Written by

Where's the frame

Maribelle Bierens

January 19, 2023 3:41 PM


In Haeji Min’s paintings, a surreal journey unfolds. Immediately captivating, it makes your eyes shoot over the canvas, recognising bodily form or organic matters that morph into each other. Playing with different scales and size, eyes into legs reflected in water, bodies wrapped around each other, although the separate entities are familiar, seeing them all entangled into each other makes for an unexpected stirring experience. where’s the frame? had the pleasure of visiting the artist in her studio at the RCA to learn more about her practice.

Haeji Min in her studio

For Haeji, it was always very clear she would become an artist. ‘I always believed it’s a destiny’. When she was 7 or 8 years old, in kindergarten, her school teacher called her mother that she should become an artist. 

In the last decade, she has lived in many different places worldwide: from the Philippines to New Zealand and from Canada to Belgium, and now she works and lives between London and Seoul. Moving around, adjusting to new cultures, and being exposed to many different ways of thinking, have informed her work. ‘I have different perspectives on life, and I like to make stories based on my experience, personal or social circumstances that I saw or heard from friends or political matters I experienced.’ 

 ‘I have different perspectives on life, and I like to make stories based on my experience, personal or social circumstances that I saw or heard from friends or political matters I experienced’.

Starting a new life in another city every couple of years encouraged her to adapt to different settings. ‘I continuously needed to adjust to new environments, adapting and changing; it’s like camouflaging myself.’ This is reflected in her work, as each painting contains different stories and narratives all at once.

For example, in one of her works in the studio The Blue Mirror, there is an intricate, multilayered narrative depicted. There are different eyes, all in different modes of realism, looking in different directions. The largest eye looks outwardly, gazing above the viewer. Within the largest eye, there are reflections of different faces and eyes, all looking in different directions. Around this largest eye, you can see a part of life-like face, where she has depicted every crease and every vein. The plasticity she achieves is life like it adds to the stirring effect of the painting.

Creating this painting was a long process, she says. ‘It’s about eyes and reflections. You can see how they’re mirroring each other, and the eye sees a reflection of me in a mirror looking at myself.’ It’s very transcendental.

The Blue Mirror, a recent work by Haeji Min in her studio

Sometimes Haeji sketches her composition before she starts to paint; at other times, she starts painting directly, like in the painting featured below. In all cases, she never uses any photographic references, ‘Everything comes from my mind’, she shares. The piece featured above was sketched out before she started painting. She knew she wanted to place a large face and then a face within it. ‘It’s a combination of showing an inner state and the external appearance at once.’

If she doesn’t sketch out her composition beforehand, she works directly on the primed canvas to express her emotions and thoughts. When she starts to paint right away, she’s ‘ solely relying on what feelings I’m feeling. There are no sketches here. Everything goes directly from my mind to the brush. I need to fully concentrate so I can choose the right colour and composition’.

Her paintings evoke strong emotional responses. It doesn’t come as a surprise that emotions play a big role in creating her work. Before she starts with her compositions, she needs to have some feelings, emotions, or other experiences. Being asked if there is a particular emotional response she hopes to stimulate, she says that the expression comes from a deeper need within herself, ‘Everything is about emotions, but I can’t control the thoughts of the viewer.’   

‘I always consider life in death’.

Haeji is religious and that’s reflected in her practice. For example, thinking about life and death is very prevalent in her body of work.  ‘I always consider life in death’, and this is reflected in her usage of cool and warm tones. 

Closely connected to this is how in different ways, she depicts and reflects on water because it has a mythological and spiritual significance to her. Like in Greek Mythology, she explains, ‘Water plays a role in Korean fable. When you die, you cross a river.’ Moreover, when we're alive, we're full of water and when we’re dead, we’re drained of water and all that's left are our bones.’ So, spiritually, water plays a big role in the transition from being alive to the moment you’re dying and afterwards. 

WIP by Haeji Min in her studio

But to her, water is not just a thing; different characteristics of water attract her. ‘Everything is natural. Water is just not one thing. It’s about the flow of it. I like the fluidity of water. I like how it’s part of something else.’ You can also recognise her affinity for the fluidity of water in her compositions. There is a certain fluid kind of moving, almost waterlike quality in the figures she depicts. 

The way she approaches it, when you’re painting, you bring everything that happened to you into the painting. ‘Everything, all of your experiences since birth, it’s never one thing, but a compilation of experiences. It might be love, relational love, but it might be another kind of love, like the love I’ve felt in nature or when you see the bright blue sky. It’s all very intuitive.’ 

‘Bodies are important. They are the vessels for telling different stories’.  

In her more recent body of work, the compositions have become more concise. ‘I used to make more complex compositions. Even more intertwined bodies and distorted bodies. I wouldn’t say I’m toning it down, but I’m focussing more on one thing at a time.’ In this piece, it’s the attention to the face that covers a big part of the canvas. Depicted in a washed-out way, around the part of the face, different figures are moving, pulling around the face, threading through the flowing water. She uses figures to communicate what she’s trying to say. ‘Bodies are important’, she explains, ‘They are the vessels for telling different stories.’ 

Whether she plays with contrasting tones, a combination of abstraction and figuration, or a combination of impasto and smooth brushstrokes, there is a certain kind of tangible dynamism. Her works are so dynamic that it keeps your eyes peeled on the canvas, wondering what the story she’s telling is. Most of all, it excites strong emotions. Fear, excitement, joy, bewilderment, it’s impossible not to be in awe.

You can follow Haeji Min on instagram and her website.

Suggested reading: