In Conversation with Sung Joo Jang
“Birds” by Sunjoo Jang. Charcoal on canvas.
Interior art for the Canvas Winter 2019 issue.
Canvas Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Herko's Opening Reflections:
I am always intrigued how art can offer us "re-location" into a plane that feels both immaterial and sensory-eternal. How on initial contact, a singular piece of art can summon an emotional through-line deep within the viewer's body, that suddenly feels like the awakened viscous-ness of lotus-tied-to-licorice-tied-to-a-bloody-handkerchief -tied to a giddy halo-tied to loin, spleen, lung, and eye—making life in that moment feel verified and electrified by recognition and imagination.
Looking at "Birds" for long bits of time, I felt recipient of its reverberation; as an image it is a striking announcement. I felt edited internally by a formation in charcoal I could not physically grasp with my hands, yet feels very tactile. What does it mean to be edited internally? I think it means at a "soul" level to feel wound up about something recognizable within art that speaks to impressions that have only flickered by before in one's mind, without escalation to language—impressions that feel very primal and comforting. In this way "Birds" feels timeless to me, and instead of being a human feeding the birds, the birds in this artwork were feeding me, just by allowing me to be their voyeur.
We were steeped in winter in the truest sense while curating art for our January issue of Canvas and while shifting through the beautiful works we receive, I was trying to intuitively connect with what winter feels like. For me—winter is this very exciting irregular space in the year, where time seems to climb to a pinnacle point of darkness and solitary "stock-keeping" (taking stock of self, or resources to ensure survival), while the world can feel bald of atmospheric protection and aimless in time allotted for extra contemplation. There is so much beauty in how winter feels like a liminal space and a space of inversion that we could appreciate if we tuned our preferences to liking a photo negative of our expectations. The perspective switch gives a kind of heady sense of looseness to life during the winter months, which certainly aids artistic creation and imaginative play, as it gives an open vulnerability to daydreams, slippage into folk stories, and confidence—keeping company with mirages; the quick turn-over of feelings in winter light!
When we selected our cover art, Yuqiu Dong's "Jill and the Beanstalk," one attraction was the washed out world in suspended light that felt like winter magic in peril of afternoon-aging. In the prairie of imagination—any magic that surfaces (witnessed or created by play) seems to be ephemeral; time-stamped by how winter light quickly changes our opportunities to move in the world, and our moods. That piece’s fairy tale theme, embodied within an image of an expanse of land, called to mind how fields—however bare—are notoriously a surface used by children in play. Children are often the sightseers of winter, on a level closest to the ground, but also those who impose no limitations looking upward to appreciate or appropriate the sky for their fantasies or stories.
When we next discovered your piece "Birds," I felt it took us deeper into our summoning of winter, and I was absolutely giddy when you gave us permission to publish it as interior art. Placing it within the pages of the issue feels like creating a “mutating creek of winter suggestion” that readers follow from encountering the cover, into the unknown ever-opening landscapes of the journal, much like people who decide to travel to the interior of Iceland (and can only do so during certain seasons) have no idea what to expect until they are actually along their way. "Birds” moves us into a winter of organic and primal emotional realism, not solely because it a progression in stylistic realism from Dong’s “Jill and The Beanstalk” but because as it communes with recognizable winter elements like those one would experience walking through the very real woods or field, it also reminds us these settings are often the base of the desire to conjure such large imaginative contrasts to realities, like that expressed in Dong’s work.
The charcoal drawing of line within “Birds” is like the brush and dead-wood-world in many variations of winter. The formation of the birds is intriguingly monolith and makes them look at one glance – textured and tangible in featheriness but in the next, feral and more animalistic as if they are coping against their environs. As a conglomerate, I couldn't help but think of the formation as being like an object frozen yet autonomous in the drawing’s plane of white space. The conglomerate of birds hauntingly looks like folk art—we could think of the formation similarly to a totem pole, but without the mummification within the boundaries of wood. The birds could be imagined instead suspended by their own volition—rather emotionally eerie seeing nobody is flapping to suspend their clot. The birds also look like they could be bound by a secret skewer—darkly making them something of edible consumption. I suppose if we cannot reach out and touch something that looks tangible, we may have the desire to hide it in our bodies, first through our mouths. Looking at the aesthetic of how the birds are rendered, they looked like how stories about stone and wire soups should have been illustrated, and their primal clotting recalls compilations of regurgitated bone and baby—stitching them to a tradition of parents and caregivers who chew their children’s foods first and then spit whole genres of things into their children’s mouths.
As viewers, depending on how we receive the image—vertically stacked or horizontal, our ideas of what the image reminds us of may also shift. To me, considering what the orientation summons, highlights the more curious questions—what do we think is pulling the birds together?
What if instead of a totem pole's spiritual or honorific connotations or a digestion—bauble's disarray—the birds are pulling into each other for something as unsuspected as warmth or protection? When we see birds upside-down from one another, in the open space of the canvas, it makes me think this could be a sign of necessity and vulnerability (fit where one can, seek coverage, or get the most surface contact with the mass for heat or security). Considering alternative motives of the birds, each bird suddenly becomes individual in the formation and the "end birds" can be evaluated as “why are they weight-bearers” for the group? What could it mean if the owl is the end or base bird? The owl is also the only bird who is directly looking us in the eye versus other birds whose heads are hidden or birds who are only able to look toward one another.
