Essay by Gary Brewer
Eunkang Koh: “I Am Dreaming Of…”
“Pleasure is the first good. It is the beginning of every choice and every aversion.” Epicurus
Pleasure and delight are as simple as a tantalizing bite of something delicious, and as profound as feeling surrounded by the people you love. Indeed the two often go together when family or friends gather together for a meal, especially when the meal contains all of the ingredients of a culture, and the rich history of its people. Food is an expression of culture, and in the art of Eunkang Koh, she celebrates the pleasures of food with wit and a sense of mythic mischief.
Other contemporary artists have used food as a metaphor and as a symbol of pleasure or the traditional values of a culture. From Wayne Thiebaud’s cakes, ice cream cones and deli counters to Ang Lee’s film, Eat Drink Man Woman, food has been used to tell stories and convey the many flavors of life. Or the Korean American chef Roy Choy, who is creating an imaginative synthesis of Asian, Latin and American foods: reflecting the rich cultures that freely mix and comingle in the city of Los Angeles.
In Koh’s earlier work, she used humor and satire to comment on desire and on our consumer culture: looking at it with a critical eye. It was during the isolation of Covid 19, that a shift occurred. She wanted to create artworks just for herself: to make pieces that gave her pleasure and celebrated the sensual joys of the body and life. The exhibition, I Am Dreaming Of… contains work that she created during this time.
It is with a light touch, a wink and a smile that these images engage our imagination. Koh spoke about the rich history of animals in myths and as symbolic metaphors in Korean culture and cultures throughout the world. She said, “When I was young my grandmother would tell me stories from long ago. But she never used the term ‘long ago’. She would begin the story with, ‘When tigers smoked cigars…’ so I would know it was an ancient tale”.
The use of animals in myth is a universal metaphor that we see in every culture, and Koh uses her animal characters freely. They are playful and humorous but also contain layers of meaning and touch deep realms of the psyche in all of its complexity, almost like totems of different states of consciousness. People and animals inhabit her images of worlds filled with donuts, cookies and other delectable delights. They are intimate, small, sensual vignettes that conjure a mythic space where humans and animals feast together in the pleasures of life.
In the intaglio print, Lime Squeeze Boogi Woogi, we see ducks, a lamb, a dog, a cat and limes in a beautiful blue field of color. The lime green of the animals and fruits strike a bright celebratory color chord. There is a graphic punch to her prints that catches one’s eye and draws you in. She said that this piece was made during a residency in Petaluma, California. Having grown up in a big city, the lush rural landscape of Sonoma county was a new and refreshing experience for her. She brought her dog along to the residency and everyday during their walk, various animals from small farms in the area would watch them as they walked by. The sheep, ducks, goats and cows would follow them, looking warily, with a mix of caution and curiosity.
Aside from the intaglio prints, there are installations of soft sculptures that Koh has created. Trays filled with donuts sewn together from colorful fabrics are displayed on the walls. There is a large-scale installation of eyes; the image is printed on fabric using a linoleum block, then carefully sewn together and stuffed. There are fifteen hundred individual eyes that are piled on the floor and mounted on the wall. The piece is titled Watching, and it is a metaphor about our visual culture: a reflection of our watching the Internet, Instagram, Youtube and other platforms, where the continuous stream of information is endless. Recently Koh has become fascinated with Mukbang videos, a Korean YouTube phenomena streaming live video of people eating food in an amusing synthesis of food porn and eating as ritual. This feast of information is a deep part of her inspiration and ethos- she sees our visual culture as a fascinating phenomenon that has emerged with our ever-increasing connectivity through social media.
Humor and pleasure are often not given serious attention in the fine arts. Serious art is often seen as work dealing with the pain and sorrow of existence; weighty subjects whose tragic poetry touches the heart. But humor is a profound element in our consciousness that gives us the strength to overcome life’s difficulties. Pleasure is something that all living things seek to sustain them, and the sensual pleasures of eating is one of our greatest and most human expressions of a shared culture. In Eunkang Koh’s art, she is expressing a fundamental need to play, to experience the sensual pleasure of food in all of its visual and flavorful variety and to bring in the many creatures of this rich world to join in the feast.