Desire, a solo exhibition by Eunkang Koh, South Korean-born artist and Associate Professor in printmaking at UNR, is up now through Sept. 14 at Western Nevada College’s Bristlecone Gallery in Carson City. The exhibition showcases prints and soft sculptures created before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, a period that served as a catalyst for a shift in focus and tone for Koh’s practice. While still creating work that explores a dreamlike realm where the animal, the human and the edible swirl together to humorous and evocative ends, the artist has moved away from the political and social satire she is known for and closer to something more difficult to remember is also important: pleasure.
Koh’s blue heeler mix, Cookie, joined us as we discussed this shift, Desire, and a bookshelf full of bonus soft-sculptures not featured in the show: ice cream cones adorned with vulvas.
I leave Koh’s home with a bag full of fresh cherries from her neighborhood, a gift indicating that she is indeed the type of animal who is inclined to share food. They are so good that I forget to share them with my roommates, suggesting that perhaps I am an animal not so inclined.
Could tell me a bit about your current exhibition Desire, and why you chose that title for the show?
In the middle of the pandemic, all the shows were canceled, all the events were canceled, and we were just locked down. So a lot of work started from that point. I didn’t know what’s gonna happen. And I was just making art. I was more focused, not on what do I do as an artist to show other people, but what do I want to make? There’s no guarantee they will see it anyways… I want to make something where it makes me happy. So I was always kind of satirical, I have this kind of kick of criticizing society. But these pieces, I think I was all about let’s find out something that makes me really happy. And since I’m a visual artist, I kind of tried to extend the visual pleasure. Before, I did a lot of series of food, responding to social media about visual culture. But instead of just showing visual culture, how would I maximize visual pleasure?
So during the pandemic, a source of pleasure for you was seeing beautiful food and knowing other people were enjoying it too?
The food theme started before the pandemic. Before, it was a more of a direct response to social media, the capture of food, and then it kind of became more of just food and then sometimes animals interact. But I think that when the pandemic happened, I just went all the way like, OK, let’s have fun! All my creatures come out and let’s make really good looking donuts! All right, a chicken will go after strawberries and emus, they’ll go after popsicles.
It’s so nice that during the pandemic your practice was able to turn into something so pleasant.
The pandemic switched the gear to my work, I think. I was born and raised in a big city, so my subject matter always was in that human world. More of how humans really tried to act like humans while our instincts are really animal-based. But then, I’ve been living in Reno for a long time, and then we were locked down … and sometimes I’m looking at animals and they are somehow humanized. I really like going back and forth of the dynamic, which I don’t know in reality that it exists. I want to believe so, but that’s maybe just what humans think.
Oh, like we are anthropomorphizing them?
Yeah, I always tell her, Cookie, “you have to do this,” and then I feel she understands. I mean, we definitely have a bond, but still, she’ll go and eat the bunnies outside anyways.
Do you think that ultimately, human desires are very similar to the desires of other animals?
The very basic things are. But even sometimes … people, they’re insecure, confident, egotistic, narcissistic. But I really feel when you come down to it, that’s all basic survival instinct. We’re not going to literally step on people, start biting them and eating their meat. But it’s pretty much that. A human world is more mixed. Some humans like to work together, like those wolves. They hunt together, they live together… But some humans are the loner. And they don’t like to share their food with others. I heard some insects, when they lay eggs, they eat the male. So maybe some people are like that.
How did you come to incorporate printmaking into soft sculpture in your practice?
I had a sabbatical a while ago. I felt that society kind of really encouraged you to do better, bigger … buy a bigger house, make more money, you know, always more but never less … so then I’m thinking, what if I actually go completely the opposite? What if I just go less and how my life will change? So during the sabbatical I have one suitcase, one backpack and I live the whole year off of that, and I travel to different residencies. When I went to India, that’s when I realized, I don’t really have anything I’m used to, I don’t have my regular resources. … I had two lino blocks, a little carving tool, and there they had a press and ink, but I just look around and they have so many fabrics. Okay, now I’m gonna go and print on fabrics … and then I started making some stuffed creatures, and that’s how it all started.
How long have you been doing that?
Almost eight years now.
What does bringing the two dimensional medium of relief printing into the three dimensional realm of soft sculpture allow you to explore?
In my work, I always like combining two foreign materials. It is a challenge. I’m still exploring in the new body of work I just started, where it’s definitely 2D but I want to turn it into 3D, but somehow that still has elements of 2D. I’ll show you some of the work that I haven’t shown, you want to see? Come, come with me. … This was the main thing I made during the pandemic, these are vagina ice creams. I have about 200 of them. Some people think “Oh, these are so cute.” Some people say, “Ugh, no”. … So for example, these ones, I printed this, but it becomes secondary. People don’t see that it is a print, right? It just becomes part of the element. So that’s what I’m still exploring. It’s very interesting— if you look at the eyes it’s definitely 2D, and then it’s just stuffed and floating, whereas the ice cream and donut, the print part becomes just part of the element. That’s something I’m exploring right now, I’m pushing myself.
Capital City Arts Initiative presents Eunkang Koh’s solo exhibition Desire at the Bristlecone Gallery at Western Nevada College in Carson City through Sept. 14. A reception is scheduled for Sept. 5 from 5-6:30 pm.
Also read Josie Glassberg’s recent essay “Who We Really Are,” commissioned by Capital City Arts Initiative to accompany the exhibition.
Photos courtesy of Eunkang Koh and Capital City Arts Initiative.