Ascending River, San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art

“Paik’s dynamic, unframed paintings are hung from the ceiling like sails and laid out under a plexiglass-covered floor, enveloping the viewer in an immersive other-worldly environment.  The works are complex in color and texture and filled with motifs of light that seem to radiate from the canvases.  Celestial and water imagery abound, as do recurring imagery of ships and architectural drawings of cathedral floor plans. Through the use of these images, Paik makes a connection between the world of experience and the world of the unknown while challenging our conventional notions of space and time…. ” – SJICA

Eleanor Heartney talks to Younhee Paik

YHP – I have always enjoyed being outside, and when I was young I lived in a fishing village. It was the time of the Korean war and there were no toys, so I learned how to enjoy nature. The ocean was always my friends. I enjoyed being alone by the water. And I loved to stay awake at night. The stars were friends as well. Also, my father was a nature lover and he used to take me to the mountains.

EH – What about your. use of light? In your paintings, light seems to come from behind, the canvas seem to glow as if it were lit from inside.

YHP – My sense of light has changed since my trip to India. I lived in California for a long time-more than twenty years. California is a place of strong light and shadow. But in India I felt a different sense of culture spirituality. The light comes from within an object, not from outside it. In the cave temples you see light glow from the Buddha, and it seems to peaceful. So since then I have painted light that way, as if it were radiating from the object.

EH – Light also has a spiritual significance.

YHP – Without darkness there is no light. So instead of starting with a white canvas, I start with a dark color and paint light onto the dark painting.

EH – Along- with the natural references, you include man-made things like boats, architecture, and even diagrammatic lines. What is the relationship between man-made and natural elements in your work?

YHP – Even though I appreciate the universe and am part of nature, I have to live in my reality. This place is my reality; this room is my reality; I’m living in a box. We are surrounded by geometry.

EH – Do you feel that man-made things hold you back?

YHP – I want to participate in the universe, but I can’t erase my place in it. I can’t ignore my reality. The lines in my paintings make me think of constellations. For a long time I drew boats, and, of course, where boats go, stars follow. When I look at these paintings, I feel like I am under the constellations in a boat.

– Eleanor Heartney
New York art critic and contributing editor to Art in America magazine

Philip E. Linhares, Oakland Museum of California

San Francisco art critic Mark Van Proyen further explores Paik’s earlier years, her education at the Seoul Art High School and undergraduate studies at the Seoul National University, where she became acquainted with the work of American abstract expressionist painters. At the age of 23 she moved to San Francisco, and, a year later, married a fellow Korean student.

Her new life in America stimulated her desire to continue her painting, and she quickly gravitated to the San Francisco Art Institute, one of the country’s most advanced and liberal centers of visual art education. There she met the three artists who would become her mentors: Alvin Light, a sculptor whose works exuded the spirit and gesture of abstract expressionism; Bruce McGaw, the youngest of a group of West Coast figurative painters that included Richard Diebenkorn, David Park and Elmer Bischoff; and Julius Hotafsky, an abstract painter whose reading of the work of William Blake deeply resonated with Paik’s sensibility. Van Proyen explores many of of the symbols in Paik’s painting, discussing their role in Christian iconography in relation to their appearance in many phases of Paik’s work. New York art critics Jonathan Goodman and Robert C. Morgan expand upon Younhee Paik’s later paintings, created in the years after she raised two children and secured a studio in New York. As her children grew and became independent, Paik was able to travel extensively to Europe, throughout Asia and the United States, and, most importantly, to India. Her sightings of burned forests in Yellowstone Park and experiencing the glowing light and spirituality of India served as sources for much of her work of the past decade.

-Philip E. Linhares, 2005
Chief Curator of Art
Oakland Museum of California

Redemptive Rememberings: The Art of Younhee Paik by Mark Van Proyen

It is perhaps important to remark here that Paik’ s embrace of a more classically inspired compositional architecture in not to say that Paik never returned to the nocturnal palette with which she was so preoccupied during the years after her 1990 trip to India, only that she was able to embrace the full spectrum esthetic possibilities of that palette without dwelling too much on its obvious evocation of the fearful, that being the paralyzing condition of anxious dread that so preoccupied existential philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard. For example, in the exceedingly large canvas titled City Awaken (2000), we see what appears to be a metropolitan area pictured at night from the vantage of a low – flying airplane, its undulating phosphorescent grid of white and yellow light forming the complex circuits that comprise the postmodern cityscape. Bright yellow shapes are collaged onto the surface of this work to create the illusion of some lights being much closer to th~ viewer’s position, reinforcing an effect that makes the painted lights seem to recede further away along a kind of electrified yellow brick road that moves away from the viewer’ s positi<;m and toward an illuminated cloudscape. Here, we see a phatasmagoria that looks down on the world of the 21 st century interconnectedness with the same approving spirit that Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night regarded the 1889 heavens above the south of France. Indeed, from looking at this painting we can surmise it to be a vision reminding us that the world will be the world, and that the sun and the moon will continue to rise and fall with or without our worst fears or arrogant consent.

Mark Van Proyen is a writer, an art critic based in San Francisco, and Professor of art history, painting, and digital media at San Francisco Art Institute.