was quite different. My BA programme in Korea focused on understanding different types of art making, such as painting, sculpture, printmaking, installation and digital media–probably because it was a bachelor’s degree. But when I graduated, I felt a need to make a radical change in my work and that was the key reason for why I decided to come and study in the UK. I enjoyed my MA programme at the RCA because the school supported me in my own project, and there were a larger variety of people from different backgrounds and who made different things. Thinking back, the school was also a good buffer for me while I was getting used to this new city. My time at the RCA was during my first two years as an immigrant who was going through the experience of adapting to cultural differences, including a language barrier. Once the very first part of my anxiety left, I became more comfortable with the confusion and ambiguity as a person instead of embodying the vigilant ego that I had to keep up in Seoul. Eventually, the sense of uncertainty pushed the abstract nature of my painting.
In South Korea, you would often use mediating objects to express your ideas. Now, your artworks are created through a very clear and direct method, stemming from your own experiences and thoughts. Could you explain these processes and the transition between them in your art making?
During my BA studies in Korea, I became interested in language and its relationship to painting. I tried to visualise my psycho-physical experience as a speaking being by translating my photographs into painting, where different visual fragments are complexly entangled; I was looking at the photograph as an abstract field. But I found that external objects were too obvious in my painting, and I wanted to find a more straightforward and direct way of exploring my idea of language. Since coming to the UK and starting to use English as a main language, my ideas on language have expanded. Not only has language acted as a form of literacy, but I happened to develop another part of my language identity, which is textured by both the phonetical qualities and the sociocultural contexts of English. The more I settle into this new language, the broader my ideas about language become. Therefore, I started looking at Korean and English more distinctively, which enabled me to think about inventing my own imaginary language that exists somewhere between the two different languages. This made a big change in my work, as, beforehand, I recognised language as an insular and singular experience, but now I look at each of my linguistic experiences more personally. However, this has all happened gradually over the course of several years. Today, each of my works are based on a spoken word, with which I think about my relationship to language. My works include my knowledge, associative memory and imaginations about the word, as well as my bodily responses to the spoken word’s phonetic qualities, such as length, tone, stress and intonation. I translate these abstract perceptions and my body’s sensory experiences into my imaginative hieroglyphs.
Because your native language is Korean and you’ve been continually learning English since arriving in London, you have a unique analysis of words and sounds. How do these two languages interplay in your works?
I recognise that the use of language is both a physical and a psychological experience. I instantly think of the referential meaning of the word, but at the same time, the shape of my body rearranges in relation to the word. If I don’t know the meaning of a certain word, it will first come to me as a sound whilst I am trying to figure out the meaning, this being based on an internal database of knowledge that has been constructed through my bilingualism. What is exciting here is that I can sometimes bridge the gaps between Korean and English in a random and illogical way. For example, a singular sound can have different meanings in different languages. Likewise, there are different words in each language that indicate the same object. In both cases, I experience a strange perception of the sound, the word or the object. I translate these experiences to compose a secret wordplay within the subtle changes and shifts in language, as represented by the geometric forms and colours in my paintings.
You have a very methodical, repetitive way of working that mirrors how language is used. Considering that you paint from top to bottom and left to right with the use of a standard paper size, A4, do elements of Western society work their way into your paintings?
I would say that the modern system of writing has rather influenced on my work. The traditional way of writing in Korea is right to left, but in modern society, Korean people write from left to right, which is the way I’ve experienced writing. I work on a table, and it somehow sets my body to writing mode. This doesn’t mean that the internal narrative of the painting starts from the top left and finishes at the bottom right though. I analyse the surface of the paper by seeing the painting as a whole (as a painter), but I happen to take the top left corner as a starting point (like a writer).
The titles of your works seem to be split into sounds and are phonetically very interesting, with names such as a:sks and gri:n. Why do you title your artworks in this way?
Each of my paintings are based on a spoken word, regardless of whether I understand it as a meaning or only as a sound, and I use the word as the title of the painting. The title is decided before the painting is worked out and it helps me as a guide. Also, as I have said, how my body responds when I actually pronounce the word is an important part of thinking about my relationship with the word, so I often include the phonetic alphabets in the titles. My titles can also be a Korean word that is written using the English alphabet based on its phonetic sounds. My titles have also included words made up of a mixture of different words, a repetition of a single phoneme, and more.
You previously spoke about how mistakes you consistently make when typing ignite your thinking for artworks, and how you shifted your mind-set from seeing challenges when speaking English as negative, to positive. Can you explain how ideas of failure and difficulty establish themselves in your artworks?
When moving to the UK, I was stressed about using English because of the untranslatability between this language and Korean. As I was adjusting to this new language system and the societal culture involved, I started feeling more at ease with making mistakes when using the language. This mind-set made me relax and I was then able to look at the problem as a place where I could discover new possibilities. This flip in thinking gave me a sort of freedom to let imaginative abstract forms come through to my paintings.
