About Huh Myoung-wook, the Lacquer Painter
Some will know Huh Myoung-wook as a metal craftsman. Others will remember him as a photographer. But those who’ve recently visited Gana Art Center will say Huh is a lacquer painter. And no one would be wrong, for Huh is all of the above. And he’s one of the artists to keep an eye on in Korea today.
Huh Myoung-wook Does It All
Huh Myoung-wook fits all of these descriptions: photographer, metal craftsman, painter and installation artist. But he calls himself simply “a man who does some work.” Back when he was making a name for himself shooting advertisement photos, Huh would shoot ads during the day and did personal work at night. And it led him on a path toward becoming an artist. Then he fell in love with metal craft. He enrolled in a college at a late age to study it. As if running in a relay, Huh then picked up lacquer painting. Lacquer is the traditional medium that has been used on finishing traditional craftwork, wood craftwork and metal craftwork in Korea. And for Huh, it’s a painting material. Metal panels, wood and fabrics naturally became Huh’s new canvas. His paintings look to be simply monochromatic, but in fact, Huh has spent at least six months on it, applying lacquer dozens of times in a room with a temperature set between 28~30℃ and humidity at 70%. And the color that is at once Oriental and contemporary is the one that Huh chose on that particular day, based on his positive feelings at the moment. As he created his colors and applied lacquer, Huh tried to project some good vibes onto his pieces. Huh hopes that those feelings will also resonate with people who see his works.
옻칠 페인팅 작업실에서 허명욱 작가

Huh Myoung-wook inside lacquer-painting atelier

Q. It all began in photography for you and now you’re doing paintings. Has it all happened organically?
A. Yes. Everything has happened so naturally. While I was doing ads, I wanted to do something more, and picked up metal craft. Each of my pursuits is just a small branch. What really matters is the artist’s feelings and sentiment. I often say my artistic works all start from feelings I had as a seven-year-old boy. I collected Astro Boy toys and felt comfort from them, and those feelings led to my Astro Boy pieces. Whether I work on craft, painting or objects, it’s all the same. They all come from me, so they’re one and the same. They contain the emotions and experiences I’ve had since I was a child.

Q. Even if it’s just passing curiosity, you’ll try to project onto your art.
A. Yes, because those feelings are really important. No matter what type of work I do, it’s the result of all the life experiences I’ve had. As an artist, one of my strengths is that, fortunately, I’ve done so many different things. I’ve been a photographer and an entrepreneur. I’ve left house and dropped out of school. I even used to sell stick rice cake to make ends meet. Experiences that I’ve had that others didn’t will rise to the surface for me. I may have failed at times but that’s still valuable experience that can help me in some ways.
허명욱 작가의 작업실

Huh Myoung-wook’s atelier

Q. Lacquer is not an easy material to work with because it’s sensitive to temperature and humidity. Why did you choose to use that to paint?
A. Lacquer best produced the color that I wanted to have. Colors are projections of my energy. For me, creating a color is putting my energy into it. I want to put some positive vibe into it. When I am not feeling great or not feeling energetic, I don’t work on colors. Instead, I try to control my emotions. For instance, I sandpaper or hammer on those days. Luckily, I do so many different things outside of making colors.
옻칠한 날짜가 적힌 색상 스틱들과 그의 작업 도구들

옻칠한 날짜가 적힌 색상 스틱들과 그의 작업 도구들

Colored sticks showing dates for lacquer painting work and Huh Myoung-wook’s tools

Q. So no two colors are the same for you, then?
A. Because I make colors based on my emotions of the moment, it’s just not possible to have the same colors. And I’ve also begun doing some stick work. To document and store these colors, I began making sticks. You’d see dates like March 5, April 25, and June 15, 2017, on these sticks. They are the days when I did my lacquer painting. It takes about eight days to apply lacquer five times and come up with one stick. A piece that had 600 sticks needed 4,800 days to complete. To finish one piece, it takes at least six months, and sometimes over a year.

Q. This is very time consuming. And ‘time’ is an important element to your works. What does time mean to you?
A. Time passes as I do my work, though I don’t work just to pass time (laughs). For me, time is just a very natural thing. Just as a leaf falls from a tree and then a new bud will come up, time is something that comes natural to me. I keep working with lacquer until I feel it’s all complete, and colors, fabrics and sticks have accumulated over time. When it’s all finished, time has built up, too, along with my experience and the positive vibes that I put into colors.
<칠하다> 전시장 전경, 가나아트센터 © 허명욱

View of Huh Myoung-wook’s exhibition, “Overlaying,” at Gana Art Center © Huh Myoung-wook

Q. Time becomes a property of matter for you. The exhibition you recently had at Gana Art Center was titled “Overlaying.” Did you have a say in that naming?
A. Yes, I named it so. And an exhibition at Arario Gallery three years ago was also called “Overlaying.” If you look up the Korean word in dictionary, there’s also the meaning of repeating some act. I repeatedly paint and accumulate. Building up colors and sticks is also part of that ‘overlaying.’ Repeated acts over a period of a year, two years or four years lead to finished pieces.

