Across the Great Divide


An Interview with Hijo Nam

Hijo Nam’s art projects an ability to seek and know. With knowledge can come an understanding that harmony is inner peace. This would account for the contemplative nature of the forms and combinations she chooses, the colors and accents she adds, and the surfaces and textures she reveres. Nam’s search often brings her to the lost and forgotten remnant of an outdated utilitarian mechanism. In her hands, a resurrection of a spirit occurs, and as a result, the object is moved beyond its thingness. This process, this journey then becomes transportive and transcendent as the object’s past, present, and future become one.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Nam. We discussed her approach to the creation of her most impressive singular works, as well as her formidable installations.

DDL: In your mixed media works Calling Itself Rhythm (2012), Ecdysis (2012), and Freedom from Avarice I (2012), I get a sense of tribal, ritualistic worship. It’s as if there is magic attached to the found materials as you shape and re-present them. Am I reading your intention correctly?

HN: Absolutely. Indeed there is this sense of ritualism in my works, because I am a female artist in touch with my inner being and the nature of my native country's history. Shamanism is an intrinsic part of Korean culture going back as far as pre-historic times, so in Jungian terms, the signs and symbols I use are instinctual and very, very ancient. In modern Korea, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism have been combined with forms of shamanism that resulted in composite symbolism. In Calling Itself Rhythm [image above] there is wood, brass, and copper wire. Wood is burnt when praying to call the spirits; metals, especially brass, comprise the ritualistic vessels. The philosophy in Freedom from Avarice has to do with not being material bound, which is the reason that the wires encircle the void or the immaterial. Ekdysis references ritualistic masks morphologically -- it also lacks solidity and again relates to the spiritual in the Tao Te Ching.

DDL: You quote Paul Cézanne, "Painting is recording colored sensations," in one of your earlier statements. In many of Cézanne’s later landscapes, it is quite clear that his imagination led him to a more psychological -- a more symbolic -- interpretation of the genre that pulls you mentally, right into the picture plane. Then I look at your patina on copper Stepping Stones (2013) [image below] and I am drawn right into the composition, only with your work, the inward sweep is achieved with a very different kind of dynamic that pulsates between symmetry and asymmetry. How would describe this place you are depicting?


HN: Well, Dominick, perhaps in my early work Cézanne may have inspired my interest in sensation and color. After I matured as an artist, I became more symbolic, as did the great master. My deep roots in nature, coupled with my commitment to ethical issues of sustainability, resulted in my commitment to materials and processes embedded with emphatic socio-cultural and spiritual meaning. Stepping Stones (image above) is made of patinated, distressed, aged, and stained copper, a metal that, like the chameleon, can adapt to its context and, depending on the amount of dampness and ore content, can turn into many naturalistic shades of color. The top portion that is symmetrical is played off against the asymmetrical bottom sector that contains some round elements that, as their title suggests, can be read as stepping stones. This juxtaposition of opposites is much like the sign of the Tao, which is comprised of solid and void, resolved through the content of the one element within the other.

DDL: In works such as Cycle of Trace 2 (2011) [top image] and Perception (Who Am I) (2012) it’s easy to see the beauty and intrigue you find in rusted and eroded metal. Then there is the insertion into an eye-shaped hole, a cross section of a tree knot in Perception, and the loosely painted figures that run up and across the hill sides in Cycle of Trace 2, and one finds a human presence that resides somewhere between an internally contemplative type to the outer-reaching and expanding existence. Then, I keep getting from your work how you inevitably bring everything back to center. Sort of the way that you handle, so beautifully, the combination of objects and painted accents in Cycle of Nature (2012) [image below].

HN: Utilized materials carry their original symbolism that remains long after they are discarded. By re-purposing objects such as these, I give them yet another dimension, thus according them additional meanings and contexts. This need to create artworks from already existing objects is historically owed to my upbringing in a small Korean village that was surrounded by bamboo forests. Nothing was wasted, but rather it was put to new use; from leftover food that became, in slightly different form, the next day's meal, to rags that were made into carpets and bed wares. Old scraps of weathered metal, rusted and worn, carried their own history that, along with the one I gave them, became palimpsests of repeated existences like those in Buddhist reincarnations or alchemical transformations. Consequently Cycle of Nature I demonstrates the bumps, valleys, and stresses of its previous existence as gates, then becoming an artwork with new significance and beauty. 

DDL: Your mixed media painting on steel Canyon Dream (2013) [image above] is quite haunting, despite its beauty. Sort of the way Charles Burchfield or John Marin managed to make such spiritually enlightening vistas. It’s not just about a specific place, a time of day or year -- it’s more than that. It's time versus timelessness. It’s a celebration.

HN: Burchfield and Marin were two great American modernists to be sure, but my two favorite landscapists were Hong do Kim and Yoonbok Shin, who were 18th Century ink painters in the Yuan Dynasty tradition. Their creation of space was arbitrary or approximated, with mountains seemingly rising out of misty expanses. This contrasted void of the space against the solidity of the mountain can again be read as the Tao or Yin and Yang that is both solid and void simultaneously.

Born in South Korea, Hijo Nam earned her MFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. Her most recent one-person exhibitions have been held in Barcelona, Spain; Florence, Italy and Istanbul, Turkey. - D. Dominick Lombardi


Mr. Lombardi is an artist with representation at the Kim Foster Gallery in New York, a writer with The Huffington Post, ARTslant, and d'ART, and an independent curator.