Los Angeles-based Korean artist Joanne Nam paints softly colored girls posed awkwardly in a blend of realism and surrealism. A city girl and self described horror movie-aficionado with a childhood spent near Korea’s lush forests, Nam is also an artist that paints from experience. Her studio is her safe haven from the outside world, decorated with family photos, reference books, and personal work she attends to between exhibitions. Nam’s recent artwork explores a darker side hidden from those who know her. In this exclusive interview, we talk about her process and what inspires her.
HF: Joanne, thank you for inviting me to visit your studio. Immediately, I am struck by the fact that you don’t use much artificial lighting. Most of your light is coming from one large window, and the colors in your room are reflected in your paintings. Would you say that your surroundings affect your mood or palette?
JN: I actually prefer to use artificial lighting because of its constancy. Natural lighting is awesome but it is sometimes too bright or too dim to see the color correctly. However, I use natural light when I finish my painting. I examine the painting in natural light and it definitely shows all the mistakes I made. It is easy to miss it when I see colors for a long period time.
HF: You joked before that you would rather look out the window and see rainbows and unicorns than the Los Angeles skyline. What is your dream world like? Are we seeing it in your paintings?
JN: I don’t dream a lot but when I have a dream, it is often scary ones. I see a horrifying woman I have never met before chasing after me, or dead in front of me. Sometimes I see skinny naked children appear and running around my head. I talked about this with someone, and she said ‘Christianity; consider them as Satan’. I fight against Satan a lot in my dreams. Other than scary ones, I dream about something that happened before or wish to happen in a future. I wish I could see unicorn eating rainbow but sadly, that has not happened yet.
Fellow artist Hikari Shimoda, looking at Nam’s work in her studio.
Scary dreams definitely affect my mood, and my mood also affects my painting. I like painting or drawing something as soon as I wake up from horrible dreams because I love the emotional feeling that I get from the dream and want to carry on.
HF: I see, and you watch a lot of horror movies, so maybe that’s left some kind of impression. Your girl’s skin can be described as ghostly, but looking at your process work I can see that there are many warm tones under layers of washes. Walk me through your process a little bit.
JN: I saw some artists who mix a lot of paints for the skin tone before they even start painting but I don’t quite understand it. Let’s say I am working on a painting right now. I would paint for skin but would also paint sky, ground, or many other things too. What I do is, I make a small amount of skin tone and mix it with a type of sky color or a bit of ground color that I just used. Then I do the same thing over and over again. Not only for skin tone, but I mix skin tone to other color in order to paint another object. But I don’t think the skin tone I make are all even. It could look really similar from one brush stroke to the next brush stroke, but I doubt that they are all the same… Painting is a huge adventure for me. I would never know what is going to happen next.
HF: I read recently about a study on how babies see the world completely different. When they are born, the lens around their eye is new and clear, so everything is really bright and highly saturated. Over time, the lens yellows. This means we don’t see the world as it really is. At what point do you deviate from how things really are?
JN: Interesting! It is so sad that we can’t truly see the world. When I paint, I feel like I’m singing. First of all, I imagine what kind of painting I want to create and it is like humming. It can be anything and it changes a lot but still sounds good. The next thing I do is sketching. It is the same as writing a note. It clears my ideas and settles it. I sometimes imagine something thinking that is awesome, but realize the opposite after a sketch. Then I start painting. For me, it is the same as singing and listening to what I have imagined. In this progress, I would add other sounds or instruments to make it better and harmonious. However, usually I don’t change a lot from the sketch. I sketch carefully like planning a trip. It actually helps me to paint twice faster than painting without a sketch.
HF: I like what you said before about liking things that are “wrong”. Your work points to flaws rather than glamorizing things that are beautiful. For example, here [in "White Forest"] your subject looks pure and pretty but she lacks grace, like a deer in headlights. Is the awkwardness something you are going for?
JN: I love awkwardness. It is not a secret that I’m a person with a lot of flaws. I’m socially weird. I feel weird. I sometimes don’t really understand people around me and I don’t think they understand me either. However, I act like normal so I can fit in. It is like having a bomb inside me. If I act like who I actually am, I don’t think there will be a lot of people left who would like to talk to me. But if you stay after you see the real me, you will be my best friend.
HF: The foliage in this piece is really impressive. The detail seems to rise from almost hyper-realism leaves, to loose details in the clothing until we get to very gestural strokes in the trees. Which would you say you enjoy more, abstraction or painting realistically?
JN: Recently, I’m trying to find the balance between abstraction and realism. In the beginning, I used to paint with a lot of brush strokes, but somehow obsessed trying not to show brush strokes over last three years. Now I’m trying to combine two. I appreciate variety textures and smoothness of two different styles I have. The recent painting “Bruise” is the first one that I applied the idea. After “Bruise”, I’m happy that I’m looking at lots of possibilities. I sketch those possibilities a lot.
HF: You work indoors but so many of your paintings are set in a surreal version of nature. You grew up near forests in Korea but didn’t particularly like that environment, so how do you explain your affinity for forests?
JN: I take photos whenever I need sources. I prefer finding my reference by my own. I used to live in a forest back in Korea but didn’t really know how to appreciate it. I wished so bad there was a grocery store in a walking distance. It was so inconvenient. However, when I think about my home, I wish I could go back once again and feel the nature as a kid. It is like your parents. You love them but didn’t really know how much you love them because they are always there no matter what. After when they are gone, you miss them so much. I know I will. I grew up as a “wood person” but didn’t realize it when I was between woods.
HF: This same girl appears in this piece here [on your easel] but she looks more childish and flat-chested. Is this a new style you are experimenting with?
JN: I wanted to create a child version of my adult friend and see what would happen. My friend helped me a lot by modeling and she is a terrific model and an artist. I had fun characterizing my friend into a child and it was a meaningful experience. Although I’m fully grown up, I like painting my old memories and feeling that I experienced as a child. I think I would love to try again later.
Joanne Nam, working at her easel.
HF: I look forward to that. Is there anything coming up in the immediate future you’d like to share? Any personal goals?
JN: Luckily, I’m going to have group shows on October and December. One of the group shows I’m looking forward to is at Thinkspace Gallery in October. It is a small group show focusing on three art works each from eight different artists. The line up looked awesome. Please stay tuned! I’m having a really busy time but I’m definitely enjoying this every single moment. My goal for this year is growing up as an artist and as a person, find and settle my own style and identity.