We catch up with artist Heesoo Kim because of his solo presentation, Normal Life, on view through July 3rd at Unit in London.  Our conversation touches upon his impulse towards neutrality in portraiture, his roots in South Korea, Henri Matisse, and the ephemerality of daily life.
Heesoo Kim’s work is an exploration of the minutiae of our daily lives through simple, figurative portraiture. He started out as a photographer and turned to painting when he felt the urge to retreat into his studio and into his new medium, accepting the challenge of expressing faces and figures without having physical sitters.
The works on display are rooted in people in the artist’s life experiencing ephemeral encounters and actions, both with themselves and each other. The motif of the eye is recurrent and imbues the subjects with a certain mystery, a warped unknowability which seems to express shy introversion and universal loneliness. There is a certain eeriness in the way the artist maps out which figure’s eye needs to be open and looking outwards toward the viewer, and which eye needs to be closed. This is one of the ways the works show how porous human beings and their emotions can be, the fact that sometimes the subject is open to being an interlocutor, yet sometimes the subject (and the artwork) are totally unknowable.
Congratulations on opening your solo exhibition at Unit! To start off, we wanted to ask you about growing up in South Korea and the cultural and artistic references you were exposed to. Does place influence your work and practice at all?
I’m pleased and grateful to be exhibiting at Unit for the second time. I believe that our thoughts are shaped and affected by the environment we are born into and grow up in. While there are diverse cultures associated with different nationalities, I think it is more important who we communicate with and which spaces we occupy. Fortunately, I think I have encountered good people and excellent culture within Korea. It’s actually a bit cautious to pinpoint a specific cultural or artistic influence from Korea. What I think and what I want to express are matters of personal taste, but one thing I’m certain of is that the roots are in Korea.
Beauty can certainly be found in the details, and in the everyday, which is something that even the name of this exhibition, Normal Life, points to. What is your relationship to dailiness and where do you think the need to record it comes from?
It might be a very personal opinion, but I like things that are natural. Nothing stays the same. This seems to be why I work under the title Normal Life. Life keeps changing, and it feels comfortable to record those appearances and emotions. Accordingly, my paintings and working methods might also change naturally. I think the everyday scenes I observe are of us moving gradually in a better direction.
Speaking of dailiness, do you have a very rigorous routine when you’re in the studio or do you work in less particular patterns?
Rather than a routine in the workspace, it’s more like everyday habits. I frequently take notes. I carefully record and observe my thoughts and feelings. Over time, there are parts that remain unchanged and parts that change significantly. Confirming what should remain unchanged and what can flexibly change might be considered my work routine.
Do you have a favourite piece of art or was there a particular piece of art that made you think, I need to paint/create?
Yes, of course. Initially, it was Henri Matisse, and now there are a lot.
Your portraits are so captivating because of their figurative simplicity. How does the process work, do you start off with sketches or do you go straight to the acrylic paints and the canvas?
Mostly I start with sketches. And sometimes, I paint directly on the canvas.
Could you tell us a little about the pieces that capture a single figure, such as Untitled (Girl) or Untitled (Smoker II), and the ways you may have wanted to articulate universal feelings of loneliness in these pieces? We were instantly drawn in by how you paint eyes, how there is not much eye contact or interactions between the figures.
Most of my works seem to start from the emotions I feel. How to express emotions as a material is a matter of choice. Almost all works have a message. It’s hard to do the paint without a story, no matter how trivial or simple it may be. Therefore, I believe my paintings can be seen in various ways depending on the viewer. The reason why I portray the figures simply might be related to this. Depending on the time and mindset of the viewer, I cautiously believe that the stories and empathy can be created differently. There isn’t a special message just because I painted a single figure.
Let’s talk about the expressionless faces of the figures in the portraits. Why do you think neutrality is so important in these encounters?
Perhaps it stems from my personality. I believe that the intensity of emotions varies from person to person. Just as something trivial to one person can be very important to another, we are all different beings with our own personalities and identities. For this reason, no matter how firmly I express something, it can be felt differently by everyone. While I express my emotions and senses during the creation process, once the painting is completed, it exists within the viewer’s own standards. For this reason, I aim to draw more neutral expressions so that more people can freely think and view my work.
You started your career as a photographer and videographer and then moved on to visual art at the age of thirty. There is a feeling of fleetingness and ephemerality in these portraits, so we wanted to ask: has your work in photography infiltated your painterly vision? Perhaps it hasn’t at all.
I wanted to take portraits. I had a strong introverted personality and liked being alone. However, to take portraits, I had to meet many people, which was very difficult for me. After I started painting, I could express figures without meeting people. Perhaps my experience with photography in my twenties was one of the major reasons I started painting.
In this series, there is a thematic thread around exchanges between people, be it a rose an apple or an embrace. Could you tell us a little about this sense of giving and receiving and how you wanted to articulate a sense of togetherness?
I like to portray hidden meanings from my own perspective on the canvas. It doesn’t matter if someone interprets them differently. The various elements in my paintings are like Lego blocks. It doesn’t matter much if someone uses a block differently. I  hope that things will get better, whatever they may be.
The presentation also includes some of your sculptures. Untitled (Head III) is particularly striking as it feels like the ceramic is enveloping the face and translating a sense of drowning anxiety. How do you approach working in this form is this something new in your practice?
Imagine sitting comfortably in a chair at home; after a few minutes, you naturally change your posture in various ways. If you add emotions to that situation, you can express a wider range of appearances. This work represents a scene from the situation I described above.
Most of your work uses earthy tones and neutral colours. Why were you drawn to these tones and how did you develop this palette?
I put a lot of thought into the use of colour. As I have not received formal art education regarding colour, I am still studying and working on it. I choose the most visually pleasing hues.
Are you working on any new projects at the moment that you’re excited to share with us?
My work is closely aligned with my life. Therefore, it is greatly influenced by my mood and emotions. Sometimes I feel like giving up everything, and other days I feel hopeful. It may seem very fickle, but it’s the truth. I want to share many stories and try new things. It will take a lot of time to do so. In this interview, I’d like to talk about the attitudes toward continuing my work, rather than the stories of each piece. There is a lot to do consistently for a long time. While it’s not new, I’m trying to express the emotions and thoughts I have in June 2024. Since life changes slowly every moment, it might be the most interesting project.