Younhee Paik (MFA, 1973) and Eric Carson (MFA, 2017)—whose practices draw parallels between natural and human systems—converse on SFAI, art, and the interconnectedness of it all.
Carson is the inaugural recipient for Paik’s annual scholarship exhibition at her Studio for Art and Music, inspired by her time at SFAI in the 1970s and her mentor, professor Bruce McGaw. Eric Carson: The New Cosmograph is on view June 12 through July 10, with an opening reception on June 10.
Younhee Paik (YP): So I graduated a long time ago, in 1973—maybe before you were born.
Eric Carson (EC): I was born in 1983. I love that. I will graduate this year, of course.
YP: I’m that much older and you are twice taller than me.
EC: (Laughs) How was SFAI when you were there?
YP: Wonderful. It was my place of inspiration. I really liked the freedom in the school. It was a long time ago, it was hippie time. I just spent all day there. I couldn’t speak English, so all I can do is just paint.
I had a BFA from Korea, but I wanted to take a couple of undergraduate courses at SFAI before I applied to graduate school. Some of my teachers were Bruce McGaw, Arden Knight, and Julius Hatofsky—who later became my advisor in graduate school. He didn’t speak much but whenever he make some comment, it was really important to me. He was my mentor for 40 years, along with Bruce [McGaw].
There is a long story before I got into graduate school—the first time I failed. I was so sad, and wanted to go back to home to Korea. I went to my teacher Julius [Hatofsky] to ask for a recommendation, and explained my situation: that I wanted to go to graduate school before I started a family. He listened to me and said, “I consider again.” He went back to his friend Alvin Light—who was the dean at the time—at Harrison’s Bar, where they were always drinking. When he came back, he said “Younhee, I think you are accepted.”
I’d gotten into a MFA program finally, and was so excited. I had been asked to bring up several original works to the interview, and I drove up to San Francisco from San Luis Obispo with five medium-sized painting on top of my Volkswagen. We tied the paintings well on the way to the Art Institute, but not well afterwards; in the middle of the trip, the paintings flew off!
YP: Luckily it didn’t cause any car accidents, and soon after there were eight highway patrol blocking the Bayshore Freeway. So we dashed and collected all five paintings—I was able to save some of them. I still have one painting in Korea.
The second I started graduate school, SFAI was really an inspirational place. I felt like it was a big moment, whispering to me, “For the rest of your life, you cannot live without painting.” Ever since then I really didn’t think about anything else than painting. Even though I had a baby later on, every day I painted—I only slept five hours for 20 years. So that was the beginning of my San Francisco Art Institute influence. What about you?
EC: Well, I grew up in Washington State, and I got a bachelor’s degree at Central Washington University, where I had a couple of really good teachers. I worked for about 10 years after school in an operations department at a museum. That really shaped my practice—I knew what I wanted to paint. It showed me the way that art has to interface with philanthropy and institutional structures to be exhibited. My practice became about making these really dense, symbolic drawings.
During this time, I met my partner, and we got married. She is a social worker—a real artist. I got into SFAI, and we moved to San Francisco two years ago.
What’s been really great for me at SFAI is that it’s not limited—like you said. I came in painting and I have done everything since. I came specifically to study with Dewey Crumpler and Tim Berry, but along the way every faculty member has pushed me. I’ve really grown my practice away from pseudo-religious imagery and into visual structures that can include all kinds of things.
YP: Are you religious?
EC: I grew up really Catholic, and that was my spiritual language for a long time until I broke away from that. I bring that kind of critique and ritual into my work.
YP: My paintings have something religious about them too. I’m Christian, but I really believe all religions are all about truth. I think art, philosophy, science, and religion form a pyramid, all reaching towards truth.
EC: I agree. You can track the evolution of right wing Christianity from the Abrahamic tradition; Zen Buddhism all the way back to its Hindu origin; or postmodern discourse to Ancient Greece. They’re all approaching this same point. Likewise, our current society’s late stage capitalism is another kind of growth that has to be considered in this larger picture of evolution. I think that’s what art can do.
I keep looking at the cathedral floor plans in your work, and see parallels with my own. I think that the imposition of those Romanesque floor plans onto another natural grid—the stars—also shows a truth.
YP: Yes, I try to combine the universe, Heaven and the Earth. That’s why I put the architecture of Earth—the floor plan—with the stars: a bird’s eye view.
YP: I’m glad the Art Institute faculty choose you so you can connect my painting.
EC: Me too. Our work fits together really well because you have these star patterns, topographies, and cathedral patterns.
Are you familiar with the idea of a fractal? It’s a shape that contains and grows within itself, like a seashell. It’s like a spiral, a fractal of quarter circles. That’s one of the patterns that I look at in my work, and tie conceptually to other ideas: like a star’s cycle of explosion and formation, or feudalism becoming capitalism.