Q. Though you may not have intended it, many people talk about ‘time’ through your works and they see ‘accumulation of time’ from them. What was the message you wanted to deliver?
A. I tried to keep projecting positive feelings and vibes onto my works. When our forefathers made ink-and-wash paintings, they made sure they had a clean body and put so much into each stroke. I think I am doing something similar. It is labor intensive, but ultimately, I am trying to give people positive energy. I talk to fellow artists often about responsibilities as artists. Without really knowing, all artists are putting their emotions into their works. If you’re happy at work, then your finished pieces will show that. And that will be conveyed to people who see them. For our audience and collectors, we have to work with a sense of responsibility.

Q. Your top priority has been to pass positive energy on to others.
A. Sometimes, people who’ve bought my Astro Boys reach out to me and say, ‘This boy is smiling at me’ or ‘When I come home from work, the Astro Boy is the only one that greets me at the door. Thank you so much.’ The same feelings I had as a kid have been conveyed to them. I think the role of art and artists is to share these positive energy with others. The world will be a better place then (laughs). 
<칠하다> 전시장 전경, 가나아트센터 © 허명욱

<칠하다> 전시장 전경, 가나아트센터 © 허명욱

View of Huh Myoung-wook’s exhibition, “Overlaying,” at Gana Art Center © Huh Myoung-wook

Art Becomes Part of Life
Huh has that single-minded determination when it comes to his craft. “This is everything for me,” he said, with an innocent look on his face but in a serious tone in his voice. Huh has set up a studio in Yongin, just outside Seoul. When I called to ask him about the best time of the day to visit him there, he always said, “I am there from early in the morning, so you can come any time.” We met at 2 p.m., not too early or too late in the day. It had only been two days since his solo exhibition “Overlaying” opened at Gana Art Center. Huh, who says working is his way of resting and it gives him all the inspiration and solutions to life’s problems, was right in his element that day: decked out in a black jumpsuit and working. It can be tedious if you just do the same thing over and over again every day, but not for Huh. What may seem to be a painful pursuit is fun for him.
1 작업실 옆에 위치한 쇼룸

1 작업실 옆에 위치한 쇼룸

1 작업실 옆에 위치한 쇼룸

The showroom next to Atelier No. 1

Q. You’re here from 9 to 8, and you don’t really take weekends off. Don’t you find it hard sometimes?
A. If you’ve seen my painting room, you’d know that it’s suffocating in there. To do lacquering and drying every day, the room temperature has to be maintained at 25~30℃ and the humidity must be kept over 70% throughout the year. It feels like a stifling summer day during a monsoon season. If I am there the whole day, I’ll be drenched in sweat. But I do it because I enjoy the energy from the process and the result, and I enjoy the act itself. If I didn’t have fun doing it, I’d never be able to do it. It gives me great, positive energy, and I use that energy to make colors. It’s a good cycle.

Q. Do you get easily immersed in a single pursuit?
A. I am actually quite impatient (laughs). But the work I am doing now requires a lot of patience, because it takes so much time. What I can do is that, while waiting for one thing to finish, I can go do other things in the meantime. They complement each other. It’s important for an artist to keep working, because it always leads to some new project.

Q. How would you define Huh Myoung-wook the person, not the artist?
A. For me, work is everything. I put in my work every day, and I think all the answers can be found in the work I do. For instance, when I got conned, this work became my therapy. I think I’ll do this until the moment I die.

A video showing Huh Myoung-wook at work. You could tell the passage of time by the changing scenery behind the door. © Huh Myoung-wook

Ateliers, Huh Myoung-wook’s Universe
Huh Myoung-wook has three ateliers, all in buildings looking like nice suburban galleries or cafes. Atelier No. 2 is made up of two buildings, and No. 1 is about a three-minute drive from it. No. 3 is under construction. They’re all filled with cabinets holding plates lacquered in yellow, green, brown and orange and a work bench with hammers and other tools lined up, plus other objects. There are some other fascinating details. Tables, chairs, speakers and lighting switches all seem in perfect sync with the interior. Huh has designed and built everything. This is Huh’s version of Neverland, a place where he wants to devote all of his energy to his craft. He said photographs, objets, art furniture and paintings there are all connected like a Mobius strip.
나무로 둘러싸인 쇼룸 전경

The showroom surrounded by trees

가지런히 놓인 작업 도구들. 복잡함 속에 규칙이 있다.

