Six Questions with Artist Eunnam Hong

"Looking at this series is akin to cruising the pages of a nineties Yves Saint Laurent campaign helmed by Hedi Slimane."

There’s something disquieting about Brooklyn-based artist Eunnam Hong’s paintings. It’s in her subjects’ eyes—or rather, the fact that we never see them. Who are these people, so well-dressed yet so Delphically unfathomable?

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A painting of three women wearing red in different poses
Enemy, 2023. Photo: Charles Benton, courtesy Lubov.nyc

In one work shown in her ​​first solo exhibition in New York, Souvenirs at Lubov.nyc, a woman in a striking red shirtdress and dark tights sits waiting in a chair with her hands on her lap. Glasses and a mop of curly flaxen hair obscure her eyes. Another figure, identical but in red leather pants and a matching jacket, strides past in a hallway, gazing pointedly away from us. She crosses paths with a third figure—another clone in a red trench and headscarf, walking… or waiting. In this and other paintings, Hong offers up more questions than she does answers.

A painting of four women wearing jeans
Jean Jacket, 2023. Photo: Charles Benton, courtesy Lubov.nyc

But there’s one facet of these moody scenes that she will reveal: the figures in each of her paintings are Hong herself clad in remarkably detailed throwback fashions and voluminous ringletted wigs. In painting herself as these different, if perplexingly unknowable, people, she explores different facets of her identity as an immigrant, mother, wife and artist. And possibly also as a once-upon-a-time art director with a thriving career in advertising and fashion in Seoul.

A painting of two women wearing flight suits
Battles, 2022. Photo: Charles Benton, courtesy Lubov.nyc

Claire Sammut, in the catalog materials for Souvenirs, wrote that Hong’s “scenes are cinematic with an awkward editorial tint, demure and disciplined, well-rendered with sharp edges and softened hues, set in a naturally lit pre-war apartment furnished mid-century modern. Looking at this series is akin to cruising the pages of a nineties Yves Saint Laurent campaign helmed by Hedi Slimane.”

A painting of two women seated at a table with coffee and fruit
Japanese Teapot, 2022. Photo: Charles Benton, courtesy Lubov.nyc

Indeed, her work straddles the line between realism and photorealism, and her scenes are mysterious and unsettling, inviting the viewer into another world, one that is clearly parallel to our own but in some ways utterly unlike it. Hong uses painting to explore the space that exists between her old home and new one and the unease that comes with not quite belonging in either. Yet there’s a broader emotional component to her depictions of people going about their days, tying their shoes and drinking their coffee, that’s wide open to interpretation.

Observer had a chance to chat with Eunnam Hong about what shapes her work and her creative process.

How did you get started with painting? As a self-taught artist, what was your learning process like?

I realized very early on that I had to be an artist, or more accurately, I needed to create and make art to survive. It was a way to live and escape to where I really belong. It felt very secure to have that kind of a world internally. I have always been protective about that world that I can fall into and have as much freedom to learn on my own terms. Essentially, that means I try anything I like and am not afraid of failure.

What were some of the first paintings you created?

Early on I made a lot of drawings and paintings about people I loved through the media, like pop stars and artists. My main subject has always been people and relationships. That was one thing that never changed from the beginning.

How has your background in art direction and fashion influenced your work? 

I learned so much about photography generally. Many of the photographers I worked with taught me useful tips about making intriguing visuals with a camera. I love that cameras present a totally different vision than our own eyes.

Your paintings speak to balancing multiple identities. I can also feel the sense of isolation by looking at these figures who are never looking back at the camera. Can you talk about who we are looking at in these paintings? 

I want to be ambiguous and anonymous about who they are, at the same time familiar, so I like to play with fictional characters in my paintings. It’s really not about who they are, it’s more about the drama. It’s always interesting to me when I cannot explain something with words but still definitely feel it. I like to depict their vague narrative in my work.

Where do you draw your inspiration from? Who are some of your creative influences? 

I am influenced by many film directors and their masterpieces generally as well as photography. I would love to mention Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo as my current obsession. It’s interesting to learn how he develops characters in his films.

How have your style or the themes you are interested in exploring evolved over time? 

It’s an ever-evolving process. I might have a steady enthusiasm for human relationships in general, but at the same time, I get influenced by current discourse. It’s always my goal to learn about my relationship with the external world.

Six Questions with Artist Eunnam Hong