Anywhere and Nowhere: Je Yeoran’s Journey to Utopia

Anywhere and Nowhere: Je Yeoran’s Journey to Utopia

Ahead of the contemporary Korean artist’s solo selling exhibition When the yellow hits my eye at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery guest curated by Jang-Uk Lee, Je Yeoran tells us more about her life, the colour purple, and how she is trying to embrace the ocean and sky
Ahead of the contemporary Korean artist’s solo selling exhibition When the yellow hits my eye at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery guest curated by Jang-Uk Lee, Je Yeoran tells us more about her life, the colour purple, and how she is trying to embrace the ocean and sky

T he abstract squeegeed paintings of Je Yeoran are individual universes of colour, texture, and raw, dynamic sensation. Playful yet underpinned by a longing for connection – with her father, with the world around her, even with the fabric of time itself – Je’s artistic practice over the past three decades reveals a quest for meaning that has taken her towards the infinite. Her first series, “Untitled” (1990s), explored the polarity between darkness and light, and was followed by injections of bold blue and red tones in “Becoming and Becoming” (2000–2006). “Usquam Nusquam” (2006 onwards), the artist’s signature series, embraces the “anywhere and nowhere”-ness of reality in all its messy, multilayered complexity. 

The artist’s delight in nature is mirrored by the ecstatic physicality of the movements on canvas, which bursts forth in increasingly vibrant swoops of pure, luminous colour and quasi-sculptural strokes that recall the bravura of the Abstract Expressionists, yet arrest the viewer with an emotional depth that acknowledges the universality of human experience. Je draws upon influences as diverse as the poetry of the French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud (“A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels, / I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins”) and Giambattista Vico's book, Scienza Nuova, which posits that civilisation develops in a recurring cycle of three ages: the divine, the heroic, and finally the human. 

Je’s paintings open up a new paradigm in contemporary art, and have been collected by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (South Korea), Seoul Museum of Art (South Korea), Total Museum (South Korea), and Fondation Louis Vuitton (France), amongst others. Guest curated by Space K’s Chief Curator Jang-Uk Lee, When the yellow hits my eye will be on show at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery from 29 March – 12 April 2023.

Could you please tell us more about your path to becoming an artist? What motivated you to take the leap?

I was a very playful child when I was young. Perhaps it was expressed out of curiosity, and I remember indulging in play that involved a lot of movement with my hands and body. Playing in the dirt and water, swinging, playing jwibullori (a Korean game in which participants create streaks of light by swinging cans filled with burning items), marbles, fetch, and more, I was drawn to round shapes based on flexibility. Later, as I moved through adolescence, a period of sensory eccentricity – travel, impulse, wandering – my interests shifted to drawing. 

In terms of my formative years as an artist, I would have to talk about Europe, where I travelled in my late twenties with the intention of studying abroad. The big, grand, and multiform art events I saw were quite stimulating and refreshing, and that still holds true for me. But the life of an international student didn't seem very appealing, and I made a simple decision:

“I'm going to be a good artist doing good work in Korea”.

After returning home, I had the opportunity and the good fortune to present the work I did intensively for two or three years in a solo exhibition at the self-made, ambitious Artificial Gallery.

I think the leap was fuelled by my own impulse, desire, or passion to be free of physical and cultural restrictions. I think there's also a bit of genetics to it, and a fond longing for my father, who was a wandering but wonderful man.

How has your practice changed over time?

Eventually, what an artist leaves behind is a representation of the world, and my series reveals itself as an ongoing exploration of the way things are revealed to the world, and the relationship between time and quality and their interrelationships. 

Je Yeoran, Untitled, 1997-2000.

I made the series “Untitled” in the 1990s, “Becoming and Becoming” from 2000 to 2006, and I have been working on the series “Usquam Nusquam” since 2006. In the period of “Untitled", I was working with dark tones, and it was not so much black as a colour, but rather an attempt to resolve the binary opposites of darkness and light, or light and shadow, in my own way in my paintings. In “Becoming and Becoming”, the presence of colour became more apparent. Tones of blue, red, etc., appear, but even then, I tried to express the movement of the painting, the process of becoming, rather than the colour itself. The title “Becoming and Becoming” reflects my idea of painting as a progressive process. However, whereas before I used installations and various materials, from this point on, I concentrated on painting, and it was during this period that I worked exclusively with squeegees. For about 12 years, I thought that “hue” was enough to express “state”, but while exhibiting “Becoming and Becoming”, I suddenly realised that there was room for what could be read as “poverty of colour”. I started experimenting with boldly introducing colour using the physicality of oil paint in my studio, and this has continued to the present day with “Usquam Nusquam”. It can be said that the temporality of things, with its simple and loose changes, has been transformed into the manifestation of totality, perceived as complex, steep, and “layered”. 

Clockwise: The Usquam Nusquam series (detail): 2023, 2017, 2022.

How did you come up with the title “Usquam Nusquam”?

“Usquam Nusquam” is a Latin phrase that I discovered one winter while reading Giambattista Vico's book, Scienza Nuova. It's an allusion to utopia, meaning “anywhere and nowhere”. I loved the arrangement of the letters and the phonetics of it, and I thought that the meaning of “anywhere and nowhere” was in line with the direction my paintings were taking.

How would you describe your art? And how would you describe yourself as an artist?

I want my paintings to be the moment, the final overwhelming move of a chess game that's being rewritten each time by me, the creative agent. If you take my recent work with purple as an example, purple is a mixture of red and blue, and it's also a colour that stands alone, powerfully embracing each other, inseparable. Purple can be tricky, but it's also noble and can take you far and high, to peace. There's something quite pleasing about squeegeeing purple on top of white after a tunnel of all colours.

Je Yeoran, Usquam Nusquam, 2022.

Speaking of colour, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud replaced the vowels AEIOU in the alphabet with the symbols black, white, red, and blue, which resonates with me. Colour is like an antenna of sensation for an artist and I think he or she can shape it in the way it leads. My current work reflects this intention.

I really want for myself to not be like anyone else, and fortunately, I don't have a very good idea of who I am.

Could you please talk about some important inspirations or influences on your life as an artist?

A mother's life, the morning sun, laughter, and respect for exceptional human beings. I dare to say that my work is rooted in nature. Nature is many things: the landscapes we see, everything in the universe, languages, and so much more, but for me, it is the constant folds of colour. I think of my work as an unfolding of the power of that colour, operating my body and energy together.

Ultimately, the world I paint becomes nature in itself. Life in nature also fuels me to keep creating. People, plants, and animals all have their own lives, and that area is a realm of mystery. Art is the support of life and the organisation of joy. In that sense, my mother's status in my mind is considerable. She knows how to embody humanity and nature in almost the same proportion, and she does so unapologetically and still joyfully. I want my paintings to be like that.

Je Yeoran, Usquam Nusquam, 2022.

Could you walk us through your day-to-day?

I'm a morning person, so I exercise with my dog for about an hour, and after breakfast, I go to my workspace. I do about six hours of creative labour and take various breaks, and then I go to bed after catching up on chores.

What have you been listening to, watching or reading lately?

BBC's documentary Animal Kingdom, ominous and disturbing bits and pieces of news that the war between Ukraine and Russia, Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Denis Diderot's Rameau's Nephew.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m going to try to embrace the ocean and the sky.

Contemporary Art Selling Exhibitions

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