Work tools are lined up neatly. There is a pattern within that seeming chaos.

Q. How did you come across this location?
A. I spotted it at once. When I first came, it was just a rundown buildings, but I fell in love with the surroundings and the mountain nearby. If the mountain is too high, it can be intimidating. But it’s too low, it’s not as exciting. Here, it is just at the right height and it’s very pretty. It gives off some comfortable energy, too. I decided this was where I wanted to come. The owner wouldn’t sell it, and I waited for six months and I paid three times the market price.

Q. There are a lot of doors and windows to every room.
A. I wanted to feel the nature since I am smack in the middle of it. Atelier No. 1 doesn’t have any threshold. I wanted to let the nature flow into the studio. When it rains or snow, the place is exposed to those elements. The wind will blow in, and you can feel those trees, too.
스위치부터 주전자와 컵, 테이블까지, 모두 허명욱 작가의 손을 거쳐 탄생했다.

스위치부터 주전자와 컵, 테이블까지, 모두 허명욱 작가의 손을 거쳐 탄생했다.

스위치부터 주전자와 컵, 테이블까지, 모두 허명욱 작가의 손을 거쳐 탄생했다.

Huh Myoung-wook had his hands on everything from switch to kettle to cups and table.

Q. There was quite a bit of tableware at Atelier No. 1.
A. Their origins can be explained right there. At first, I only had that one studio. The showroom was to serve guests from galleries or from out of town. So I decided to make some tableware for decoration. I was serving them coffee and desserts, but there weren’t any dishes or plates that I liked. I also didn’t like the tea pot. I used to do metal craft, so I decided to make a few of my own. One thing led to another and I ended up with so many pieces. I needed a larger table, and with that many plates, I needed a cabinet. So the work expanded. I didn’t make them to sell but to use for myself. One gallery offered to have an exhibition with them, and only then I started selling them.
2 작업실 2층의 다이닝 공간

The dining room on the second floor at Atelier No. 2

Q. Why did you set up the dining room on the second floor of Atelier 2?
A. That’s for my staff. I do all the painting, but I have people helping me out with tableware. Some help with hammering and others do the soldering work. And at the end, I apply my colors and my energy to finish it off. When I hire people, I look for characters. If you spend enough time at the studio, work will take care of itself. That’s how the system that I’ve built works. But if I hire someone who has great skills but is a bad person, he will take his bad vibes and negative energy to his works. That’s a disaster.
That’s why we need that dining space. I set up a coffee machine, with fresh beans and desserts, so that my staff can relax and recharge. A few times a week, I hold a morning meeting there. But I don’t just go around the table and tell people what they’re supposed to do. We just sit around and talk about what we did for fun. When people talk about those things, they feel happy, and it is written all over their faces. And then I say, ‘Let’s get to work!’ You’ll be carrying those feelings over to the studio.
언제나 햇빛으로 가득한 그의 작업실

언제나 햇빛으로 가득한 그의 작업실

His atelier is always well lit.

Q. Why did you decide to open Hannam Atelier?
A. People wanted me to brew coffee and serve desserts for them. I’d get a lot of Instagram messages. “Where is your studio? Can I come visit?” People on gallery VIP tours visited my place, took pictures and uploaded them on their Instagram. So the word got around and people who wanted to be served by an artist started reaching out. But obviously, I couldn’t just invite them over individually. So I opened Hannam Atelier. Lee Seong-ran, who designed Atelier 2 here helped me with the process.

Q. That’s why it was named ‘Atelier.’ 
A. Yes, I even did some actual work there early on. Hannam Atelier isn’t profitable, to be honest. For Lee and myself, there’s only one reason we’re running that place. We want people to come in, relax and have a good time. They don’t have to buy anything; for the price of a cup of coffee, you can still experience art there.
아톰 가면을 쓰고 있는 어린 아이 피규어. 어린 아이의 모델은 허명욱 작가 본인이다.

A figure of a child wearing the Astro Boy mask. The boy was inspired by the young Huh Myoung-wook himself.

Q. Your third atelier is being constructed, and what is the ideal atelier in your mind?
A. Did you see a book on the table on the second floor showroom? There’s a photo of Donald Judd’s workroom there. I’ve had that book open for a long time, and that’s the type of atelier I want for myself. I’ve just had this idea that it’d be really great if I could work in a place like that. And then someone told me my new atelier will be even better than what Judd had. My dream came true. My imagination is becoming reality, and it gives me a feeling of accomplishment. When I try to figure out what I am supposed to do for the public, responses from the audience will have the same effect on me. They’re giving me the answers. And they help me keep going.
August 2020 Editor:Kim Hyewon
Photographer:Ahn Garam

Where to stay?

  • August 2020
  • Editor: Kim Hyewon
  • Photographer: Ahn Garam
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