I feel like man-made spaces are so interesting because they’re a personification of us. We literally build up this weird fake environment. Women’s spaces vs. men’s spaces. Nature and the female form are very different from the form in a man-made space. There’s something very open and natural about the outdoors and a lot of the images that I was creating are private, in a way. So I placed them all in bathrooms, bedrooms–places where you feel most safe or alone.
Bates Review: How did you begin thinking about this collection?
Singha Hon: It was a combination of things that had been in my head for a while. I’d been trying to figure out, for most of junior year, what I really wanted to do with painting. That meant, while abroad (at Central Saint Martins in London), I was working completely self-directed, and then back when I was back at Bates, making work in class with Professor Robert Feintuch. He was pushing me to figure out the technical style I wanted to paint with, and what subjects really interested me. Over short term I took “Building a Studio Practice” with him again and I started thinking about portraiture as something that’s not always sensical and beautiful, but can be slightly absurd, funny, and ugly, and in those ways more honest. Then over the summer I was looking at a lot of medieval paintings at the Met that had all these really absurd fantasy creatures in them, made by artists who had never really seen the animals. I loved the paintings of dragons and giant snakes that were funny and kind-of personified. I had a desire to create images with those weird animals, where so much of the human psyche is reflected onto the creature because the painter can’t help it. There is an image, George and the Dragon, that’s so funny: George is perfectly rendered but the dragon is this half-human, with defined abdominal muscles that you would find on an Italian Mannerist Jesus. I did a copy over the summer because I found it so interesting. There was something enjoyable about having these two beings in one painting. I wasn’t necessarily thinking why, I just knew I wanted to do it in my work. There was this weird and campy duality of monster imagery with women. The women often symbolizes beauty, virtue, and vulnerability, while the monster is this pure evil predator. I started to think about how I could subvert that cliché, how to create this pairing in a way that is new.
BR: Can you talk a little more about managing the duality?
SH: I try to do a good amount of visual research before I start a painting so that I’m aware of what each part of the composition could mean, and what I could be referencing by putting in certain visual clues. Half of the creation of the composition is wanting to tell a story, but the other half (of being a painter) is creating something beyond illustration or a linear narrative. I like putting in really familiar things but in a different way, trying out objects that both would and wouldn’t go together naturally. It’s sort of this desire to create a visual plot twist. I’m not sure if I always even want there to be just one story– I do want to allow for multiple interpretations. In Night Kitchen, the most fun bit was putting in all these little extra details–teacups, books, fruit, chocolates, etc, and then hearing how other people interpreted those things. A lot of my inspiration comes from Symbolist painters and how they use symbols in their work, but I guess I’m also making up my own symbols throughout that reference my life. I usually check with my studio-mates to see their interpretation of these symbols/objects.
BR: How do you relate to your audience? How do you want them to perceive your work from the symbols?
SH: The times that I’ve had someone see my work for the first time and react to it, have all been really interesting. The other week, Chief Oren Lyons, who worked for many years as a visual artist, came and looked at my work and said, “You’re fighting for women, clearly.” I hadn’t really articulated that even to myself out loud yet, and I was like, oh, wow, I guess it is really feminist, and I guess I never have chosen to paint the male form all year. I feel the way I relate to the audience is by putting as much of inner honest self as possible out there, and seeing if it reads through. But I guess it can be a little…provocative visually? During the Arts Crawl, I got both an “oh my god, I get it!” versus some reactions were more like “ahh you’re naked in your painting and you’re standing right there!” I also think half of how I want people to look at as though they were children looking through a storybook, like, “find the mouse, find this, and find that.” Its like if you were to go to a very big painting in a museum, or a diorama in the Museum of Natural History and look at all the different elements. It is very important to me that people who don’t have a background in visual art, or art history, can relate to and enjoy my work.
BR: Can you describe the bodies you are creating- female, nude, and semi-nude, explicitly anti-idealized?
