Somewhere Between Cute and Surrealism: Interview with So Youn Lee

by CaroPosted on

You may recognize So Youn Lee from our posts about her ethereal pen drawings and candy-colored paintings. Her new work is progressively character based- following a young space explorer named “Mango” through strange environments that echo childhood memories. At her Los Angeles studio, she sketches daily and experiments with motifs, from the abstract shapes of Korean folk textiles to the hyper-real balloons of Jeff Koons.  A Japanese art influence is definitely there as well. Among Lee’s favorite artists are Aya Takano and Yoshitomo Nara, and she is an avid Manga reader. Most of the pieces shown here were created as an exercise, but seem to have left a lasting impression. We went behind the scenes to learn more about So Youn Lee’s new direction and her future plans.

HF: You describe your current aesthetic as “Cute-Surrealism” which is a departure from your figurative work. What inspired your new style, or did it just happen over time?

SL: After college, I started to draw something from my inner world, instead of using cool reference images. Although, I still enjoy the pure happiness of drawing and painting from photo references which I practiced back in school. I consider life as a journey to understand something about the world and myself. I draw or paint things for the same reasons, hoping to discover something new or interesting about myself, something that I haven’t noticed before, so I doodle things without any direction.

So Youn Lee’s first painting of her character “Mango”.

Overtime, it started to form itself and became a character, so I made the environment for the character and made some friends for it. I named it “Mango”, inspired by fruit. It seemed weird to me, but cute at the same time. My first experience with the fruit mango was the same. It was really foreign, but so delicious.


HF: Your new series follows a character named “Mango” and her puppy through a variety of environments.  Where are they going in your paintings and what are they doing there?

SL: It is not a female nor male. It doesn’t have gender. I got inspired by the glorious heavenly bodies that I read in the Bible. The world Mango lives is a visualized representation of my inner world. Most of time, Mango is alone and safe in the environment it’s in, since every individual has their own personal and sacred place in their own hearts. It’s like a refuge. Sometimes, Mango multiplies, and interacts with each other (they look alike) like cells in a body. I often draw my dog, Choco, in my art. Since he comes from a different world, he has to wear space helmet because he cannot breathe in my world.

“Sweetie Pie”

I think every living thing in this world experiences the world differently through their own perception. I think it is impossible to understand each other 100%. It gives us a hard time and conflict in relationships. The helmet is my imaginary equipment to help breathe in another world; meaning, understanding someone or something better, and keeping us open-minded.

Mango wears a helmet when exploring the outside world. That’s what happening in my piece, “Rocket”. “Rocket” is the very first Cute-Surrealism painting that I showed through a show. It was the first encounter with the world for me with my new style. So, in the painting, you can see that Mango really represents me.

HF: You had a Buddhist upbringing in Korea and now living in the US, you practice Christian religion. Do you favor certain ideals over others and can we find these in your art?

SL: Though I grew up in Buddhist family, the religion didn’t affect me much. It was more of a cultural thing for me, since Korean culture has a long history with Buddhism.

Christianity changed my world view completely- I liked the idea of a purposeful life over the cycle of Karma. In the Bible, it states that every human being is created by God, fearfully, lovingly, and wonderfully, for very specific reasons of its own. I love that.

Moreover, the hope about being in heaven and imagining it gives me lots of inspiration. The expectation to see something that I can’t even imagine always makes my heart pump. I do believe the twinkly eyes of Mango reflect my hope and longing about God and heaven.

HF: You seem to walk a line between science and the myth of creation by a higher power. Is this part of a narrative, or is there a personal conflict you’re trying to work out here?

SL: It could be just the state of my mind. Balance between science and belief. I create my work thinking of the intersection with these two things.

HF: What is coming up for you in the near future? Is there a dream project you would like to work on?

SL: I have some upcoming group shows in the Los Angeles area with Thinkspace Gallery, and Corey Helford Gallery, as well as with Screaming Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon and in Miami, Florida during Art Basel. I have been discussing a mural project in DTLA and preparing a solo show, too. As for dream projects, I have lots of things I’d like to do, including showing my work in the Seoul Museum of Art, making wearable art works, having a installation show of Mango’s habitats as a full immersion for people to experience, making toys, etc. [Laughs] …and just to be optimistic, I would be super excited to have a show with the Galarie Perrotin. They are my most favorite gallery of all time!

Thank you, So Youn.

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