Speaking with artist Hein Koh about the grotesque and seductive

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Your recent work is very explicit in its use of genital imagery, both in content and in the titling.   There is simultaneously a grotesque and seductive quality to the way you render lips, eyeballs, and genitals.  What response do you hope to elicit in a viewer when confronted with these larger than life body parts?

I want the work to be titillating, but also discomforting, provoking the viewer to confront and examine the discomfort.  Being interested in issues dealing with the body, gender and sexuality, I want the work to defy expectations, preconceived notions and traditional categorizations.  Sexuality is both a pleasurable and uncomfortable topic, and I want that to come across in my work, in a visceral manner.  I think it’s important to have a sense of humor about it too, so most of all I want the viewer to have a fun experience with the work, which is why my titles are often cheeky and involve puns.

How do you approach sculpting an object and choosing whether to execute it in a soft or hard medium, ex. fiberglass vs. stuffed vinyl?

What I love about sculpting is the tactility and sensuality of materials.  I am often initially seduced by a material, and by engaging with it, I feel inspired to create forms specific to the nature of the material.  For example, lately I’ve been into vinyl, the shininess and stretchiness of it, both fleshy and artificial, so it’s been inspiring me to create sexy, bulbous, and tensile forms that reference vinyl as a fetish fabric.  Other times, I am inspired by some kind of visual or concept that leads to a sketch of a sculptural idea, and then I envision the sculpture in different materials, trying to figure out what would best produce the effect I want.  This process often leads me to pursue new materials, which is what keeps sculpture interesting for me.  As for choosing whether to execute a sculpture in a soft or hard medium, I often end up combining both because I am interested in the tension that results from reconciling opposites.  Besides physical properties like hard and soft, I’m interested in their metaphorical qualities of masculine vs. feminine, organic vs. inorganic, beautiful vs. grotesque, etc.  It’s the relationships between different materials and textures that give the sculptures their energy.

Talk a bit about your series of self-portraits with your sculptures.  How does inserting a human figure next to them change their effect?  There is obvious humor in the staging.  The use of “Selfie” as a title versus “Self-portrait” implies a level of playfulness, as do your poses and smile throughout the series.  

In conceiving the “selfie” series, I wanted to create a context for my sculptures and highlight my relationship to them.  Inserting myself into the picture underscores the sexuality of the work, as well as the cheekiness, but also raises feminist issues of objectification, sexual empowerment and the role of the male gaze.  I also wanted to bring the role of the artist, particularly the “female artist”, to the forefront.  As an artist, you place yourself in the vulnerable position of “putting yourself out there” so I literally wanted to do so by being nude in my photos, presenting vulnerability as a strength.  As a woman who makes art, it is difficult to escape the identity of “female artist” and avoid having your gender, as well as your physical appearance, read into your work.  Rather than feel victimized by objectification and negate the role of woman as desirable object, I decided to take a stance of embracing it and therefore giving the female nude a sense of agency.  The female nude is historically passive and devoid of power, but in my photos, the female nude is also the creator and controller.  The poses and smile play a key role in the presentation, and humor acts as a powerful tool to present the weightier issues I want raise through my work.  The title “selfie”, as opposed to “self-portrait”, pokes fun at but also embraces the contemporary social media culture of self-obsession.  Even though the photos aren’t technically selfies, in the traditional sense of taking photos of one’s self with a handheld device, it’s the self-obsession and celebration of one’s image I wanted to reference.  I think embracing a contradiction – not wanting to be judged by my looks but learning to take pride in my appearance – reflects the inner conflict many women feel and is an honest, therefore powerful, political stance.

You have a very acute awareness of your body and gender throughout your self-portraiture.  How do you use your body in different incarnations, i.e. visibly pregnant (Selfie w. Sculpture #6) or in drag (Selfie w. Sculpture #3)? 

No matter how much we try to transcend our physical bodies, the influence they have over our perceptions and impressions of each other is inescapable.  With that in mind, by taking photos of myself in different incarnations, I aim to manipulate that influence and challenge stereotypes.  While most of the photos present myself as a comely woman, by doing a photo in drag I wanted to emphasize my masculine side and challenge the notion of sexuality.  Despite personally adopting a feminine appearance, most of the time, I’m very in touch with my masculine energy which I wanted to convey in the photo, and the idea that gender is construct, performance and choice.  To know one has a choice is liberating and keeps one open-minded towards other people’s gender expressions.  Also, if the viewer finds the image attractive, is he or she attracted to the man, the woman behind the man, or both, and what does that say about the viewer’s sexuality?  I love how a simple image can raise a lot of complex questions, and they don’t need to be resolved in order to be thought-provoking and valuable.

The pregnant photo is the most recent one, and I thought about the archetype of pregnant mother as pure, nurturing and non-sexual, even though sex is what got her in the predicament in the first place.  I wanted to present a new archetype of pregnancy, one that is sexy and bad-ass.  By posing with a big green phallus, I take ownership of a symbol of power and masculinity, but with a sense of humor that deflates the traditional perceptions of the symbol.  Women are too often pigeonholed into one-dimensional roles, such as virgin, whore, or mother and aren’t given allowance to be more complex.  I’m trying to change that perception through my work.

I’m especially drawn to the way that you use minimal clothing and accessories in your photographs, but use them to maximum effect.  In many of your photos you wear only patent leather pumps and a ponytail.  How do you distill the styling to communicate an idea while remaining largely nude?

Nudity already has a maximum effect, so the minimal clothing and accessories serve to accentuate and contextualize the nudity.  Without the accessories, for example if I was barefoot, the nudity would be de-sexualized when I want to have the opposite effect.  I’m very deliberate in my styling choices, wearing cultural symbols of what is considered sexy, such as the patent leather stilettos,  i.e. typical “hooker heels”, or a ponytail that conveys youth, playfulness and femininity.  More specifically, the symbols are often sexy in an exaggerated and cliché manner, referencing pornography and fantasy, which help construct stereotypical images that I want to challenge or give depth to in my work.  Besides the typically sexy and feminine photos, in the photo of me in drag, I wanted to look tough but kind of sleazy, hence the pencil mustache, slicked-back hair, “wife-beater” and boots, while the pregnant photo didn’t need much styling since the belly and green phallus were the main “accessories” making a statement.  The process of styling is not too different from making a sculpture – in both cases, you’re choosing and balancing materials for their tactile and symbolic qualities, to create an aesthetic and express a concept.

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Born in Jersey City, NJ, Hein Koh is an artist based in Brooklyn, NY, in the neighborhood of Greenpoint.  She graduated from Dartmouth College with a dual B.A. in Studio Art and Psychology, and received her MFA in Painting/Printmaking from Yale.  She is a recipient of a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation Grant, and an alum of the Artists in the Marketplace program at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.  Her work has received press in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Huffington Post, amongst other publications.  She has also taught and/or lectured at Tyler School of Art, Dartmouth College, Maryland Institute College of Art, and the School of Visual Arts.  Recent shows include “Seducers”, curated by Evie Falci at Greenpoint Terminal Gallery in Brooklyn, NY and “Weaving Time:  An Exhibition from the Archive of Korean Artists in America Part 3, 2001-2013” at Gallery Korea of the Korean Cultural Service, in New York, NY.  In September, she will be participating in “Color Against Color”, curated by Eric Hibit at Ortega Y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn, NY and a group exhibition of visiting faculty at Dartmouth College.  You can view more of her work on www.heinkoh.com.

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