Ara Cho: Flower Metaphors

by Debbi Kenote and Til Will

Ara Cho, “Lunch,” 2016, oil on canvas, 24×36 inches

Full audio interview here:

Last week Open House did a 2-for-one double studio visit, with two artists who live and work in the same space, and also happen to be best friends. Ara Cho and Shavana Smiley invited us into their living room studio space, where we were greeted with large oil paintings that felt wispy and bright, yet at times charged and violent. These were the works of Ara Cho, featuring gestural flowers and airy figures inside domestic spaces. Loose hands sprung out of body parts and stood like trees in forests. We caught glimpses of Shavana Smiley’s galactic works during the studio visit (stay tuned for Part II). 

TIL WILL: This is Open House. We are here in an apartment, not a house. With Ara Cho and and Shavana Smiley, who share a living space and studio space. We are here in Bedstuy, in Brooklyn, so would you like to introduce yourselves? 

SHAVANA SMILEY:  Yea, we are both artists and we met in school maybe 6 years ago, I guess it has been now, our anniversary is coming up here soon, of living together.

ARA CHO: Yea we met in school, and then we’d been talking about how maybe we should go to New York after graduation…

SS: And she only had a year here for OPT so we’re like well we have to go immediately so that’s why we’re here, we just jumped in.

AC: And it’s been about two years now, year and a half? More than a year and a half.

DK: And what is OPT?

AC: OPT is… I’m not American, I’m Korean, so for the international students, they always get another year chance after graduation to do whatever they want, really get into their studies. So during the OPT year I really wanted to try and challenge myself and jump into a new environment and also we were in Chicago, so we needed a new environment. And then over the year I worked really hard to get an artist visa, and then I got it. Woo! I got it like a month ago, so I can stay.

SS: Yea I was going to be heartbroken.

AC: She [Sabana] helped me a lot too.

SS: Yea, I sponsored her. Yea it’s been good here in New York. We like the environment.

TW: So you’ve been here for one year?

AC: Almost two years.

TW: Right on.

DK: And currently we have Ara’s paintings up in front of us, we are going to do a rotational piece where we do half and half, starting with Ara, they share a studio space and so we have just Ara’s work up at the moment to look at. And there’s a lot of big oil paintings, bright colors, is it all oil paint?

AC: Yea, they’re all oil.

DK: And is there airbrushing happening as well?

AC: Uh no, I also like to use airbrush but I didn’t have a chance to buy or use it last year, because at that time I wasn’t sure that I would stay here long.

DK: There’s moments where it almost looks like airbrush and it’s a nice thing.

Ara Cho, “Boy and Girl,” 2016, oil on canvas, 36×48 inches

TW: I really like this painting we are looking at here on the left. It’s got these two naked figures in a mirror and they’re green, but the coolest part about it is that the backs of their heads are in the foreground, and they’re painted in a really transparent, quick kind of way, it’s nice. Is that what it’s meant to be? I mean that’s how I’m reading it, that that’s the back of their heads, like it’s an aerial shot?

AC: Yea you read it correctly. I just intentionally cut off their heads. And actually that was my, I wouldn’t say habit, but I always tend to erase all the faces out of my paintings. And if you see my other old portraits that I made over there, I always tend to erase people’s eyes and faces, just to get their identities out, like race, gender, and all the information.

DK: And are they always naked? That one looks like it might have pants or a towel.

AC: I see it as pants, I would say it’s pants.

TW: I really like the way you did the smoke in that painting. Did you use a washy-glaze kind of thing?

AC: Uh, yea, I mostly used just brush in the paintings. So, I had to calculate the drying time and the amount of medium I use and all that, and then since it’s oil painting I sometimes had to wait until it dries completely to make another layer.

TW: So one of the recurring themes that I’m seeing is hands, and the way you do is hands is so expressive and also the way you do shadows is really interesting with the hands, and I’m curious why the choice to use hands, and how long have you been doing that?