YP: Your paintings contain more science, right?
EC: I would say so, but it’s all a question of scale. We look at ourselves in church; we look at stars in the galaxy; we look at the galaxy as a super cluster—and it can go out from there.
Also, the way we both push painting with scale is interesting.
YP: Yes, I started pushing my paintings towards installation about 20 years ago, around the time my mother passed away. She was in the hospital for a year and a half, and could only look up at an empty ceiling. This inspired me to think about how else to hang my work, especially since my mother always encouraged me to pursue my work. I was thinking about her all the time, and started painting the sky for her, intended to hang on the ceiling. My first installation of this series was displayed in the TOTAL Museum in Korea (1999); I named it “Invitation for Rest,” as I want her to rest well.
As I did more paintings, I thought I could put them on the floor and on the ceiling, so they can echo each other. I’ve done almost 70 pieces now.
EC: Right on.
YP: I paint on the floor with lots of water and pour paint, like dye, so it can smear and make interesting mistakes. While it’s spreading, I shake the canvas—a very spontaneous and unpredictable technique. I love the use of water—it’s always my inspiration.
EC: Well, there’s a lot there. The process of gravity and dye making the imagery creates the same pattern as a star making a nebula in space, just at a different scale.
EC: I started pushing the scale of my paintings here at SFAI. I was doing work primarily with acrylic and markers at first, and got inspired by the large-scale work of Paul Laffoley, which blurs the line between art and craft. That idea pushed me into making an architectural model: a three-dimensional way to read my paintings. From there I made a deck of playing cards, and then ventured to installation with a floor to ceiling piece in the Diego Rivera Gallery. It was an interactive blind spot test where people could come up to it and move these magnetic tiles, which were loaded with various imagery and logos from the internet, such as iconography from Instagram, the United States’ political parties, and a Navajo sand painting. When the nodes were moved, new connections were formed—both arbitrary and personal. To me it mimics how we look at the internet. Everyday I photographed how people interacted with the piece.
YP: So you let people play with it freely?
EC: Yes, but within a mandala structure—I see it as a similar way someone might navigate my paintings visually.
EC: So tell me why you were inspired to found this scholarship for current students like myself?
YP: I always thought I had so much luck in my life. My parents provided so much to me, my children grew up well, and I was able to paint every day. I feel like God gave me too much, so I like to give to other people too. My father always said that we should give back to society, so when I built this house I knew that this going to be a place for community. I had a thought as I was hanging my paintings in the space, that I could share the space with someone else’s work from the Art Institute. I founded this scholarship from this idea.
Additionally, I’ve been teaching art classes to 14 special needs children for the past three years. Before I started this program, I was volunteering Creative Growth and thought, “Why can’t I use one of my rooms?” Sometimes I learn more than I give because their minds are so pure and very genuine.
EC: It’s helpful for me to have the opportunity that you’re providing because it’s going to keep me in the area. It’s always great to meet other artists who are practicing and made a career out of it. That’s my aspiration as well, so the example is appreciated. I’ll be able to carry momentum from the Graduate Exhibition and can just continue to build, like you said, from show to show to show.
YP: When I finished graduate school, I was working in the garage at that time but there was no place to show. So, you know what I did? I started approaching galleries.
EC: You just walked in cold?
YP: I just walked in and said, “Would you like to see my work?” Ever since then I had many shows. I’ve had more than 45 one person exhibitions, and museum shows in Korea, and in the United States at the Triton Museum and San Jose Museum show.
EC: That’s amazing, good for you.
YP: I had courage but I didn’t have any idea what I was doing.
EC: Yeah, give me some advice.
YP: Be courageous. You just have to show everything. Don’t worry what curators or gallerists say, or how they act. You might feel insulted, but next morning just erase it and you go back to painting.
EC: Right on.
Eric Carson: The New Cosmograph is on view June 12‑July 10 by appointment at Younhee Paik’s Studio for Art and Music—opening reception on June 10 from 6-10pm and a special musical performance on June 11 at 3pm. »
New work by Younhee Paik will open September 14 at Mills College—In-Between Places: Korean-American Artists in the Bay Area»
Image credits: 1) Photo by Marco David; 2) Eric Carson, Mandala #31, 2016; Gouache on paper, 24 x 18 inches; 3) Eric Carson, Banner of Heaven, 2016; Acrylic on canvas, 93 x 60 inches; 4-8) Photos by Marco David; 9) Eric Carson, Mandala #33 (blind spot test), 2017; 10) Eric Carson, Detail of Mandala #33 (blind spot test), 2017; 11) Photo by Marco David.