75 ShinYoung An

"I would like to leave viewer’s emotionally moved through my art work. I also hope that they can become aware that peace and conflict can coexist through my art work."

ShinYoung An is an award-winning Korean-American artist who paints heart-breaking scenes of daily life, directly over newspaper clippings of terrifying global events. This juxtaposition of the personal and global, positive and negative, raises endless questions about humanity and the role we all play in its history. ShinYoung grew up in South Korea where she studied art, earning a BFA at the Hyosung Women's University in Daegu. She then taught art for ten years, but found it wasn't satisfying - she writes in this interview for The Empty Kingdom (2012) that she felt like 'a house of cards'. So, she moved to NYC to learn figurative painting, studying first at the Art Student's League and then the New York Academy of Art, where she earned her MFA. Next, she went on to the Cercle Artistic de Sant Luc school in Barcelona to continue honing her craft. Through all this hard work, she became an excellent portrait painter, as you can see in her self portrait:

'Self-Portrait in Hanbock'

ShinYoung accomplished her goal of artistic mastery, and would have embarked in a successful career painting portraits except for one thing - she found herself bombarded by the daily news cycle that brought constant tales of suffering, inequity, and corruption, invading her daily life. She describes how this led her to an incredible series of paintings in her artist's statement:

"While reading about and listening to these issues in the news, the articles and stories began affecting me in such a way that I wanted this to be reflected in my art. I depict my reactions to these events through the visual interaction of hands, feet and portraits painted against a backdrop of current news articles that have touched me."

'Enlarged the Screen'

 ShinYoung describes the moment she got this idea here (The Empty Kingdom2012):

"One article on June 16, 2006 was about Bill Gates’ plans to departure from Microsoft. This article impressed me because it showed how Bill Gates had decided to turn his attention to philanthropy and away from “Microsoft,” one of the biggest and richest companies in the world. After reading this article, I had difficulty sleeping that night. Through my deep thoughts and feelings, I finally realized that focusing on my portraiture was being greedy in the sense that I was only focusing my talents on self-referencing work. Following Gates’ lead, I tried to give up what I was adept to and what I was accustomed to, which was using my talents to paint only portraits of figures, and moved towards my new limbs series in order to express my opinion and spread awareness about our current society. As I looked through many newspaper articles for my art work, I realized even more that I had been so ignorant about many unfortunate and horrible events around the world such as wars, natural disasters, diseases and sicknesses, poverty, crimes, and corruption."
'A Breaking News'

ShinYoung's work puts into question, not only our role as informed citizens, but also the role of the news in society. After all, newspapers are printed on one of the lowest quality papers you can buy - they're designed to wither and flake away to nothing, just from exposure to air. Every day we receive new stories that we treat like fish - after 3 days they're old and we throw them away. Over time the process creates a form of collective amnesia. It reminds me of a story by Paul Theroux, 'The Memory Priest of the Creech People', and it's short enough to add here:

One person alone, always a man, serves as the memory for all the dates and names and events of the Creech, the hill-dwelling aboriginals of south-central Sumatra. This person possesses an entire history of the people and may spend as much as a week, day and night, reciting the various genealogies.
            This Memory Priest reminds the Creech of who they are and what they have done. He is their entertainment and their historian, their memory and mind and imagination. He keeps the Creech amused and informed. The Creech have no chief or headman. The Memory Priest serves as the sole authority.
            The Memory Priest is awarded his title at birth. As soon as he is able to talk he is given to understand that he is the repository of all the Creech lore.
            His is not an easy career. He must memorize great lists of family names and must be able to recite all the events that took place from the moment of his birth.
            The Creech are mostly placid, though they are subject to odd fits of violence. Biting themselves in order to show remorse is not unknown, and clawing their own faces is common. They are also untruthful and unreliable, prone to thieving, gossiping, gambling, and sudden spasm of the most aggressive behavior.
            What the Memory Priest knows, the immensity of his storehouse of facts, is nothing compared with the one fact that he does not know, a secret that is withheld from him: After thirty years have passed, and he is old by Creech standards (possibly toothless, almost certainly wrinkled and shrunken), a meeting is convened. He recites the Creech history, and at the conclusion of this he is put to death. He is finally roasted and eaten by every member of the Creech, in a ritual known as the Ceremony of Purification.
            The next male child born to a Creech woman is designated Memory Priest and elevated; history begins once again. Nothing that has taken place before his birth has any reality, all quarrels are settled, all debts nullified.

