David Heo on His Life and Art

by Rubén Palma
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David Heo is a Korean-American image maker known for his multidisciplinary practice that seamlessly combines painting, collaging, and various mediums and symbologies. He is inspired by ancient Western mythologies, hyper-saturated 90s animation, and the dualities of hybrid culture, which he incorporates into his work to create anecdotes that recall nostalgia.

Heo’s practice echoes Deconstructivist tendencies that relate to the fragmentation of surfaces and structures. He often incorporates motifs that refer to the harmonies and dissonances between two uniquely South Korean identity-based political beliefs: Han and Jeong. Heo believes they are synonymous with one another and creates a vision of liminal space by flowing between representation and abstraction.

His distinctly bold style is heavily informed by his interpretations of the Asian-American experience and its intersection with American popular culture, iconography, and western art history. Heo employs a variety of techniques, including chopping, skewing, and presenting his work to create disjointed narratives that allow viewers to experience his thought process as he samples between his American and South Korean identities.

He received his MFA in 2018 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and creates artwork that flirts with a variety of genres, including large-scale paintings, works on paper, mural paintings, and brand collaborations. Heo uses elemental materials such as acrylic, paper collage, and crayon to create an intricate interlacing of layers. He intimately improvises between abstraction and biography, synthesizing his lived experiences through his many influences, including short stories, Cy Twombly, and anime.

Hi David, thank you for sitting down with me. First question. What does a regular day look like for you in Chicago?

Hi, no, thank you! A regular day in Chicago for me means a studio day. I’m blessed because my new studio is actually within walking distance from my apartment. So I’ll wake up, turn on the coffee machine, and start getting ready. After that, I’ll put on my headphones and think about my tasks for the day as I walk the commute. I really think it’s a cool thing to be a pedestrian and be able to absorb the city I live in. It prompts different thoughts every day.

Once I’m in the studio though, I typically stay till night hits—so around 9-10ish? After that, depending if the day was hard or not, one of my favorite bars is on the way back home so I’ll pop in for a single beer to decompress a little.

I’m curious.. Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, what kind of kid were you? What did you enjoy doing and how did you spend your time?

I was actually a very quiet kid, so I spent a lot of time living in my own head. Reading was comforting, as well as drawing. It wasn’t till much later in my life that I would blossom into more of a social butterfly.

Also, I didn’t grow up in Atlanta. The town where I grew up was about an hour north—it’s called Acworth. Despite the spectrum of redneck energies that existed there, it was a very beautiful area to grow up in. I was always surrounded by such tall trees, and the mountains were close too. Looking back, I was really lucky to be able to absorb all that as a child. 

Your style of chopping and skewing, along with combining: painting, collaging, and various mediums and symbols. Can you talk to me about how long it has taken you to develop it, into the look it has now? Different stages, etc…

I started exploring mixed mediums during graduate school. The early days of my exploration were heavily inspired by looking at Jacob Lawerence and Henri Matisse. How they manipulated different materials to create a wide range of expressions was really cool. Also, the dedication and passion they each had for their practice left a huge impression.

I only recently decided to immerse myself back into collaging. Lately, my gut has been hinting that there’s more there for me to uncover—a secret landscape overgrown with inspirations. Obviously, I will forever love painting, especially canvas painting, but I accepted that I’m not interested in expanding that specific narrative or pursuing a vocation as a ‘painter’s painter.’ I respect the canonical history revolving around it and want to continue the conversation. But I’m going to continue doing so with a different approach, a curious and personal approach. 

As a visual artist, I’d rather have discussions on significant questions such as “How do we expand to actually include more into our gatekept notions of the visual arts?” or “What does a sustainable art practice look like today?” 

These discussions are being re-examined from a generation that has been informed by so many new facets of information and inspirations, you know? It’s pretty exciting to witness all the other emerging artists, gallerists, dealers, and administrators do their own cool shit too. There’s so much new life being transferred into the ‘monolithic’ art world right now. I’m grateful to be a part of this current generation of artistry. We’re all actively learning as we go.