AC: Actually that painting is the start of all this hand situation. If I tell you about brief story about that painting… it’s about a memory I have with my grandmother. I was, I wouldn’t say fighting, but playing around with my brother and my grandmother came up to us and drag me out and said “don’t hit my grandson.” And that was a huge shock for me at the time.

DK: And she said ‘my grandson’ instead of ‘your brother?’

Ara Cho, “Smiley Man,” 2016, oil on canvas, 36×48 inches

AC: Yes, and later my oldest cousin, who’s a male, came to me and said “sorry Ara, sorry for what happened to you, but it is what it is and just, Cho family appreciates sons.” He said it in a kind-of joking way, kind-of trying to console me, but it was huge, I was just a middle school student and it’s bad memory still.

DK: Do you think that female perspective comes into the other paintings as well?

AC: Maybe, I always had something inside me about the dominant male figures and some that I had seen growing up in family or the culture, or even outside of the country. And the situations I was in at the time. I think that finally came up into my paintings, starting being kind of expressive about those memories, I just had to pick it out from my body.

DK: Yea, the body definitely seems like it’s important in your work.

AC: Yea the body, especially the hands is definitely a strong element in my paintings, It’s a kind-of symbol for me, like my grandmother’s hands that dragged me out from my brother. It was aggressive but at the same time protective for her son, and it’s very double sided. Double-sided leaning towards me, my identity I think. The hands are kind of a symbol to show that aggressiveness is at the same time very desperate in your situations. It’s probably why I use the hands a lot in the paintings rather than the face.

Ara Cho, “Give Me the Money, Roubles Only,” 2016, oil on canvas, 36×48 inches

TW: Is this something you’ve communicated with your family members? Like your concepts? Do they know what your paintings are about?

AC: They actually do know about it. I recently told my brother–he doesn’t have a memory of that–and he was like “Oh, I’m sorry Ara.” He’s a sweet guy, he’s like “ah I’m so sorry” and he’s the kind of guy that always talks to me for my situations instead of his situation, trying to understand me. So, he’s a great brother. But they usually don’t know about it, and even though I told them the project of this grandmother series, “I thought I Was Your Granddaughter,” they thought “oh you’re painting your grandmother…” and they got kind-of excited about it without really knowing what it’s about.

DK: And what about the venus fly traps? Is that what those are? [In painting]

AC: Oh, it’s, the title is…what’s the word? I forgot, The thing on the ovary…

TW: Fallopian tube?

AC: No! Haha…

DK: So quick.

SS: Cyst?

AC: Yes cyst, Yea the title is “Cyst.”

DK: Wow.

TW: So we are looking at a painting with a figure with a bunch of hands coming out of the face, which is sort of hidden, which is also sort-of being eaten by a monstrous venus fly trap scenario. And then there’s an ovary figure, trying to dog the venus fly trap consummation.

Ara Cho, “Cyst,” 2016, oil on canvas, 36×48 inches

DK: There’s a lot of pinks and blues and there’s a big orange fly trap that is open. There’s definitely….it has some cheerful colors to it, but I would say it’s a violent painting. That’s got a lot of excitement, hands coming out of the face, that hand to the left looks almost bloody…

AC: Yea, my paintings have always been like that, I tend to use bright colors, but always people told me that there’s a kind of dark side to my paintings.

DK: Yea, there’s something uncanny about them. And what about the flower piece there? So it seems like there’s the venus fly traps here and the venus fly traps and flowers there, are there’s one flower on the plate up there…

AC: Yea it started as a question I had about the female body and their existence. And then Shavana and I talked about it. All the humans were born from the female body, right, and because of the symptom I have on my ovary I heard that I might not be able to be pregnant if I don’t try really hard to be healthier or try to fix it, and that hit me very hard too. I couldn’t say all the detailed situations, but they became the idea or inspiration of the series, but these paintings are not only about that but also questions about the incidents that happened back in Korea. Because Korea, it’s getting better but it’s still a very patriarchal culture right now. There was one incident, recently one woman just died, she was killed by a random guy who had a grudge against just women in general. I mean I wouldn’t say it’s happening all the time, but it is happening all the time in a way. Especially last year, I was exposed to all this bad situations against the female and those grudges against women. And also I was in that environment. My dad is not that kind of person, but my family…like I had a situation with my grandmother. The males were always appreciated, and the dominance that the males carried in the house, I always hated it. So yea, I think that I started putting the elements of dominant male figures in my paintings. The flowers, are also another question of why women are compared to flowers all the time. So I decided to just replace their faces with the flowers instead of showing them. Because I don’t want to talk about specific women, just women in general, that you could easily encounter in domestic areas, or anywhere.