            So the Memory Priest, now an infant, soon a man, learns his role, believing that history begins with him and never aware that at a specified moment his life will end. Yet it is the death of the Memory Priest that the Creech people live for and whisper about, the wiping out of all debts, all crimes, all shame and failure. They eagerly anticipate the amnesia his death will bring. Throughout his life, though he is unaware of it, he is less a supreme authority than a convenient receptacle into which all the ill-assorted details of the Creech are tossed. Secretly, he is mocked for not knowing that it will all end in oblivion, at the time of his certain death.


What ShinYoung An does is the opposite of this. She preserves stories on her canvas, under layers of gesso and acrylic, so that people can see them almost exactly as they were, hundreds of years later. And the painting she puts on top serves to contextualize and memorialize these events, often lighting candles in memory of the dead.

"Not only do I use current new articles that have had an impact on me, but also I use actual newspapers about these historical events in order to preserve it for the future. I believe printed newspapers will not exist in the future due to the rapidly developing technology. This is why I have created pieces with the title,  “Clicking,” “A Breaking News,” and “Enlarged Screen,” because that is what we do to learn about the news recently."

'Eating Dessert'

When asked about art's role in society, ShinYoung says:

"I hope it positively affects society.  I think there is art in every field as if “Life is art itself.”.  Most jobs accompanied with artistry are done with passion and true heart.  For example, parents put in their best efforts for their baby to grow well just like artists put in their best efforts in producing their art work.  It’s a very interesting observation of how the human life development process is very similar to the art work process.  Every job comes from societies’ needs and has its own role to improve our society by connecting and helping each other.  However, we need self-reflection. Without retrospection of ourselves, our society cannot survive.  We can survive till reality from learning from the past, and we can see and create the future through correcting the problems of the present.
'A Coffee Break'

"I wake up with ideas in the morning with the story of the issues that have touched me. I combine those articles and cut the significant images and stories from the newspapers and then mount them on canvas while thinking of composition. I try to think how viewers would feel when observing my piece. My hope is that the artwork attracts them first and motivates them to look closer to the details of the issues surrounding the art and news. Hopefully, my artwork will arouse sympathy by highlighting the unfortunate realities of life and sometimes, highlighting those who are apathetic about current events. I hope my art pieces can also make people comfort from awareness of true life like Chaplin, Charlie said “life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot”.
"However, I would also like to have an affect on the viewer’s emotional feelings, leaving them with many questions. Simply, my goal is to finish a painting to show the essences of meaning the piece won’t directly portray."

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'Clipping a Thumbnail'

Shin Young An was kind enough to answer some questions I have about her work, so I'm adding here our written interview:

1. I'm curious if you still teach art, and if so, where?

I had a workshop at East Carolina University last Sept. I was supposed to start a portrait class at the Montclair Studio, NJ, near my house, for the spring semester this year, but I couldn’t start yet because of the COVID 19. The school suggested an online class, but I just want to wait until I can meet students in the class.

'Polishing Toenails'

2. Do you consider your art to be political? Do you see your work as a form of protest?

I am interested in politics and social issues, and many of my recent paintings reflect those interests. However, I don’t think my artwork is a form of protest. They are meant to nudge the viewers to my positions by alerting them to things they might not have realized or even been aware of.

3. What do you consider a citizen's proper role, regarding global political events?

I think a citizen must find bright, empathetic, engaged representative politicians and vote for them. If bad things happen today, we must look to the past for causation and understanding. Hopefully this will prevent those occurrences from being repeated in the future. My objective for the recent work is to get the viewers involved and to change things for the better. 
'The US Citizen'

4. I know you wrote that you look for the most unbiased sources for stories - but many would argue that the NY Times is very biased. As politics and 'tribalism' begin invading every facet of society, do you find it harder to find stories that won't trigger either the right or the left?