With that in mind. Can you walk me through your creative process? From initial idea, to end result? And also mention your approach to color.

I’m a pretty forgetful person. So whenever I have an idea, I always have to get it down as a loose sketch as a way to remember the general composition—whether that’s through Procreate or on the back of a receipt. After I decide on what the image will be, I’ll redraw and transfer that onto larger sheets of paper.

After that’s all laid out, I’ll cut out the shapes and forms I planned. The rest is following my gut intuition. That gamble and trust are how I come up with all the color choices, textural contrasts, and extra forms. This personal process feels like a nice response to all the rigid forms I created and cut out. All the other little visual details? Those get added too onto during this whole process.

So by the end, the finished piece is completely unexpected yet maintains an echo of the initial sketch. I enjoy that dynamic. There’s a natural balance that teeters between planned thoughtfulness and responsive spontaneity. My creative process is just repetitions of that harmony.

Western mythologies, 90s animation, and the dualities of hybrid culture. What is it about those themes that resonate so well with you, and makes you want to incorporate them into your work?

I don’t think there’s been specific enough conversation about what a massive impact the rise of technology has had on my current generation of artists, including me. That’s especially true for animation—there was just SO much going on. Cartoon Network or Toonami are examples that come to mind for me. Or how electrically vibrant candy packaging was in the 90s up until the early 2000s. Everything was just so bright then! Looking back now, that constant exposure and mass absorption of vivid colors and wild imagery left an impression on me.

Honestly, hybrid culture is too vast a concept for me to parse out alone. I think that’s a collective effort to figure out. But when I say ‘hybrid cultures,’ I’m personally referring to this recent sociological term called ‘Third Culture Kids’ or ‘TCK’ for short. Nick Voci wrote about it in 1994 for the Vancouver Sun: 

“Third culture kids have a unique place in any society to which they belong. Theirs is a confusing and quite often debilitative condition. They are confronted with cultural walls or pitfalls at every turn. Unable to completely relate to their parent’s culture and yet at the same time labeled as ‘different’ from the mainstream culture they are encouraged to belong to, they are basically cut adrift and left to float in a sort of ‘twilight zone’ state. They form a cultural hybrid, a blend of cultures that can be interesting, but also confusing and frustrating to them.”

This definition of ‘hybrid culture’ heavily informs my art in all its forms. Because this is the space where my real-life experiences come from. And I’m still trying to understand what ‘Third Culture’ means to me—it’s one of the larger concepts that I have to keep navigating for the rest of my life. I believe this is an important discussion to continue having, especially as we witness more and more generations of TCKs grow into themselves.

So for your current works, you’ve been thinking a lot about “duality” and “symbology.” Why are those topics interesting to you?

Symbology has always played a heavy influence on my work. That residual impact comes from all the legends and tales I’ve read since I was young. That aspect will never disappear from my work. I’m still trying to figure out why it’s still so interesting to me.

As for dualities, I think I naturally gravitated toward principles and concepts that express contrasts or opposites. I’m not saying as grand as what the Yin and Yang represent or anything. But it could be, for example, as simple as a sunrise and a sunset. 

More specifically, as I continue navigating what my South Korean heritage means to me, I’m simultaneously understanding my identity as an American. But what even is the ‘American’ identity? I’m realizing that it might be, violence. It’s a really sad conclusion to come to.

I read somewhere that growing up you could sometimes be confused about your personal identity, being that you are South Korean and American, so you spoke Korean at home, and listened to Korean folk tales. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

My parents each immigrated from South Korea in the 80s and ended up meeting in rural Texas. Eventually, they decided to settle in Georgia where I was born and raised. At home, I was taught South Korean traditions and cultures while simultaneously learning about Southern beliefs and cultures attending public schools. There were a lot of cases like this. I appreciate, in hindsight, how the intertwining of these different cultural wires ended up forming the internal tapestry that makes me. 