At first glance, your work may seem mathematically concrete through tessellating patterns that follow rules of symmetry and rotation. However, on second glance, I notice that colours shift and shapes break from the established pattern. Why do your works incorporate flaws when they, at the same time, appear so meticulous? Is unpredictability a key feature in your works?
I think these breaks in pattern are as natural as they are within linguistic experience; there are semiotic rules, but in these the language varies with my unique tone and accent, thus causing me to make mistakes. When I am working on my small paintings on paper, I have a rough idea about the general image, but I don’t have the final image in my mind. I design the image of the word using sharp pencils, rulers and templates. I repaint, draw, scratch and sand until I find the painting to be accurate in delivering the corresponding linguistic experience. It is my way of working like a writer who develops a palimpsest using one’s own language. As such, this process engenders unexpected and random changes in the image while collecting traces and flaws on the surface. In terms of the colours, I try to avoid using colours that are too obvious because the words I use within my images are transitional. I prefer a colour between A and B, exposed through a repetitive process of painting and sanding.
Your works are rooted in pattern making, but you wish to avoid them being described as decorative. How do you manage to achieve this?
My works show lingual-visual patterns, but they are formed like a palimpsest. I paint a medium on the paper and sand it several times so that the paper no longer has its original texture. Throughout the long process of painting and sanding, the painting gains grooves and flaws on its surface as I create many layers. I also use a special hanging kit that I have made specifically for my works that are on paper so that I can exhibit them on their own and without frames.
There is a contrast between your small paintings that are created in the same way as letters and manuscripts, and your large paintings that are more closely tied to traditional ideas of painting. Can you explain this move onto canvas?
When I developed my ideas to paint as though writing a manuscript, I found using paper to be more appropriate. Only recently have I started to make large paintings on canvas, these being based on my small works on paper. I enlarge the smallest unit in the imaginative hieroglyphs, this being a geometric morpheme, onto a square canvas to amplify the subtle changes of the surface. This is how I’ve started to make large paintings that connect with my series of small works. I also think that I’ve missed being a ‘painter’. It has just taken me a long time to find the right way to begin. I want my large works on canvas to have a meaning like the manuscript of the small paintings, not just be representative images of the small paintings. In contrast to my small works with which a final image is decided during the process, I have a more definite image in my mind of how the large works will look when I start. This image is simplified from the initial mother painting. These larger paintings take their place as symbolic objects/units of the works on paper. Yet, I am still in the transitional process of exploring the meaning behind the large works and their relationship with the smaller works on paper. My canvas paintings are still a very new body of work and I will take my time to slowly navigate this new direction.
When visiting your studio, you mentioned that your canvases must be your exact height, both in width and length. Why is this form of intimacy so important to you in your practice?
As we discussed earlier, I tend to have a methodical and repetitive way of working. I tried many different types and sizes of paper before finally choosing A4 for my series of small paintings. A4 is the dimension that I find the most familiar, and therefore most relevant, in the mode of writing. Likewise, I want my large works to have meaningful dimensions that are related to my personal experiences. I’ve tried many different sizes, most of them rectangular, but the first one that I truly accepted for my practice was 155 x 155 cm (my height and the full span of my arms), to include a sense of my own physicality. By the way, it is more difficult to make 155 cm stretchers because this isn’t a standard size like 150 cm or 160 cm, so it always takes more effort to make the customised canvases. Funnily enough, I think this challenge made me want to incorporate the size even more!
Your move onto canvas marks an exciting new direction in your practice. How are you finding this change in scale? What about translating your familiar style and methods from paper onto canvas? Has it presented difficulties, or has it been a welcome break from the repeated use of A4?
I am enjoying this new challenge. I can feel that this is a totally new avenue for me. I am usually standing when painting on canvas, this contrasting with when I sit down all day at my worktable. This makes me feel more engaged with my body when painting. At the same time, the images on canvas tend to be simpler and bolder as they only consist of a minimal element found in the small works. But I’m also thinking about how the images could appear as a ‘painting’. In terms of the change in materials, I usually leave some ‘breathing surface’ as part of the canvas painting; this surface is left unpainted and only primed. In contrast to paper that keeps breathing in and out through its texture, when I paint over the whole surface of canvas, I feel that the material becomes suffocated. What I am trying to be careful about is not being too conventional with the canvas. This is a pursuit that is still in progress. I believe that it will take a while until I have a clearer idea of what my canvas paintings really are, just like it took me a couple of years for the series of small works to happen.
Considering how you continually challenge yourself in your practice by switching materials, do you have further explorations for the future in the pipeline?
For now, I will just examine this new body of work as it will require a lot of careful consideration.
Do you plan to show your works created in London back in South Korea? How do you think this would be received?
This is an interesting question. Honestly, I haven’t planned any exhibitions yet simply because of realistic considerations such as time and expenses as I am living and working in London. But I would like to see how an exhibition could go in my native country. My work might be received differently depending on which languages the viewer is familiar with. Native Korean speakers will approach the visual-lingual relationship between my paintings and their titles in a different way from that of native English speakers – even though there is no expected way to see them.
Words by Laura Gosney