Immersive Studio Visit

Jae H. Hahn

Eric Yoon | September 12, 2018

Back in Seoul last spring, Eazel met up with the Korean-born and Los Angeles-based artist, Jae H. Hahn as she was doing research for an upcoming exhibition. Employing subtle colors and delicate geometric expressions that blur the boundary between the abstract and the concrete, Hahn’s work explores the space between the timeless and the quotidian. In our conversation we covered a wide range of topics—from her recent work to current events around the world—and upon concluding our conversation Hahn invited us to her studio in LA to continue the conversation. We gladly accepted, promising to visit the following summer.

Last July I flew out to Los Angeles to meet with the artist, Jae H. Hahn to discuss her work and oeuvre. I arrived into the city in the wake of nasty heatwave, but in spite of the sweltering temperature I was able to appreciate the city’s natural scenery and found myself reflecting on the many artists that it has inspired over the years.

Upon arriving to the artist’s home in the afternoon I was greeted by her family who welcomed me with a lunch that Hahn had prepared herself. Her house was filled with her outstanding artworks and I was particularly impressed with the organization and professional quality of her self-built home studio—natural light filling the space as it came in from a large window. As is often the case with passionate artists in their studios, once we began our conversation, Hahn suddenly became a giant audaciously unpacking her personal history and how it has manifested in her art.

Eric Yoon (EY): It’s good to see you again. Why don’t you start us off by speaking to how you got started as an artist?

Jae H. Hahn (JH): It’s good to see you as well. It may sound ironic, but when I was young, I actually didn’t want to be an artist—and this is, in turn, would ultimately become the reason for how I ended up becoming an artist. My father was a part of the first graduating class of the Fine Art department of Seoul’s National University in Korea; however, as an artist he would struggle to support our family during my childhood. For this reason, financial stability would become the most important issue for me growing up, and I would find pursuing an artistic career impractical; however, upon settling into the United States with my family, my parents would become involved in the art business, opening a small gallery in Los Angeles’s Koreatown where they specialized in oriental paintings, calligraphy works, and antique furniture from Korea. So I would end up studying fine art at UCLA to support the family business.

EY: In reading about your previous exhibitions I read numerous concepts related to Eastern philosophy such as ‘Tao (道),’ ‘Existence (有 / 存在) & Nothing (無),’ and ‘Emptiness (‘Sunyata’ / 空性)’. Tell us about the philosophical figures that have inspired you in your artistic oeuvre.

JH: Until the 1970s, Korea was a homogeneous society with a culture shaped by the Confucian tradition. At the same time, the society was shaped by modern Western civilization—especially Western science. I was raised as a Christian, and I attended a mission school for six years. All my education was focused on learning about the Bible and the West. Then in 1973, I moved to Los Angeles where everything was different—the language, as well as the customs. Before I emigrated I thought I knew about the West, but upon settling into the culture I would learn that actually, I did not. What I experienced in this new environment was not at all similar to what I learned from reading books and watching movies. I found myself totally lost and felt completely separated from all parts of the world—even from my own cultural background.

I found myself desperately searching for my identity as I sought to answer that perennial question: What is art? I began by returning to Eastern philosophy with a special focus on Taoism and Zen Buddhism. I became engrossed in Lao Tzu’sTao Te Ching, various fables of Zhuang Zhou, various books about Zen Buddhism, and Zorba the Greek, a novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis. I found inspiration in all of these books. Worth mentioning is that I find it important to reconcile values from the East with values from the West in my life, as well as in my work.

EY: It would seem your expression with lines explores the space between the abstract and the geometric. Could you speak this part of your oeuvre?

JH: Influenced by Taoism and Zen Buddhism, my early paintings are characterized by abstract and metaphysical narratives—and in some respects, they also look geometric. Kuan and Sunyata series from the 1990s are representative of this. The Sunyata series is thematically related to its literal meaning of emptiness. Just as silence is an essential part of music, emptiness connotes an infinite possibility that serves as the basis of visual art. The word ‘Kuan’ means quiet observation—contemplation without division of the seer and the seen. I believe art begins and ends with the idea of ‘Kuan.’ At the end of 1990s, lines in my paintings became more independent bar paintings which worked as a group using wall space as an extended painting background, interlocking positive and negative space.

EY: It would seem your current work is exploring the square as the subject—this form apparently assuming a dominant role relative to the line in your work. Could you speak to how you view the relationship between these forms in your work?

