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In the Studio: Hyeseung Marriage-Song

by Allison Malafronte

Hyeseung Marriage-Song in her Brooklyn studio

Brooklyn-based artist Hyeseung Marriage-Song’s journey through life and art has been a spirited adventure that she has consistently approached with determination, focus, and resilience. Although she had to confront several twists and turns along the way, she has managed to keep her eye on her goals and return to her true self and purpose as a painter. At the age of forty-one, Marriage Song’s journey seems to now be coming full circle into an exciting new chapter, as the artist is exhibiting a newfound emotional depth in her art that is only strengthened by her enduring ability to tune in to the sound of her own voice. 

As Marriage-Song explains in this Q+A, she first studied philosophy at Princeton University and furthered her studies at Harvard Law and Harvard Graduate School before leaving academia to become an artist. She fortuitously found herself at the Water Street Atelier in 2005 and then began forging her own path toward a unique style of painting informed by philosophical inquiry, emotionally stimulating content, and technical virtuosity. In her own words, she explains how and why she arrived at various creative crossroads in her life, where exactly reason and emotion intersect in her art, and the motivation behind two exciting recent projects. 

RN in the Studio, 2018, oil on linen, 60 x 60 in.

AM: You have quite an interesting educational background, having studied philosophy and law at Princeton and Harvard respectively and then deciding instead to study art, starting at the Water Street Atelier. What did the journey through those various training experiences look like?

HMS: I studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Princeton, and then I went to Harvard Law and Harvard Graduate School for philosophy. I decided to leave academia when I was twenty-five. I always tell people that had I not gone to Water Street, I probably wouldn’t have been able to go to art school at all. When I left Harvard in 2004, my immigrant parents were unsupportive; they were even less supportive when I decided to dedicate myself to art a year later. After studying and painting on my own for a year, I had reached my autodidactic limit and decided to go to art school. I visited the big, accredited, name-brand schools I had heard of or that had a web presence—which in those days was not as common—and when I met with admissions counselors at the School of Visual Arts, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Parsons, I discovered I had no chance to get in to a two-year M.F.A. program without a real portfolio or a B.F.A. They encouraged me to apply for a second undergraduate degree, but with sixty thousand dollars in debt from a law degree I didn’t complete and loans from my B.A. in philosophy (which was also apparently useless for my new profession), I didn’t think I could cope with taking on more debt and going beyond the lifetime maximum for federal student loans for undergraduate study. 

Rubino as the Waltons, 2018, oil on linen, 40 x 50 in. Thankfully, during this time I met an artist who told me about ateliers. I went online and found Jacob Collins and the Water Street Atelier. At that point, at the age of twenty-six, I was the ultimate neophyte: I had read books, watched videos, taken a community college studio class, and painted mostly on my own for the year. I didn’t know what kind of art I wanted to make, but Jacob did everything—portraits, figures, still lifes, landscapes, interiors—and he did it all with astounding beauty. Luckily, he had room for me. Jacob structured the atelier so that every one of us could focus on the work as much as possible. Also, tuition was low—a kind of token for an immense education—and in that way, everyone who went to Water Street had a merit scholarship. That’s how my last option turned out to be the best.

AM: Large-scale, multi-figure paintings are your forte, one of the most challenging and ambitious types of paintings to do. How long was it after you completed your training that you were able to realize the visions or concepts in your mind physically on canvas?

HMS: There were a few years, in my mid-thirties, when I wasn’t painting full-time; to call what I was doing even part-time would be generous. I got divorced and moved from Baltimore back to New York in 2013, and a couple of years later I decided it made sense to get a day job. When I finally found something, I thought I would work for a year, but I did it for two. What extended my tenure was my mother getting sick, and I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth to Houston to be with my family. Perhaps in another life, in a separate hypothetical universe, I would have been able to paint prolifically and fervently because of, or in spite of, these events, but that was not the case. When I was working on my commissions or making sketches, I was mostly depleted, and the energy I needed to replenish myself wasn’t coming from the studio. I knew I was making sacrifices in other areas of my life for my overarching values—values of independence and also of family—and I tried not to be as resentful as I was. In hindsight, it was a growth time for me; I just didn’t know it. 

When I finally left my job on Wall Street in the fall of 2017, I had absolutely no plan except that I needed to get back to the studio before I completely lost who I truly was. My practice had been so internal-facing for so long that no one was watching or anticipating what I was embarking on. That aspect of being hidden ended up being quite useful and became the incubation period for a new body of work, my most ambitious to date. I squandered no time, absolutely feeling I should do whatever I wanted, and proceeded to create in a kind of scorched-earth manner: to spend everything and leave nothing for the trip back. I had just left a job where I had to answer to a lot of demanding people about things I didn’t care a lick about. I wasn’t going to do that again, especially not in my art practice. While painting six or seven days a week, I focused on the ideas I wanted to explore that had been percolating for a long time, which were these large-scale figurative paintings; anything else, I tried to throw aside. The experiences I had lived through—being somewhat away from my art, my mother’s death, the end of my marriage—had stripped away any expectations (both others’ and my own) that the work needed to be a certain kind of thing. I felt I could pivot as much or as little as I wanted to and undergird the visual with concepts I’d been cogitating over for some time. The work therefore became very informed from those angles.  