SH: At the start of the year, I was thinking about using my female friends as models, but then I realized I didn’t feel comfortable imposing my own thoughts and situations onto them and warping them into these weird dreamlike places. I began to paint this imagined everywoman, who is half imagined, half based off of my own appearance. I’m interested in the female form–it has a lot of visual weight to it and it is important for me to create images of women that try to go beyond the aesthetic of attractiveness. Historically, a lot of female bodies are sort of…used, continually, as objects of desire rather than given the full weight and personality of being human beings. I’ve felt that historically, the male form is glorified to be the be-all-end-all; the human existence at it’s best is the male form. While the female form is “sweet hands” or “a soft, attractive chest” and I guess I was just so so frustrated by this culture of women as objects that exists both in art history and in pop culture and media. Over the years, I’ve become more aggressive about being like “no, I’m not painting a man, I’m going to paint something [the female form] that maybe some of my friends are only used to looking at in a sexual way.” I think part of that why I’m always thinking about the perceived body comes the past couple of plays I’ve been a part of here at Bates. Last semester I did a theater thesis, which was a performance called In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play and it was set in right in the 1880’s at the dawn of the invention of the vibrator and how it was initially used to cure women of this made up disease called ‘hysteria.’ Other than wearing a corset every day in rehearsal, that show created this rumination over gender roles and sexuality and how important it is to know the difference between the perceived body and the actual physical truths of the body, which I guess bled into this thesis too. [Laughing] Sorry if that was a ramble.
BR: Continuing on the idea of bodies– can you talk about the animal bodies you paint and your interest in taxidermy?
SH: It happened by accident. I’m a vegetarian. [Laughing] I think taxidermy is interesting because, well, it’s absurd. Taxidermists always shape the animal in their idea, their expression is totally man made… I think a lot of it came from my exposure to nature [growing up in New York City]. I had goldfish and turtles growing up. Unfortunately a lot the animals I’ve seen have been in movies, or stuffed at museums. A lot of my work comes from being fascinated by animals but also that disjunction with the natural world. I also really wanted to paint things that had a good contrasting texture to them, so like thinking about animals with fur, scales, or patterns was immediate. Looking at the human associations with animals and what they represent to us versus how they actually exist in nature is also really interesting. Obviously with some animals, like snakes, there’s an immediate relationship, with biblical and culturally contrasting ideas. A lot of how I decide their form is: I look at them, I do several studies, and then I’m like “well, alright, its going to look like this.” [Laughing] Some of them are not always proportionally true, and a lot of that is how I think about taxidermy: the taxidermist shapes the animal in their own idealization, stuffing them, molding them, putting the eyes in, it’s kind-of absurd. Now that I have a couple pieces of taxidermy people keep bringing me things…
BR: You’ve painted both dead and alive animals in your work– do you prefer painting one or the other?
SH: I think its very different painting things from life. I think, by nature of it, I’d prefer if they were alive. Taxidermy feels like an object, and I feel like more interesting things happen when you’re painting something that’s moving, and it gets a lot weirder. With the snake paining, I began by watching a video from the Smithsonian museum called “Titanoboa.” It was totally nerdy but also great. I would talk to people about what their thoughts on each animal were: some people just really hate snakes and had really strongly vehement reactions to the idea of painting them. Even though I thought it was going to be so cheesy, “women and snakes,” I really wanted to paint it. So I did!
BR: Just because you’re playing with the symbolism…?
SH: Yes! I really wanted to make the snake this lovely, confusing, lovely pattern. For me that painting is a lot about anguish and suffering but also ecstasy, and surviving through force of will. The duality of the beauty and horror of the snake and the beauty and grotesqueness of the woman allowed me to explore those ideas. I thought the snake is the most intertwined with a lot of the human experience, they’re so untamable and resilient to be domesticated. Personally they bring up a lot of feelings of powerlessness, temptation, and wildness. I was also reading Edgar Allen Poe, he has a story called Ligeia that features this poem Ligeia and the Conqueror Worm which in short sort of says that perhaps the cause of death is the loss of spirit and will. This is a writer who idealized women and made such strange characters through his own fantasy and objectification. His work is very morbid and very beautiful.
