As part of the Spring 2022 Korea Remixed festival, “Cabinet of Curiosities” is the current exhibition (January 4-28, 2022) in the Cook Center Gallery featuring paintings by Indiana University alumna and adjunct professor of painting, Su A Chae. Chae received an MFA in Painting from Indiana University Bloomington and an MA and a BA in Business from Ewha Woman’s University in South Korea. Shreya, the other editor, and I decided to reach out to Chae to ask her a couple of questions about what inspires her artwork and to see what her work means to her. The interview questions are best paired with her artist statement for the exhibition, which I have included below.
Her Artist Statement for “Cabinet of Curiosities”:
“My previous involvement in accounting in academia in South Korea allowed me to understand that the role of accounting is to reduce information asymmetry and moral hazards in capitalism. For me painting and accounting share a commonality: both are considered as a language, a tool of communication. Accounting is a language of business that provides information of business to decision-makers in our economic system. Painting is a visual language that presents the opportunity for unique individual expression, reflection, and connection to society. By approaching painting from both perspectives of a meticulous accountant and a self-expressing artist, I investigate the ambivalence associated with identity and asymmetrical balance that creates paradoxical spatial propositions.
I use abstraction or semi-abstraction as a means of extracting my personal perceptions and experiences—often intertwined with socio-political and cultural specifics. The grid, lattice, checkerboards, and patterns function as a vehicle for addressing disconnection and separation as well as an underlying structure. The architectural structures, that often resemble fences or gates, speak of a physical, psychological or cultural barrier that I have experienced since I moved to the United States. The motile distorted squares, arch-like shapes, and other idiosyncratic shapes are personified to emphasize the relationship that can be confrontational and tensional but also comforting and harmonious. My visual vocabulary is borrowed from index cards, spreadsheets, digital pixels, and Korean art such as chaekgeori, minwha, and bojagi, that are related to my biographical and cultural identity.
As a Xennial who has had an analog childhood and digital adulthood, I make a painting that looks digital but remains the materiality. My painting, where soft gradational colors are paired with textural surfaces, chases the digital aura. Hoping to open a larger conversation of diversity and coexistence in social context, my paintings allow the rigid structures to be the places of playfulness, hope, and the possibility rather than suppression, anger, and anxiety.”
1. Your exhibition at the Cook Center, Cabinet of Curiosities, combines your knowledge of both accounting and painting. In what ways does your background in business manifest in your work as an artist?
Much of my work has been informed by my education and teaching experience in accounting. In particular, the body of work that I made in the spring of 2018 highlights the use of geometric shapes and grid-like structures as a means of speaking of autobiographical specifics that are often interrelated with socio-political issues.
For example, the painting, titled “Self-portrait: Duality”, always reminds me of a balance sheet, which is a former term for a statement of the financial position of a business. I can say now that I’ve learned to look at myself in a positive way that I have a balanced personality with bicultural and complementary educational backgrounds and experiences. But I was struggling with discomfort caused by the ambivalence associated with how I identify or define myself at the time. So, I used the grid or other patterns not only as a formal structure, not unlike an
accounting book, but also as a vehicle of speaking of confrontation, tension, or conflict that I observed and experienced. At first glance, accounting and art seem very different, but I believe that they have a commonality. Both are considered as a language, a tool of communication. While accounting is the language of business that provides information of business to various decision-makers in our economic system, art, especially, painting is a visual language that provides the artists the opportunity to express individuality in paint and to communicate the artist’s ideas with the viewers and eventually build a connection with society. As I have built my new career in art, my work has continuously changed. The recent body of work incorporates an organic and biological feel in patterns, shapes, and colors into the geometric, hard-edged, and structural quality in my work. Perhaps my interest in balance, contrast, and repetition is both inherent and learned. But I would say that my background in accounting reinforced the attention to those design principles.
2. You have mentioned that your art touches on the “physical, psychological or cultural barrier” you encountered upon coming to the U.S. Can you elaborate on what the transition was like when you first entered American society?
