It’s hard not to love sculptor Hein Koh and her carefully constructed amorphous spandex sculptures. Nearly twice her height, Hein’s wide eyed and weeping flowers watch over us while we talk. Her Greenpoint studio feels like a remix to a more extensive, and sparkling, Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse set, a reference she immediately identifies with. A mother to twin daughters, Ami and Oni, the brilliant whimsical world Hein has created explores the innocence of childhood, and the melancholy she faces in her inability to return to such virtuous times.
Greenpointers: When were you first exposed to art growing up?
Hein Koh: The first time I remember looking at art in person was at the Met. I remember enjoying it and buying Magritte and French Impressionist poster prints in the gift shop afterwards, but I don’t think I thought it was any cooler than watching TV. On the other hand, I always loved making art. I remember in kindergarten being obsessed with painting. I would always paint these self-portraits in the corner. I also had a great art teacher growing up from 1st-8th grade, who introduced us to pop artists like Warhol. Because I grew up in the 80s and pop art was everywhere, I don’t think I necessarily thought of art at this higher thing. It was just embedded in the culture. I kept drawing and painting throughout middle school, but in high school I was very academically oriented and didn’t make time for it. I didn’t pick art back up again until I was at Dartmouth. I started off as a Spanish major but took art classes for fun. By the end of sophomore year, I decided to become an art major, but was also considering other subjects like English or Music as a second major. I finally settled on Psychology and Studio Art. I actually didn’t think I was going to be an artist, I just enjoyed the classes and I figured I might as well major in art because I was taking so many classes.
Hein Koh grew up in Norwood, New Jersey, and graduated from Dartmouth in 1998 with a dual degree in Psychology and Studio Art. She was in a band in college called Speedy Vulva with James, her now husband, in which she sang and played the guitar. After moving to New York in 1998, she worked as a web designer. In 2004 Hein graduated with her MFA in painting from Yale. In 2015, Hein gave birth to twin daughters Ami and Oni. She now lives and works in Greenpoint.
GP: You have an interesting educational background. How does your dual degree in Psychology and formal training in painting influence your work?
HK: I think psychology and painting heavily influence my work. A lot of my work comes from a place that’s so inside my own head. I like to read other artwork psychologically, and that’s what I find interesting in art. Psychology remains a huge interest of mine. I listen to a lot of psychology and self-help books while I work in my studio. I honestly think that the most important thing in life is knowing how to be happy. After graduating, I moved to New York and I didn’t make art for about 18 months. I was struggling to adjust to the “real world” and figure out how to support myself and make art. I was kind of testing to see if I really needed to be an artist. When I finally started painting again, I remember tearing up after realizing the void I had felt in my life was from not making art. I needed art, and was completely hooked again. That’s when I decided that I needed to be doing this for the rest of my life and applied to graduate school. I ended up going to Yale for painting, and I continued to paint after graduate school, until 2011, about 7 years ago. I wanted to experiment and feel more freedom in my practice, so I started sewing canvas, stuffing and painting it, because those are the materials I had in my studio and I already knew how to sew. I made these eyes that hang on the wall, which I considered “stuffed paintings” at the time. Eventually I learned how to use other materials like plaster and Aqua-Resin, and my sculptures started moving to the floor as well. It was a big learning curve, and it still is. Working with the engineering of sculptures can get very frustrating. In that way painting is easier. I have stuck to making sculptures, because I guess those are the kinds of problems that I’m attracted to. There is a reason you choose to do what you do, and that is part of a person’s deep psychology. For me, overcoming the challenges that sculpture brings are extremely satisfying. Maybe that makes me masochistic.
GP: How do you start off with an idea? What is your creative process in pushing your ideas in a new direction?
HK: For me, the ideas start off very casually. Lately I have been very influenced by my daughters and the imagery in their books and clothing. Right now icons such as rainbows, stars, and hearts are repeating themselves. Often times I will have an idea and it will start off as a really crude sketch. Once I have the form sketched out I start brainstorming what colors and fabrics I should use, and then I start ordering materials. I always start my work off with a pattern. I draw the forms on muslin, and then I cut the two pieces, pin them together, and stuff them with polyester fiberfill. After I’m happy with the general shape and size, I cut it out of spandex and sew it together. What I like about this process is how different the sculpture looks in spandex than the muslin. The spandex stretches and gets lumpy. It ends up being very organic, and I like the surprises in texture and shape the spandex allows.
Hein Koh is preparing for a solo exhibition at Marvin Gardens that will open Friday, May 4th and run through June 3rd. The show will feature all new pieces.
GP: When I look at your sculptures it’s hard for me not to think of Pee Wee’s Playhouse or other children’s television shows. How does your own childhood influence your work?
