In her most recent collection of paintings, Dokkebis and Other Tales, Leeah Joo conjures myths by way of textiles. Joo, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, immigrated to the U.S. at age 10. She received her MFA in Painting from the Yale School of Art, and her work has been featured nationally. Next year, Joo’s work will be featured in February at Artspace in New London, CT, and in a solo show in the fall at Andrew Bae Gallery.
Robin Tung: Many of your collections emphasize curtains, windows, and lattice doors. What interests you about surfaces?
Leeah Joo: I have always been fascinated with narrative-driven artwork, from Man-wha (Korean manga) to Old Masters. In the Windows and Doors series, I refer to literature and a cinematic approach to canvas. For example, Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the seduction of voyeurism. We often find ourselves inadvertently peeking into neighbors’ lives with a passing glimpse of their lit windows. From these fleeting images, we weave a tale to satisfy our curiosity.
For me, my emphasis on the detail of the surface of the fabric, glass, wood is a way to draw attention, to pique your interest. There is an ancient tale of two Greek painters, Parrhasius and Zeuxis, who had a contest: Zeuxis paints a bowl of grapes so realistic a bird tries to peck at the painting. Zeuxis then turns to Parrhasius’ painting, which has a curtain draped over it. When Zeuxis demands the curtain be pulled back, Zeuxis discovers that the curtain is Parrhasius’ painting. I love this story because it combines the power of realism and anticipation created by the concealing curtain. In great storytelling, the buildup and the anticipation keep us interested, not the ending itself. I like to think my “surface” is the buildup.
RT: How do you see concealment, multiple spaces, and views relating to bi- or multiculturalism?
LJ: In 1982, my family moved to the U.S. when I was in fifth grade. My school district in Indiana was predominately white, with very little diversity. Being an immigrant, non-native speaker in a large school district with hardly any minority students, let alone Asians, you try on different personas to fit in. Of course, all adolescents go through the chameleon stage at some point, seeking out their niche, but mine seemed to last forever.
In graduate school, I finally felt comfortable just being me. I was perceived as a painter first and foremost, regardless of my clothes, my accent, or my background. Now, my children are bicultural and they are learning to juggle the multifaceted background they have inherited. As I help navigate their path, similar thoughts seep into my studio. Simultaneity is crucial to all aspects of these works; the fabric is a small still life and a vast ocean all at once, stories are historical and personal, and the myths are truths. And I tell my children, You are this and you are that, all at once.
RT: Could you speak to Tincan Phone and There Is a Season?
LJ: The long panel pieces like Tincan Phone are inspired by Korean Sagyong, illuminated sutras, traditionally drawn with gold or silver ink on black ink-soaked paper. They are usually only 6-8 inches high and span 10-12 feet. I’ve always loved the panoramic span of scroll paintings from China, Japan, and Korea, and the way the length of the scroll can provide a wonderful narrative platform to show the passage of time.
Tincan Phone refers to an incident this past summer when all lines of communication between North and South ceased. As I listened to the story on NPR while painting, I wondered about how they—the diplomats, politicians, even civilians—communicated across the DMZ. I had just made my children a tincan phone for their tree house, and they complained how it didn’t work. The long scroll-like panel was a perfect opportunity to show the great political distance between the two countries.
There Is a Season—the title comes from the well-known passage from Ecclesiastes about the passing of time and season, often heard at memorial services. The dome-like shape is inspired by traditional Asian burial mounds or tombs. This painting is in memory of a loved one passing. I selected a fabric with a color and design that embodied her spirit and I created a mound that is slowly seeping back into earth. I hope the mound is beautiful and foreboding at the same time.
RT: What do you hope that viewers walk away with after viewing your work?
LJ: There is an abundance of Asian-influenced art right now. One hopes her approach is unique and memorable. I would love for the viewer to be drawn in by the fabric and become interested enough in one of the folktales or historical events to spend a few minutes Googling about it. It is my hope that someday these references will become more familiar and less foreign.