Selfie, 2017, oil on linen, 20 x 36 in.

AM: You mentioned that initially you (or the admissions advisors) didn’t see the connection between philosophy and your new career path as an artist, but philosophy ultimately informed your personal and artistic identity greatly. Can you explain specifically how?

HMS: I would say it’s philosophical inquiry itself that has been most important to me: thinking and questioning and being curious on a second-order level, which every human exercises in some measure. When I sat in my first philosophy lecture in college, it was clear that philosophy had been a pastime I’d been engaged in most of my life. I had lived bifurcated between the culture of my Korean family, eccentric even among Koreans, and the culture of white, upper-middle-class Texas. The values of these two worlds were often opposed, and I constantly wondered what my true home was. Consequently, I was always looking to cobble together a holistic identity and try to understand why one culture, which was good, believed X about a matter, while the other culture, which was also good, believed the opposite of X. I saw that I had been in some kind of philosophical inquiry all that time, that I had always been trying to get down to fundamental principles through logic and reason. I hadn’t understood it at the time, but the searching, the constant questioning that may have been too constant—that was home. 

My latest body of work, Modern Myth of the Golem, is highly personal in this same way and is a visual meditation on a variety of texts, philosophical and otherwise, including Jewish mythology, ancient Greek philosophy and mythology, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which just celebrated its bicentennial), as well as some contemporary reimaginations of her novella. I was exploring the idea of how we are all golem: creatures made from raw material that have been animated and given free agency. Out of a natural impulse for self-expression, humans create copies of themselves. When unleashed, these imprints, these pieces of art, interact with the external world on their own terms and cannot be controlled by their makers who, in turn, wish to destroy them. It is this tension, the aspect of being both creators and creations, both beautiful and terrible, in which we are lost in an iterative process. 

Frankenstein Konfidential: Lilo, 2018, oil on linen, 60 x 84 in.

AM: Your painting of Michael Gormley as Clerval from your recent Modern Prometheus exhibition at Equity Gallery is very interesting and well done. What is the story behind this work

HMS: Thank you. I have known Michael, Executive Director of the Artists Equity Association, for years now, and I utterly admire him. He has done everything under the sun in the art world, and I was honored that he collaborated with me for the painting. To advance the thesis of “Modern Myth,” I wanted to work with great artists and art-world people to underscore my idea that we are all artists and all golem. 

In one of the manuscripts I was responding to—a contemporary reimagination of the Frankenstein story set in Nazi Germany—there is a character named Clerval, an intellectual with a kind and stabilizing disposition. I immediately thought of Michael for a painting. I wanted to depict him in a stable pose, so of course he’s seated, and the shape of the work, sixty inches by sixty inches, is square. In the manuscript, the character vanishes, so instead of making a static illustration of a scene from the plot of Clerval disappearing, I decided to do something a little different: I painted Michael in multiple exposures arranged in a circle, another very stable but dynamic shape in nature. So now we see many Michaels in a circle embedded in a square with glasses painted fire-engine red to animate a color palette that is otherwise rather muted and create a fun arresting focal point for the eye. People seemed to really respond to the painting, which thrills me. 

<em>The Fall of Clerval</em>, 2019, oil on linen, 62 x 62 in.

AM: You encouraged students during your TedX talk at Princeton University in 2016 to engage with artwork  first with their eyes and soul before reading the wall text or taking in other interpretations. Can you further explain this? 

HMS: For education to be any good to the world, there has to be a feedback loop from the inner life. The inner life has to be a place that is comfortable to us, rich and knowable, so that the experiences of life can be sieved through our sensibility. Honed by education, the findings of our intuition can be trusted to affect the world well. 

What I was urging in my TedX talk was to have the right epistemic attitude when looking at art: to take a moment to form an opinion or even better, experience an emotion, and engage with the work itself, never mind a reference about the work, like a wall placard, which is often someone’s exegesis about what the work means. I get so bummed out when I see people in a gallery or museum, especially young people, skipping over the feeling part just for a snippet of information written on some FOME-COR on the wall. Emotion is epistemic and can bring you to the truth as well. The way art is often presented these days, there’s a lot of noise—what is the cultural reference, the historical significance, the meaning as written by this or that curator—noise that occludes intuitive engagement with the artwork. The wall placard isn’t education, it’s merely information, and can certainly direct or guide your focus, but it shouldn’t be the main part of the experience. Engaging sincerely with an artwork is a ready way to explore your inner life; it provides training for your sensibility so that your intuition can be located efficiently, honestly, and reliably in the midst of and despite the noise of the world.  

Disappearing Vin, 2018, monoprint, 11 x 15 in. Private collection.

AM: The melding of both traditional and modern approaches in art-making has been popular for some time, but I know you have a different way of explaining this quality in your own work, using the phrase “toggling between resolution and fragmentation.” That is interesting word choice, especially because those words are commonly associated with photography, digital imagery, and film. There actually is often a great sense of movement and animation in your larger paintings, so I wondered if you are constructing your paintings thinking about the modern visual experiences our society has become accustomed to?