Going back to the textures evoked by this piece, zooming into the charcoal on canvas creates a subtle grid-look that emulates fabric, providing an eerie and yet awesome feeling “Birds” are “nature's equivalent to the shroud of Turin”—as if the image of the birds just summoned itself through the barrier of a veil or was energetically imprinted there by a burst of kinetic energy; the image in some way a remnant.
In winter, many birds are "up in the air" in our mindsets. Absent if they are migratory, certain birds may float abstractly in our mental periphery—if thought of at all, until they becomes of spatial consequence to us again. The birds that do remain localized may seem enigmatic as we lose contact with them, shrinking our own time in nature, due to non-idealized conditions of heat and light. Recently on Christmas Day, while the commercial world was shuttered and human activity was heavily re-routed into domestic spaces, I was stunned to see hundreds and hundreds of birds take over the grasses, power lines and de-populated parking lots near local businesses whose twenty-four hour magnetism to people, usually prevent the birds from settling there. It was a stark reminder that we often create “the veils” birds cannot pass through.
Thank you so much for sharing your ideas on the piece :) I am once again amazed by how art can translate into different meanings and interpretations. I am grateful and pleased that my work can mean so much and reach a larger audience. As for the questions I simply wrote the answers along with them.
I am eager to learn the story behind this piece—from its seed idea, to its process/actualization. Can you speak to what inspired "Birds" and what you'd like it to convey to your audience?
During junior year as I was taking AP Drawing, I had to come up with a concentration theme and 12 artworks based on the theme. I settled with the idea of "remnants and influence". From the waste we leave behind to relationships and emotions derived from interactions we have with others, there is always some sort of residue produced as a result of our actions. I felt it to be crucial that we recognize the importance of not only the present but also the past and that we are aware of what our lives have caused and produced. "Birds" was inspired by this theme, mainly focusing on the damage we, as humans, cause to the environment. In order to recognize and become aware of our actions, I decided to construct a piece related to animals, who are a crucial part of nature, and remind viewers of the status quo.
Is there an orientation you prefer viewers encounter “Birds” in? We received the piece as a vertically-oriented image but are printing it across two pages on a horizontal, which allows readers to encounter it either way. If there is a preferred orientation how does this choice co-create the piece's message or atmosphere? How does the work change for you as the artist to encounter it under an alternate orientation?
I believe a vertical image would be ideal. My approach was to create a totem pole-inspired composition, and it would be best if it was displayed like one.
If a viewer could encounter this work in any ideal place or setting what would be the ideal situation you would curate?
Any type of wall would do. A dark background to emphasize the black and white of the piece would be the ideal venue for display.
What is your own relationship with birds? Have they entered your art before? Here you've very distinctly rendered them. I am curious if that is from your own observations and interactions with them out in the world or your knowledge of them is instead led by their presence in art and the media. Birds are interesting subjects as they are at times plentiful but they can also leave before we get close proximity. This could be a subject that we'd rely more on art and literature to hone our knowingness.
Birds are a special part of my childhood. I lived near the Golden Gate Bridge in an apartment that had a small park in front of it. Even though it was just big enough for a brief stroll there were the largest trees I've ever seen and a flock of green parrots would always come to rest on the branches in the afternoon. They were quite friendly and would come down to feed on apple slices and seeds people bring to the park. I would go out every single day to see them before dinner, and they are one of my most precious memories. Since then, I've always associated birds, and animals in general, as friends that we can and should get along with. Learning more about science, technology, and the consequences that our development has brought to nature has motivated me to create a concentration theme as mentioned and be more careful about my actions. Each bird is distinctly rendered to bring out the individuality of species and also to simply draw attention to every bird drawn in the piece. They all deserve equal attention and I intended my work to at least trigger some thoughts about why specifically birds and what they mean, even if the piece doesn't fully deliver my message.
Do you have any advice for teen artists who may not have supportive or artistically interested parents?
I am lucky to have parents who are supportive of whatever I dream to do. For those who have parents who disapprove of pursuing a career in art or even doing art, I would like to say that there are so many hidden opportunities to practice art. Sharing simple doodles with friends, going to exhibitions to see others' work, and finding a platform online are all options. There are always ways to connect art to other subjects and vice versa. For instance, my interest in coding inspired me to program a digital work, and that was equally fulfilling and fun as creating a physical piece. Parents may be an obstacle at the moment but there is always time to practice on your own and even find better opportunities in the future, so don't give up!
As an artist what are you looking forward to?
As a high school senior who is bound for university this year, I am excited to explore a more advanced realm of art and meet more artists. Even though my high school art career has been fantastic, I would like to know what it is like to meet new people who practice/appreciate art who come from all over the world. I hope I find inspiration in such novelty and continue to grow as an artist myself.
For those who have parents who disapprove of pursuing a career in art or even doing art, I would like to say that there are so many hidden opportunities to practice art. Sharing simple doodles with friends, going to exhibitions to see others' work, and finding a platform online are all options.
Sung Joo Jang is a current junior at Seoul International School in South Korea. She has been inspired to create art by her mother, who majored in design and always let her experiment with her paints and sketches. She hopes to integrate her artistic side into her current interests of computer science and math.