HK: Pee Wee’s Playhouse is a huge influence on me and my work. It’s interesting the things that influence you. As a kid I loved that show so much, but was never really that excited about cartoons. I remember seeing the set and thinking ‘Oh, I want my bedroom to look just like that!’ At the time I thought it was the most imaginative and inventive thing I had ever seen. I still love the whole aesthetic. Recently it has come up in my sculptural work. It just goes to show that the things that influence you in childhood can come up again later in life. I have gone through many different phases in terms of all the different things I have done. My work has followed me through these phases. In that sense my work is truer to me now. I am reconnecting to my past and getting to the core of myself and my inner child. That feels really good.
GP: Do you have a particular artist that influenced your work?
HK: A few artists who have influenced me as a sculptor are Yayoi Kusama, Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois and Claes Oldenberg. A lot of people like to read art formally, but I have always been drawn to the psychology and emotion behind the work- all the messy stuff. Besides artists, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Tim Burton movies such as Beetlejuice, and different things I’m surrounded by which is currently all of my twins’ things. I was also really into raves when I was in my late teens and I think that culture definitely plays into my current work.
GP: How do your daughters react to your work?
HK: I used to bring them here a lot when they were newborns and couldn’t really touch anything, because I could work while they napped. As they grew older and more mobile, I stopped bringing them as much, but I did bring them here last spring right before my solo show at Platform Gallery in Baltimore, as well to the opening. It had been about a year since I brought them to the studio, and I couldn’t believe how much they had matured. One of the twins began explaining the work to the other, as if she were a curator, and she had a lot of say about it. They also kept saying “Ami Oni! Ami Oni!” when they saw the small “Little Twin Stars” sculpture, even though I hadn’t said anything about it. It’s like they have this sixth sense. More recently, I’ve been making their favorite foods such as watermelon, pizza and ice-cream, and they immediately recognize them and want to play with them. They even like to pretend to eat them. Also, my daughter Oni had a funny response to the studio. When we were getting ready to leave she started saying goodnight to all of the sculptures. She treated them anthropomorphically, which she doesn’t do with her toys at home. I really love to make work that they’re into. Whether that it consciously or subconsciously, they are who I am making the art for. My work has moved in that direction. When my daughters are excited about the work, it is really rewarding for me. This is also the first time I have made work that I want to bring home and live with, which I think it a good sign.
GP: You mentioned in your interview with Jasmin Hernandez of Gallery Gurls that your work is a balance of “Beautiful and Grotesque” What is this alternative reality you are creating?
HK: The imagery I make is definitely influenced by my girls and the imagery in their lives, like the books they read and the foods they like. I can’t allow the work to get too sweet or too innocent, however. There is always this level of perversion to me. The world is a combination of innocence and perversion and the tension between those two things. There are also a lot of extreme emotions in the work, like happiness and sadness. My solo show at Platform was titled “Joy and Pain”. The alternative reality I’m creating is a fantasy world that I enjoy and can express myself through. I’m thinking a lot about the roles of a mother and her children. I’ve made a few doubles and trios in the work that are referencing a mother and her two children based off of me and my daughters. A lot of the forms are still very feminine, but this work is not intended to be as blatantly about femininity like my previous body of work which was heavily referencing the female body and sexuality. Now I’m exploring other facets of my experience as a woman. I am exploring the world that my children live in. My children as so pure, and as adults there are times where we feel a longing to return to that. But we never can completely, and that is kind of sad. There is melancholy in that thought, and that appears in my work as well. I also just want to have fun. It’s an escape, and really comes down to the work making me happy. Who wouldn’t feel happy being surrounding by huge, colorful, spandex, organic shapes? It makes me laugh.
GP: Do you have any notable studio rituals?
HK: I make sure when I come to my studio that I meditate first thing. I’ve committed to that. I started becoming interested in meditation around 2006, but I didn’t stick with it consistently. About a year and a half ago I went through a terrible period of insomnia. Since then I’ve committing to meditating for a full 30 minutes right when I get into the studio. It has been really good for me.
GP: What are you working on next?
HK: I am thinking about clocks and might make some kinetic sculptures. We’ll see! I’ve also thought about moving away from spandex, and working with canvas again. I might bring more painting into my work, because I kind of miss it. I allow for the fluidity of working with different mediums and don’t want to define myself as only a sculptor. I miss the surprises that happen with paint, like the gooeyness. As an artist, I need to keep switching mediums to keep myself interested. I am in the mood for different things at different times. At this point, I feel settled into art. I tried a lot of different things when I was younger, but now it is all about art making and mothering.
- Metaxis Uber Pool, HILDE TX in collaboration with Tienda X Gallery, March 10th– April 14th, 2018, Houston, TX
- Hein Koh solo exhibition, Marvin Gardens, May 4th-– June 3rd, 2018, Ridgewood, NY
- Morir Soñando, curated by Alex Santana, Knockdown Center, June 22nd– August 19th, 2018, Maspeth, NY
- Holding Tight, curated by Mark Joshua Epstein and Stina Puotinen, Woskob Family Gallery, Penn State University, November 2018, State College, PA