Moving to Chicago when I was 18 definitely added so much more into that too.

I still vibe with it here. This city has a reputation for ‘broad shoulders.’ It’s a city that is built from and for hard workers. I love that because that narrative reminds me of each of my parents’ personal immigration journeys. This hybridity of identities: South Korean, Southern, and Chicagoan, transforms into a conceptual Neapolitan ice cream. That mixed space is where my artwork comes from—it takes big scoops too.

Has coming from a mixed background influenced your artwork in any way?

I would definitely say so, 600% yes.

My process of image-making is reflective of that layering. For example, with collage, there’s a poetic transference that happens for me when combining all the cut sheets of painted paper. It becomes a process of literal stacking, filled with gestures and memories. All that mixed materiality and their individual textures can be in reference to how densely layered my identity is.

What do you hope that we, the observers, take with us after viewing some of your paintings? And what are you aiming to convey?

Not really. I wouldn’t say there’s a specific message that I’m trying to convey with my work. Because I’m still learning so much about myself over time and my practice is trying to keep up with that. They feed into each other. 

But some of the sources and subject matters that inspire me haven’t changed. For example, empathy and melancholy are two large concepts that have constantly informed my work. The South Korean equivalent to those notions would be Jeong and Han

If anything, ‘Human-ness’ is something that I hope people can bring it back to, whether that’s through the materiality or the narratives that inspire me.

Your current solo exhibition at Hashimoto Contemporary, is titled “Mythos”. Can you tell me how you came up with that title? What’s the story behind it? 

I ignorantly thought that ‘mythos’ was a synonym for ‘mythology…’ until I googled it again. Unsurprisingly, it does mean ‘mythology’ but it can also be defined as a traditional or recurrent narrative theme or plot structure’ or a set of beliefs or assumptions about something.’ So I felt inspired by thinking about all three of those definitions. 

For this body of work, I decided to directly reflect back on my own personal beliefs, my mythos, and draw further from the mythological world my practice has been creating. That’s where a lot of those pieces came from for this show. 

Aside from that, the title is pretty straightforward. I’ve always appreciated how musicians or directors title their works too. Because the title is a contextual cue to what it’s going to be about. ‘Mythos’ is that.

What motivates you?

It might sound corny, but living and deliberately taking advantage of time. Because there’s only so much time we get to have on this planet. I don’t mean that in an ‘Oh shit! Carpe Diem, bro’ way nor in a contemporary ‘hustle-or-die’ mentality either. It’s simply that there’s so much to see out there, you know? 

I’d like to continue experiencing as much as I can—that’s pretty motivating for me.

How would you describe a perfect day?

What’s the season? Because winter in Chicago sucks, it’s freezing. It’s really nice to be able to work in my studio all day and escape the harsh and brutal reality that’s outside. Making art becomes a big sanctuary of respite for me during this time.

When it’s sunny and hot though? I like to start my morning outside, to read and sunbathe, slightly blazed too, with a coffee. I mean, that sounds pretty perfect to me and like ideal conditions to come from before I choose to either go into the studio or go explore the day.

Alright David. These last two questions I always ask at the end of an interview. The first one goes: What’s your favorite movie(s) and why?

I hate this question. It’s so tough. But I’d have to say Romeo + Juliet, the 1996 version. There are so many reasons why too. Have you seen it recently? It’s a vibe and a visual feast. 

And the second: What songs are you listening to the most right now?  

My taste in music is all over the place, so you can’t judge, but here are the songs that are up in the queue on my Spotify:

  1. “Alone” by Night Lovell
  2. “Yonaguni” by Bad Bunny
  3. “Shady” by Hubstcy
  4. “No Role Modelz” by J. Cole
  5. “Eternal Sunshine” by Lou Val
  6. “Catching Eyes” by 49th & Main

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