I think it’s not a matter of the right or the left, it’s a matter of truth/justice and falsehoods/injustice. Time will judge the truth of present realities in history. I rarely enter social networks to avoid wasting my time searching for the truth there. I do subscribe to the NY Times primarily because their images of articles are better than in other newspapers but also because they seem to do the best job researching their subjects despite a liberal bias. I read some Korean newspapers and also listen to the news through various media like podcasts, and the TV in English and Korean. Unfortunately, there are very few topics important to people that won’t trigger the left or the right.
'Lighting Candles Together'

5. You painted a series titled 'Obama'. Are you going to paint a similar one about Donald Trump?

White presidents in America are common, unlike our first black president. It was a milestone event in U.S. history. I actually had a fantasy for a better America when Obama was elected. I have no fantasies of political events in America for now. 

'Praying For the Truth'

6. What responses do you generally get from viewers about your paintings? Have you received any hate mail for it?

No hate mail yet! Occasionally I am told that artists should stick to painting beauty and leave politics to the politicians. But most viewers appreciate seeing my artwork and tell me they are drawn to the simplicity and perspective of my Hands and Feet, and Face series. They are drawn in by the painted rendering of these everyday actions but are then unsettled when they come close enough to read the collage articles in the background. 
One recent viewer told me, “Please don't underestimate the power your work has to those who view it, and the influence that it holds. And just know that your work has inspired so many others, not only to contemplate the events they read about in those background articles but to get involved.”
Yesterday I received an email that read, “We put your work on display today in our home and absolutely love it. We wish you all the best-good health and continued success.” As an artist, it doesn’t get much better than that.

'Winds of New Hope'

7. What advice do you give to young artists, besides mastery of craft and drawing?
In art, the artist must decide when the work is done. As much as in life, it is not easy to simplify and give up things, but sometimes less is more. It will be necessary in many cases for greater achievement. And always be receptive to new ideas rather than being closed-minded as you grow older. It may be difficult to create good art, but viewing and appreciating it is easy.  
8. Do you consider yourself more optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
I used to be very optimistic, I always felt today is going to be better than yesterday. Within my life experiences, I wouldn’t fully appreciate my present ones if I didn’t have some bad experiences too. But now the whole world is having a very difficult time amid this unpredictable pandemic. I feel one can easily become a victim of evil or nature. Nevertheless, I remember what Winston Churchill said. “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
9. What artists have inspired you most? Could you talk about it?
I can’t select one, because my art is influenced by many artists. Maybe the most influential was Rembrandt Van Rijn for my figurative art. I copied several pieces at the Met. Especially helpful was copying Rembrandt’s painting, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer. When I figured out his technique by researching his colors, mediums, and copying one of his original paintings, I just felt real freedom. When I saw his young self-portrait, it was just amazing how he knew to simplify the dark side to emphasize the bright side when he was still a young man. 
Then there’s Leonardo-da-Vinci who said, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." "Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be depicted in detail but for shadow." Especially with his quote, “A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.” This meant a lot to me for making my recent paintings.
10. Do you ever think about making larger-scale artworks on similar themes?
I am actually doing two large paintings at my studio. The bigger one is 70”x 180” with the theme of The World Civil Rights Movement and the other one is 60"x128 about Climate Change. I can’t predict when it will be finished. I am just working on them from time to time whenever I get emotional about those issues.
11. What's your opinion of the contemporary art scene and art market?
I get excited whenever I find some great art among the commonplace when I visit a huge art fair. Regrettably, I have no idea how galleries run their business without selling much. However, I am not affected by the crowded market. It seems like a different world to me. I am not good in the business world. Nevertheless, I admire the way the graffiti artist, Banksy, influences the world art market. He remains anonymous and produces highly recognizable images that have strong messages with wry wit but based on heartwarming humanism. His art makes me proud as an artist and heals my heart.
12. What do you say to someone who thinks that art doesn't matter?
Art makes us pause from our daily routines to admire, question, or be amazed by someone’s efforts. You need people to fill all of life's positions to have the best possible society, but they are not, admittedly, equally important. Without the doctor and nurse, illness could become commonplace. Then perhaps without the police officer, you would have no law and order. Without teachers, knowledge would not be passed on, and advancements would be slow in coming. So the artist might follow them in importance, but without the beauty, imagination, and creativity their work provides, how much duller life would be. Love of beauty is what makes us human.