BR: Do you feel your audience is missing something from your paintings without this background? Do you write labels?
SH: I think for the ones in which the story was very important I tried to cue it in with the title. At the same time, with these ruminations I don’t always know that it’s important to know exactly what I’m thinking but rather I’d prefer the sensation comes through. I think I’m much better at conveying a sentiment. The way I think about things is I get an idea or this half-feeling half-image and I work on it until it feels right. Speaking about it, or writing my Artist’s Statement has been difficult because it’s finding a “why” for something that’s just intrinsically felt. Above all I want it to be that for viewers. Even though my work references a bit of literature and famous art work, I put it in as a little present or surprise and you can interpret it however you want, it’s for you.
BR: Could you talk about the face of the bear in the work you called Metabolic Depression in Endotherms?
SH: That’s actually a fancy word for hibernation. Its supposed to be more a portrait of the bear than the woman, or the bear is her face. They can be either the same thing, or antagonistic to each other. I think that one is my more blatantly sexual pieces, but I was thinking more about dreamscapes and the iconography of women on bearskin rugs. I wanted to subvert that, and make it slightly frightening. I was thinking about the importance of the face, and how much of the story you read from a face. In my previous paintings, my focus was on the face and I wanted to break out of it and draw attention to the body and the other presence (the bear) in the painting. There’s this weird presence around animals even after they’re dead. I spent most of my time on that painting working on the expression of the bear, it looked too silly at first: cartoony, then scared, then upset, it was too much, then too silly, now its in-between, which I like. I wanted to give it the ambiguity that the human face has most of the time.
BR: Do you feel a sense of closure with your pieces?
SH: The only way I’ll feel that a work is done is if I put it down and don’t look at it for a while. Otherwise, I’ll just want to keep working on it, making work is like an itch. A lot of the time something happens that you weren’t expecting, and that’s really exciting. You’re never going to get exactly what you want. It’s about paying attention to what’s happening as you’re working on something, and knowing how not to lose that new exciting thing that’s happening on accident by being so obsessed with getting the perfect image that’s in your head. That’s the balance between the canvas and the theory. I hope I will very soon have to have a sense of closure. Unfortunately, in the style I paint I could spend a lot more time on any of these works; because they’re so large and I paint with glazes, building up light washes of each color. The more you touch it, the more light and color it has. But, they are all within a certain psychological period in time, which is ending.
BR: Could you talk a little bit about the smaller pieces that you paint?
SH: [Laughing] Because I am working so big, those are like doodling, which I find myself doing because I have extra paint on the pallet, or an image in my head that I want to do but don’t know if it fits into the larger collection. I’ve always made tiny paintings alongside my assignments in class, it’s nice to be able to see the entire work in your hand and I make them mainly for myself, like a visual diary. My big work is for a thesis project, for presentation, for an audience. There’s a sense that I have more message, or an idea– its not just straight from my brain, unfiltered. The smaller pieces are where I’m playing a lot more, trying out different styles, different touch, doodles in the corner of my notes during the day. They balance out the intensity. Sometimes having to work in a single direction, with thesis work, can be really daunting and serious, and sometimes I need to put something out that might fail, or look stupid. And that’s ok, getting that out as well so there’s room to keep working on this larger work. Especially when you talk about losing control, letting something happen is much faster when you work smaller because there’s a smaller atmosphere… it keeps your eye fresh.
BR: Do you ever feel as if you are technically limited from expressing yourself fully in your work?
SH: Oh yeah, that’s why I wish I could paint like an Italian master. I’m working towards it. The hardest thing is knowing how to talk about light and color theory, especially if you’re working from imagination. I want it to seem dreamlike and imagined but I need it to “make sense!”
BR: Was painting what you were always drawn to?
SH: Yes! I also love drawing. I love the liveliness in the drawn line. But painting is both sculptural and flat; it can be both a window into a world and an object on the wall. I can’t really imagine working in other mediums at the same level of time and intensity that I do with painting.
I thought it would be really funny, or it would be really interesting.