NB: What are some of your earliest memories of art and how does it relate to your work today?
KH: My earliest memory of art was drawing people in my grandmother’s living room and trying to make a perfect circle for the head with a jar cap and she was like ‘you know heads aren’t perfectly round’ and I remember having a sort of revelation. I think that sparked an interest in art as I started paying closer attention to details, and the ways we decide to represent what’s in front of us.
I grew up in Shanghai, and moved to London when I was about 11 years old and went to an all girls school there. Shifting from East to the West at such a young age and going into a totally female centric environment was definitely a shock. I was surrounded almost entirely by women, most of my teachers were women, my friends, and my ‘housemothers’ who were the women who looked after us and put us to bed…
All of that really ignited my interest in exploring the female psyche and female body, comparing and exploring the difference between the ideologies of femininity in the East and in the West. I create these satirical images of women, giving them kind of animalistic bodies. It’s all about diving into absurdism and capturing those raw and turbulent emotional states through the figure. The female body in my work is always a site that rebels against the ‘sophisticated’ portrayals of women across culture.
NB: Let’s talk about your process. Where do you begin? How do you approach a painting?
KH: I never really plan or sketch before I paint. I do a lot of drawings and small canvases, but I don’t consider those sketches, these are works on their own. I don’t have a premeditated narrative, simply because I always want to focus on the body first. I wet my surface and I spontaneously draw a very vague figure with acrylic paint. I let the paint really seep and bleed into the canvas, forming its own shape. And then through these abstracted organic shapes, I find a figure and a narrative. It’s similar to cloud gazing where a familiar form emerges when looking at clouds.This is how the bodies are found in my work, and I allow the material to do its own thing and really guiding the direction of the work.
NB: Can you tell us about the theme of the female body and womanhood?
KH: I am really intrigued by the history of female hysteria and the accounts of witchcraft. Many women were labeled and punished for being ‘witches’ or considered ‘hysteric’ simply because the female anatomy and behavior were misunderstood. I am really fascinated in exploring how misconceptions of the female body led to the ongoing sensationalization of women. French neurologist Jean Charcot attempted to uncover the root of female hysteria using hypnotism to identify mental disorders. Charcot experimented on mainly marginalized women who displayed dramatic symptoms associated with hysteria such as thrusting, contorting, convulsing and shaking, in front of male spectators. Charcot’s sensationalized displays of ill women were popular amongst his male contemporaries in the auditorium at the Salpêtrière.
History aside, I want to address how society sensationalizes women today especially on social media and in films. Take Jennifer Coolidge’s character in The White Lotus, for example—she’s this mix of needy, sensitive, obsessive, simple-minded, neurotic, and sexual, which basically sets her up for some serious mockery. Or Britney Spears back in 2007, whose spiraling mental health was exploited by the media used as a source of entertainment. I’m looking into how today’s culture dishes out images of ‘unhinged’ women, and consequently the women I paint are painted in a similar way, never depicted in an ‘appealing’ way. It’s always slightly morbid, slightly grotesque, and you can say it’s confrontational.
NB: How does your use of material and color relate to those narratives and themes in your paintings?
Well, my color palette is red and flesh tone oriented. For me red is a symbolic color, it echos vulnerability, passion and conflict which are subjects that I explore in my work. But more than anything, I’m just really attracted to all tones of red. Not all of my paintings are red but I certainly always start with it. Red really resonates with me, sometimes I think my aura is red.
The cigarette and long black hair in my painting are both symbols that connect the characters to me. These are not necessarily self-portraits and I’m not a chain smoker, but I wanted to bring these fantastical, often beastly looking women in my paintings down to earth reinforcing the fact that they are human and they have a bad habit, and that’s ok. It’s a sort of play on how these figures can be so uncanny yet human at the same time.
There’s also a ‘dog looking’ creature that repeats across a few paintings. This came from the ancient diagnosis of the “wandering womb”. Doctors would diagnose women with the “wandering womb” when they were unable to explain the cause of the illness. The wandering womb is when the womb “ moves around your body” causing all sorts of ailments. This diagnosis was taken seriously because the female body and organs were a foreign site in the world of medicine run by men. So the ‘dog’ is sort of a symbol of the wandering womb. It’s not really a dog, but rather a little creature that meanders around the body mocking the absurd misconceptions of the female body and and echoing the enigma around the female psyche.
NB: So what are some current and upcoming exhibitions that you’re excited to talk about?
Currently in New York I have a show at the Latchkey Gallery. It’s a newly renovated viewing space within the gallery at 173 Henry St and it’s open until the 22nd of November. I also have a two person show with artist Claire Bendiner coming up at Galeria Leyendecker in Tenerife, Spain on view through December 16th.