Ara Cho, “Dinner,” 2016, oil on canvas, 36×48 inches

DK: Yea it definitely seems like you’re tapping into a deeper pool.

AC: And also, I also want to always think about the ways of women’s art being seen in society or in media, and I started having the question after I read this book “Ways of Seeing.” It’s a really old book, by John Berger. He wrote the six essays about the media through the BBC program. And one of the essays was about the ways of women being seen, like in the media, or even in the art world. In the paintings or in TV advertisements, everything. Ever since I read that book I started to think about that really hard, especially because I’m a woman too. That kind of gave me the ideas, a kind of enlightenment, like how much I care and how much people care about the ways that women are being seen in this world. And there’s so many stories, even from my personal memories too.

DK: I think the use of domestic objects too, and like spaces, really pulls it all together really nicely. I think we probably have about two minutes left, should we get into process more?

TW: Yea. One question I had, it seems like you’re dealing with some dark subject matter, but you do it in a way where it’s light-hearted and really approachable and I think that’s really interesting. I’m just curious to hear about your color choice and sort of how you decide, you know, they all seem to have such complicated color schemes, and its really nice. I’m just curious to hear more.

AC: Yea colors are really important for my paintings, and also, like you just said, though there are some dark meanings in side, I think colors make…the way of choosing colors… make people approach easier to my paintings. That’s why I try to use bright colors. I want the viewers to feel my colors first and feel the curiosity out of it, and just start looking at it and then try to figure out what’s going on in the painting. So the colors are the first step for viewers to approach my paintings, so I choose very carefully. Sometimes I make sketches of my paintings first. Like drawings, I sometimes use just normal colored pencils or charcoal, these days I use the iPad a lot. And Photoshop, I started with Photoshop first and started being interested in the ways of the digital mark being made, and I thought it was–I wouldn’t same the same–but similar in a way it moves, quite similar to my paintings, so I thought it would be great to apply the ipad as a tool to my paintings. And also it’s actually really helpful to choose colors too.

DK: Yes, you can always undo.

AC: Yes, exactly! Actually the color were the main reason why I started using Photoshop and the iPad.

DK: Well we’re about at 20 minutes, but I had one more question to wrap up, so I noticed you talking about technology, and I think I saw on your old statement online you were talking about technology then, too, and it sounds like you’re still interested in it. So do you know what’s coming next? And is it going to follow the trajectory that you’re on or are you still just in this body of work fully?

AC: I think both, because I like what I’m doing right now. I’m pretty sure I’m going to make paintings, maybe more paintings about this series, and with the skills I’m using. But definitely I want to try something else to my paintings and recently I’m thinking about using the print more. For the original painting I used the photos, and then I moved to just like using the oil painting…

TW: Let’s just point out that right now the iPad in the corner has turned on, and has started recording Ara’s voice.

DK: It’s making my transcribing work much easier.

TW: The iPad is so entrenched in the process that it has a mind of its own.

AC: Yea, so I use the iPad as a tool for my paintings…

TW: Or does it use you?

AC: Haha, Maybe. Time will tell. I’m thinking of using the printed version as part of my collage in my paintings more. And also thinking, I always start with an oil based background, but I’m thinking of using a printed background, to begin making the order opposite. Because I started with the iPad, but I’m thinking to print the real image, like photo image of my painting background, and then print it on the canvas, and then do a painting on top of it.

DK: It’s really exciting.

TW: Cool. Thank you for sharing with us.

AC: Thank you!

Ara Cho: Flower Metaphors

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