While enjoying a feast of fish, grapes or chicken, a couple tenderly sit around a dinner table – fully naked. These exaggerated figures, with multiple mouths, oddly placed genitals and exceptionally long fingers, are revelling in some wine and, clearly, some great company; intimate and filled with hidden meanings, these are the scenes created by Seoul-raised and American-based artist Gahee Park.
“When I make paintings and drawings, I am thinking to some degree about liberating the female body from art history and society, expanding a point of view which we are unfamiliar about, and exploring ideas about pleasure,” Gahee tells It’s Nice That. Recalling a time in college when she was studying art history, Gahee kept “getting insulted” by paintings of women made by male artists, pinpointing her references to those such as French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin. “I felt like there was no way for me to express in the class exactly how I felt,” she says. Combatting these emotions in a somewhat necessary anarchist manner, she took to her own practice of making art to express her perspective – “[it] seemed like a better, more satisfying way for me.”
Gahee grew up in Seoul and moved to America to study at the age of 21. As a natural-born artist, she remembers being good at drawing from a very young age, and “always thought there was nothing else [she] could or wanted to do”. Consequently and unsurprisingly, she pursued a path into art. “I can remember few moments that made me think of becoming an artist,” she says. One of these memories depicts a time when she made a copy Renoir’s Two Sisters painting at the age of 12 – the first time she used oil paints and a time when she felt that she was “way better at making it than other kids.”
Simultaneously, she also found herself creating drawings of “girls getting naked or men and women kissing; my mum (who is very Catholic) found a few of the drawing books and burned them in front of me,” she says. Rebellious in nature, Gahee uses her medium to tackle traditional and sexist values that are conceived throughout art history, as well as within her immediate surroundings. “I was ashamed in the moment, but at the same time the guilt became mixed with a strange kind of pleasure. I got obsessed with drawing ‘banned’ images and I could not stop drawing them secretly. I think that made me more serious about indulging in making images.”
Finding inspiration from first-hand experiences, Gahee takes cues from her relationship with her family in Korea, as well as her “husband, cat, film, books, art, politics, meditation and TV shows.” There are a few constant and recurring motifs that run throughout her work, which include elements such as the dinner table, naked bodies, females painted with multiple mouths, plus scenes that see sexual intimacy with outsiders peering through a window. “My motifs are coming from my own experiences, memories, fantasies and also from thinking about art history,” she explains. “I wouldn’t really be able to, nor would I really want to, give a specific meaning to each motif.”
Instead of taking to explicit symbolism, Gahee is drawn towards broader themes such as “desire, intimacy, pleasure, utopias, voyeurism, social rituals, the public vs the private, power dynamics, our relationship to time.” Her work is as much a minefield of interpretation as it is her way of expressing her own view of the world. “I think art is a form of language and expression,” she concludes, “which I enjoy and feel compelled to pursue.”