HMS: What an interesting idea! But alas no, I wasn’t thinking in those terms; that sense of movement and animation you’ve located is something I am naturally interested in, the way my brain tends even in my writing, which my writing colleagues have described as “filmic,” even though I don’t consume many films or shows on my own. The descriptors of “resolution” and “fragmentation” come out of my painting approach: an image can be more or less resolved in how it appears to come into visual focus, yes, but also in how it approaches its full realization as an idea or concept. On the other end is fragmentation, by which I mean to say less visual finish, broken up brush strokes, but also reliance on the viewer to do the work of completing the meaning and providing transitional bridges between visual moments. 

AM: When did you first begin working with prints, and what have you discovered by experimenting with monoprint? What qualities and advantages does this medium afford that painting doesn’t, and how have you applied them to your practice?

HMS: I started getting interested in printmaking at a residency a couple of years ago. I sauntered over to the print shop on a whim between paintings, and I saw the work the artists were making, the accoutrements, and the press (!), and I was so excited. I applied for and received a scholarship to Penland School of Craft in North Carolina to do monoprints last summer, and when I finally got down to the nitty-gritty, I was surprised to find that monoprinting can be a lot like certain styles of painting—just on a different substrate and with lithography inks, which are basically thick oil paints. During my time at Penland, I experimented with print-specific techniques such as chine collé, collage, stencils, and embossing, effects that can be imitated through trompe l’oeil in painting, but may be better achieved through this medium. I struggled with the immediacy of the print-making process, eventually giving into the sometimes stochastic aspect of the work. When I got back to my studio in Brooklyn, I saw that I worked much more quickly than I did when I had left, and I reprised some of the additive and subtractive painting I was playing with at Penland.  

Sunday Sketch in the Studio, 2018, oil on linen on wood, 8 x 10 in.

AM: Now that you have been a practicing professional artist for more than a decade, do you think realism is still the best language for communicating and expressing the ideas and stories you want to get out into the world? Are there any other mediums or styles that you have come to respect or appreciate? 

HMS: I try to mix up and cross the few mediums I know. For example, something I’m playing around with right now is collaging on monoprint, then cutting the whole of it up to make a paper sculpture. I would like to study many more things than I have already, and I have dreams. For instance, I would love to make a large stage set one day, with sculptures hanging from the rafters, and some time, when I have a better studio setup, I intend to experiment with encaustics. As for realism, it’s like a rubber band: I am not afraid to stray away from it some day, because I’m sure it will always call me back.  

Ultimately, I think it’s the ideas that drive me, not the medium, and at forty-one I still feel as though life is long and I have so much yet to learn. I have friends who make conceptual films, friends who are photographers, friends who make abstract sculptures—and friends who do all of the above, and I’m pretty proud of being omnivorous and open-minded about my art and idea consumption. I am always so struck by how differently people do things while we’re all pretty much trying to nail the same stuff, and it makes me marvel at how similar and how different we all are. 

AM: If you had to make a constructive criticism of the realist art world today, what would say? What do you think the realists are doing well? 

HMS: Realism encompasses quite a breadth of work today. I think, though, the realist or representational artists could blow the gamut even wider, and go for breadth that doesn’t forsake depth. As audiences become more sophisticated, as realism comes of age and the established tropes become more recognizable, it will be harder for artists to make work that is mostly about capturing an ever thinner slice of the technique pie. As anyone who has stood in front of a masterpiece knows, great art is where technique falls away entirely and you’re feasting on something else. I think that “something else” is a unique perspective, a truthful viewpoint, an idea swept along in the current of feeling. 

There are so many amazing realists out there showcasing unique perspectives and doing so with unparalleled skill. It would be useful to expand the pedagogy in the schools for the next generation so that there isn’t so much going at it alone, however. In training young artists, the replicability of the technical education—students mastering the “how” at pretty high rates across the board—has reached an impressive level. But it’s time to make space in the conversation, and curriculum, for the “why”—what the artist needs alongside her new skill-set to realize her visions. Technique must bend/play handmaiden to something that hasn’t yet been well-codified in the schools, and training students to think rigorously about concepts, narratives, art history and our place and role in the world today, should get more sophisticated. What it’s about is supporting the artist in realizing, in clay or on the canvas or whatever, that which is uniquely herself. 

AM: What is the next project or idea you’re working on?

I’ve been working on a writing project: my first book, a philosophical memoir entitled Head Study about growing up as a first-generation Korean-American in a spectacularly unsuccessful entrepreneurial family in Texas and searching for my place in the world, ultimately becoming a painter in New York. There’s a specific structure to the work: each chapter begins with a stage in constructing a head study, or self-portrait, and then draws to events in my life. I have been working on it for a few years now, and I really hope to be done with the final draft soon. In the studio, the work that’s been coming into being right now, unsurprisingly given the memoir, has been pretty autobiographical in subject matter. I’m still rapping on the idea of existential incipience—that is, how we attain psychological fulfillment, and how we make a life. 

Above the Kitchen Cabinets, 2018, oil on board, 8 x 12 in.