Hein Koh is a Brooklyn-based sculptor who is not afraid to speak openly about female sexuality and motherhood. Her Greenpoint studio looks like an adult playground, from glittered, melting fiberglass rainbows and rubber duckies, to large soft sculptures of eyes, stars, clawed hands, and yes, both sets of lips. Her works straddle the thin line between sensuous and uncanny. Hein is currently in a group exhibition “VERBLIST” at E.TAY Gallery (up through October 15th). Her work will be shown in an upcoming group show “Room with a View” at Eddy’s Room (opens in October), a group show at Selena gallery (opens in November), and “Successive Excessive”, a group show at The Parlour Bushwick (opens in January). Her solo show at Platform Gallery in Baltimore opens in May 2017.
Can you tell us more about your upcoming shows?
The current show I’m in at E.TAY Gallery is curated by Mark Epstein and is based on Richard Serra's list of action verbs. Artists were assigned a verb as a point of inspiration for their work - mine was "to droop.” Eddy’s room is a really cool project and gallery that the artist Austin Eddy runs out of his apartment closet, and “Room With a View” is based on a nature theme. I will also be in a group show in November at Selena Gallery, another artist-run space that just opened in Bushwick, run by Anjuli Rathod and Olivia Swider. In January, I will be in the group show “Successive Excessive”, curated by Chris Bors, at The Parlour Bushwick, based on the idea of the hyperbole. Then in May 2017 I will have a solo show at Platform Gallery in Baltimore, run by the artists Lydia Pettit and Abbey Parrish.
How did your work transition from 2D to sculpture?
I was trained as a painter and received my M.F.A. in 2004 from the Yale painting program. Even then my paintings were very textured and I used all sorts of Golden brand mediums to build up the surfaces. I always kind of wanted to make sculptures, but during school I just felt like I didn't have enough time to experiment. I eventually moved back to New York City in 2005 and found a big studio in Long Island City where I was able to continue making big paintings. In 2009 I had to move to a studio half the size and work much smaller. I was working on a series of psychological portraits of muppets, when my friend Andrzej Zielinski came over for a studio visit. I always did preparatory charcoal drawings for my paintings and after looking at both, he said that my drawings were much more free and loose, that I was channeling something through them, while my paintings were more rigid and controlled. His words really resonated with me, so I decided to just do tons of drawings for a while. Eventually, I got back into painting but was wildly experimental, making cartoony narrative paintings involving a "stickman" character, black and white stained paintings of the cosmos, and also burning canvas to make abstract patterns.
This is a long story, but I feel it's integral to my development as a sculptor. One day in 2011 I just felt like sewing. Instead of questioning the impulse and wondering what I would do with it, I ripped up pieces of canvas and sewed them back together, without worrying about the finished product. That's what led to the sculptures and eventually I had the idea to make a "stuffed painting.” I sewed and stuffed canvas with Poly-Fil, painted it with acrylic, and made the form of an eye. I was doing the “Artists in the Marketplace” residency at the Bronx Museum of the Arts at the time. For the culminating show at Wave Hill, I did an installation of canvas wall sculptures - eyes, vaginal forms, and phalluses. Besides painting the sculptures, I also burnt them, poured wax on them and added shards of glass.
How has your work evolved since then?
I've expanded to other fabrics, such as vinyl and spandex, and I also started working with hard materials like Hydrocal and Aqua-Resin. I started making floor sculptures too, after which I started considering myself a sculptor, rather than a painter who makes sculptures. I don't really make paintings anymore, although I consider my sculptures very painterly and some parts of my sculptures function as mini-paintings. Materials are what really excite me though, because I love their tactility and sensuality, as well as the challenge of taking up a new material
Your work navigates between whimsy and dark subject matter - how do you keep the balance between the two? Do your titles help keeping the humor present?
I work very intuitively, so keeping the balance between the two is not so much a conscious decision as just what feels "right" to me. I think it just naturally reflects my outlook on life. I try to keep a sense of humor about anything dark and negative in my life. I've been through some intense experiences, so it's how I learned to cope. As for the titles, yes, I like how they help bring the humor to the forefront.
You work with very bright and vibrant colors and glitter. What draws you these?
That's been a pretty recent development in my work, and I definitely think having kids now (my twin daughters are almost 18 months old) has influenced me to use more bright colors and glitter in my work. My work was more dark, grotesque and monochromatic in the past. It still has some of those elements, but my girls have been putting me in a happy mood so that's inevitably entered into my work, as well as the aesthetics of my kids' toys and clothes. It's funny how kids will change you that way - the love and cuteness I experience in my life on a daily basis is overpowering. I never thought I'd make a sculpture of a fucking rainbow, but I decided to let myself get "corny" and the results have been satisfying - more layered and complex than before.
How do you choose the forms of your sculptures such as eyes and lips?