JH: Going back to the Academy of Plato in ancient Greece, geometry—as far as I know—served as a basis for Western philosophy and science. I find interesting the view of geometry as a prototype for shapes in the world. In my work’s exploration of form I have found inspiration in simple geometric shapes. It’s difficult to compare lines and squares, but I would say that squares reflect my primary interest. I appreciate their simplicity and capacity for embracing the spirits of both the East and the West.

Jae H. Hahn

Artist Studio, Los Angeles

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EY: Your exhibition at Gallery Seohwa, Seoul in 2009 marks an inflection point in your oeuvre—your work from this point onward demonstrating an expanded and more diverse color selection, as well as exploring space with transformations of the square. Could you speak to how you approached this exhibition?

JH: Until 2005 the square was typically expressed in my paintings as seen from a frontal perspective. I found that the shape’s simplicity enables my work to convey calm and inner-peace through contemplative and Zen-like aesthetics.

Afterwards I began to observe squares from all angles—not just from a frontal perspective. This change in perspective greatly influenced my work. I no longer viewed my paintings as squares on the wall. They started to move with the space, inviting the viewer to dance with them. They unfolded themselves and instead of applying rigorous aesthetics to squares, I began to experiment with and adapt squares, forming all kinds of shapes—from shapes with curved surfaces to an organically moving figures.

Chaeki Freya Synn, an art critic and professor of Art History at Keimyung University, Korea, wrote the following words for my exhibition at Seohwa: “Compared to the ideological rigidity of minimalist works, Jae’s works are more organic and naturalistic, presenting an abundance of provocative ideas. Her works appear to be at a halt but moving, straight but curved, and two dimensional but three dimensional all at once. The forms are closed but open, abstract and conceptual, but realistic and humorous at the same time.”

EY: What is the core narrative your work is exploring and what do you convey through your oeuvre?

JH: I have learned a lot from my uneasy path as an artist. I have learned art, philosophy, culture of the East and the West, relativity of perspective, the usefulness of uselessness, as well as attitude without prejudice. I have also learned to look at things from different perspectives and to step in and out of the proverbial box more freely. Above all, I have gained a better understanding of the world, of art, and of life.

My squares are curved like globes and dynamic like organic creatures. There is no limit to the shapes that I can make with these squares. In other words, the square can be transformed into almost any form. I feel closer to such concepts as Tao with nature and harmony implicit in the possibility of unlimited deformations of the square. The freer the square becomes, the more inner freedom I feel. Freedom is what I was looking for through my paintings using squares as a metaphor. I don’t know which came first—whether freedom has led to creativity, or if creativity has led to freedom. What I know for sure is that I am very pleased with my liberated squares.

I also see a huge net in the square that connects all parts of the world—humans, the East and the West, nature, and the universe. We are all connected as we are all different manifestations of the same thing, emanating from the same big root. Discovering how we are all connected is another insight that I gain from making my square paintings.

EY: Can you identify a driving force behind your work? Can you share your inspiration as of late?

JH: As a visual artist, seeing itself inspires me naturally. When I was young, I was interested in urban architecture based on straight lines and maximum efficiency. Now I find inspiration in nature; the ever-changing skies, mountains, trees, seasons, and the passage of time from day to night. Nature always finds new ways to inspire me and stimulate my creativity. On the subject of creativity, I would like to share a short story about a teenage boy found his life to be boring and tedious. He found everything around him to be ordinary and uninteresting. To him, the world seemed grey. But then one day he met a girl and fell in love with her. Immediately his view of the world changed dramatically. The world suddenly filled with light and color—everything appearing bright. Falling in love is just like awakening the intrinsic creativity of our unconsciousness. We can gain a new perspective to understand the things around us and become more creative through new ideas.

EY: What’s next for you?

JH: Now I’m focusing on preserving the time and energy it takes to create art while I am still young. I usually use ¾ inch birch plywood sheets in my works and they are really heavy. A lot of physical work and engineering is entailed in producing my paintings, which average in size about 25 x 12 feet (7.5 x 3.6 meter).

At this time I know what I want to make for the next four years. Planning ahead always helps me be more productive and focused. I am also making sure to afford myself the freedom that I need to be creative, because I find that I am the happiest when I make art. I suppose that happiness and freedom are two main things that I wish to convey through my art.


You can read further about the artist through Jae H. Hahn's page on Eazel

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