I have been living in Bloomington since I moved from Seoul in South Korea in 2010. When I first came to Bloomington, I thought that it would be a temporary visit as a visiting scholar’s spouse. One or two years, at a maximum. I had to go back to South Korea to complete my doctoral program in accounting at the time. As I didn’t plan to live in Bloomington for many years, I looked at my time in Bloomington with the perspective of a foreign visitor in the first a few years. Despite the challenges that I faced while settling down in the new place, I enjoyed the good side of Bloomington that I hardly experienced in the big cities in South Korea. As my time in the U.S. was getting longer than I expected, however, my views on the U.S. became less rosy. I realized that it became “life”, not just a visit or a vacation anymore. Describing the “physical, psychological or cultural barrier” that I have experienced in the U.S. is not easy. It is more complex and subtle than sharing my experience of being verbally harassed, such as hearing “Go back to your country!” on the street, yes, here in Bloomington, not just one time. The experience of barriers that prevent me from belonging to society significantly impacts how I look at myself. Uncertainty, diffidence, or embarrassment is insidiously injected, and I continually struggle to detoxicate it. In “Minor Feelings”, Cathy Park Hong wrote that “The ethnic literary project has always been a humanist project in which nonwhite writers must prove they are human beings who feel pain.” She doubts about a future where she can simply write “I hurt”, not as “a proxy for a whole ethnicity, imploring you to believe we are human beings who feel pain”. My response to this question about elaborating the barrier is “I’m hurt, and it is painful.”
3. Who are your inspirations in life and as an artist?
Obviously, my peers and Eskenazi faculty members were and have been my inspirations. I began my study in art in Bloomington, with no educational background in art in South Korea. Thus, I was able to absorb all the learnings about art from my education at IU, like a baby who soaks up everything in her environment. I was fortunate that I was encouraged to do experimentation and interdisciplinary research by taking other studio art courses outside painting area and art theory or humanities during my time at Indiana University. There are so many artists whose work is inspiring. Hilma af Klint and Agnes Martin are important artists who approached abstraction as a means of structuring philosophical and spiritual ideas beyond formalism. Jack Whitten continues to inspire me to develop the approach to focus on the materiality that is associated with the conceptual idea about identity. Charline von Heyl is my all-time favorite artist whose abstract work is so powerful, dynamic, and enigmatic. Rebecca Morris and Matt Phillips have shown me how to use the grid as a structure. Laura Owen and Jacqueline Humphries suggest ways that contemporary painting can use in this technological and digital culture. Annie Lapin demonstrates the way to combine figuration with abstraction. Avery Singer and Keltie Ferris are inspiring how to employ their airbrushing and spraying skills. Angela Heisch shares mutual interests with me in balance and optical illusion, I suppose. Finally, I cannot overlook the anonymous, mostly female, artists whose work have been regarded as decoration and domestic handicrafts throughout the history of art. My work pays homage to the value of anonymous female labor to some degree, by using the patterns and rectangular shapes founded in the traditional textiles, such as bojagi, within painted works. Those patterns and shapes simultaneously respectfully reference tradition while acting in service of my voice and my vision. This emphasis on the value of individual expression is somewhat at odds with traditional Korean notions of feminine devotion, humility, and anonymity.
4. Your paintings often evoke the digital world via textures and geometric patterns. What drives your fascination with this virtual aesthetic?
Even though I often visit the Korean traditional culture for inspirations, I want my paintings to look digital via hard-edged shapes, bright and luminant colors, gradation, geometric patterns, and smooth texture in certain areas on the surface. My chase for the digital aura with painting, as one of oldest art mediums, has probably caused by the unique trait of my generation. As a Xennial, the generation sandwiched between Gen X and millennials, I remember pre-smartphone and pre-Wi-Fi era. I have witnessed the rapid transition of the world from analog to digital. In terms of visual art and design, I have noticed that the images and texts are getting more graphical and digital media are rising as popular communication tools. While I understand the necessity of swift adaptation to changing environment, I still appreciate the value of the traditions. I am fascinated with the innovative approach to creating art and its visual results. However, I cannot resist my cravings for the physical interaction with my art materials. For example, I sometimes make drawings or paintings on my iPad, but they are mostly used for decision making of composition or color choice. To give body to my painting, I needed a painting tool that allowed me to make a painting that looks digital but still maintains the physicality. I found that an airbrush, as a pre-digital painting tool, can be an interesting crossover medium between the conventional paint brush and the mouse or the digital pen. To create tactile textures, I mask selected areas in my painting, mold them with various molding pastes, and airbrush the unmasked area. This process is non-sequential and iterative. My paintings seem to be mimicking the virtual aesthetic, but they provide the viewers a totally different experience when they are seen in person.
5. What is one thing you hope viewers will take away from your work?
When I was in my graduate program, I read an article that advised the artists to avoid several words when writing an artist statement. I remember that “humanity” was the one of the words in the list. But I cannot help saying that my work is rounded on my unique humanity, and I hope that the viewers will see their own humanity from my paintings. That is why I like employing abstraction or semi-abstraction in my work. For me, my paintings are the places where anxiety, anger, suppression coexists with playfulness, hope, and the possibility within the paradoxical space. I hope that the viewers see their own multiple-layered images of reality in my paintings.
In addition to Chae’s Interview please enjoy her wonderful Artist talk as well!