I started making eyes because I like that they are central forms and recognizable. They also serve as spiritual portholes. When you look at an eye, there is a communion happening with the piece that is palpable. It's like the eye of God. I remember that soon after I starting making the eye sculptures, I saw the Lynn Hershman Leeson documentary on feminist art, “!Women Art Revolution,” at the Museum of Modern Art, and was inspired by it. I decided I wanted to connect more to the history of feminist art, so that's when I started making the vaginal forms. This led to the lips since they're pretty much the same form, depending on how you orient them. I like embracing symbols of femininity, as well as their sexiness.
Why is the body central to your pieces? What other themes do you work with?
Making sculpture is a very physical, tactile and sensual experience, so for me the body just makes sense as subject matter, as a natural manifestation of the physical process of sculpture. It's made with your body, so why not use the body as metaphorical subject matter? I've always been very interested in the connection between the mind and body, and our psychological relationships to our bodies. I'm an avid exerciser and I've always loved dancing, so I feel connected to my body on a daily basis. It's very rich terrain to mine through, in terms of sexuality, self-image and the idea of transcending one's physical body.
As for other themes, my work is often drawn from my personal experiences, so lately I've been making work about the experience of motherhood and my twins. It really depends on whatever I am going through at the moment, but I also draw inspiration from memories and the visual stimuli of everyday life.
Have you received backlash for your nude works?
Most people who say anything to me about my nude photos have been supportive and understand the work, but I did hear secondhand that someone, a woman, said that I'm "so in love" with myself because of the photos. Even though I expected that some women would have difficulty with the work, it was still hurtful for me to hear because I felt very misunderstood. It makes me sad when women feel the need to attack other women, and unfortunately it's very common. First of all, that's not even the point of the work – I was making a cheeky commentary on objectification, power and gender as performance, using myself as a “prop”. I realize I am treated a certain way because of how I look, which, like many women experience, has been both an asset and handicap in my life. I think most women have a complicated relationship with their looks, and people who assume I'm "so in love" with myself have no idea how ugly I felt growing up because my mother was very critical of my appearance. I also felt ugly for being Asian and not white. In high school I started meeting guys who were "into Asian girls" and that was a weird experience, to suddenly be fetishized for traits I had considered ugly. So, if I finally have a healthy enough self-image that I feel comfortable posing nude for my photos, it would be nice if I wasn’t criticized for it. Women should support other women, especially when it comes to issues of self-image that most of us struggle with.
What has been your experience working as a woman in the arts who is confident displaying her nudity? Why do you think there is still a discomfort around the human form and talking about sex?
I think people tend to respect you when you project confidence. Besides hearing the negative comment I mentioned above, most people have been supportive and respectful of the work and towards me. I was actually surprised that even straight males who visited my studio were able to discuss it intelligently with me, even if they admitted discomfort while looking at them, and treat me with respect. I thought of the photos as a social experiment and wondered if a woman who portrays herself in an overtly sexual manner could still command respect. Most people would say no, that's what our society tells us, but I wanted to see if I could overturn that paradigm, and I think the confidence as well as the humor I depict in the photos helps with that. I think we are still uncomfortable with the body and sexuality because of our society's deeply puritanical roots and mixed messages from the media. Sex is everywhere, yet we "slut-shame" and don't know how to express or discuss sexuality in an intelligent manner. Culturally, Europeans are much more laid-back about it, while Asians are more repressed about it. It's mostly a cultural problem, but that's something we can change by talking openly about sex and setting new precedents.
Your soft sculpture works are very reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg. Who else have you been inspired by?
In January I saw a great show of a British artist, Jonathan Baldock, at Nicelle Beauchene. He also works with fabric and makes paintings and sculptures that reference the body, that are humorous, surreal and iconographic. I really like his use of felt as a sculptural material - he stuffs it so densely that the "soft sculpture" becomes hard. Also, in the same vein I've been thinking about Anya Kielar's work. She also makes sculptures and paintings that reference the body, using a wide range of materials. Her work has a lot of powerful, spiritual, and feminine energy. Both of these artists have such a command of materials that I find so impressive. I feel like something powerful is being channeled through them and I get to witness it through their work.
What music are you listening to?
Lately I've been listening to a lot of The Go-Go's and feeling a new appreciation for them and pop music. They actually had punk roots - Belinda Carlisle was once in the Germs - and there was some conflict within the band about the whole idea of "selling out.” I also thought "selling out" was lame when I was younger, but now I think there is something to be said for making music or art that has a wide appeal yet is still good quality and innovative for its time. This is probably reflected in my work going in a more "pop" direction lately. I spent so much of my youth being disgruntled, and taking pride in being "subcultural" (I even fronted a riot grrrl band and DJed electronic music in the past) but now I just want to be happy. I live a fairly "normal" life these days, at least from the outside, but despite being a responsible parent and partner, and softening at the edges, I know I'll always be a freak. I may be a happy freak, but I'm still a freak. Art making helps me release my inner freakiness.