Jeena Shin interview

by Hanna Scott / 14 May, 2011
Jeena Shin enjoys the freedom and “different challenge” of large-scale wall paintings that operate at the seam of architecture and art.
Auckland artist Jeena Shin is on a roll, with a suite of public gallery exhibitions since 2007 where she has painted directly onto the walls of the galleries, including City Gallery Wellington and Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in Auckland. Starting with her “hazard yellow” wall paintings, the works have evolved into restrained permutations of black, white and grey. Her two latest projects are at either end of the country.

At Artspace in Auckland, Shin has just completed a project in the entrance stairwell. Her wall painting is at the threshold where the gallery meets the street. It is a perfect zone for Shin, who says, “architectural details affect what I do”. In 2009, she was invited to work in the stairwell for up to three years in a very open, experimental way. Emma Bugden, then director at Artspace, “asked me to treat it as a space to try out new things”, says Shin. The project was like having an open studio. “I could test out ideas at Artspace and then do it at other places.”

On show simultaneously, at Dunedin Public Art Gallery, is her ­­­largest-ever commission at a whopping 23 metres wide by seven metres high. She says, laughing: “When I first got here, I panicked, but now it doesn’t seem that big.” After working with that very dramatic scale, she wants to “encourage people to get closer instead of viewing it from one position”. Unlike the Artspace stairwell, where people tread up and down amidst the work, Dunedin’s wall is viewed from “lookout” positions or approached from the side. It is this movement of the visitor, and their perceptions, that Shin is intent on playing with.

She is driven to make large-scale wall paintings because, in her words, “it enhances and activates looking”. Her works operate at the boundary between real architectural space and the imaginary painted space. She says it’s “a freedom and a different challenge” to be operating at the seam of architecture and art.

Using two key ingredients, light and tone, Shin creates variation, pattern and repetition. She has started using high-gloss paint, which reflects light, and combines this with tone-on-tone variations of tenderly subtle white and grey. In Dunedin, she adapts the raking light coming from the side window and skylight above as a changing palette. With her work, light is always part of the equation; the time of day has a big effect on the experience, she says. The light both “softens and hardens” the work. “Gloss is another way of introducing that perception of light into the work. It takes advantage of the different light conditions.”

Shin becomes almost evangelical talking about colour. “It’s a way of looking at things. Colour pulsates and expands when you are looking at it. It’s a medium in itself, not just a colour.”

Her work as an abstract painter of real scale achieved recognition last month when she was announced as the recipient of the inaugural Artspace Korean residency. In July, she will stay for two months at Changdong Art Studio, Seoul. The residency is an exchange scheme, supported by the Asia New Zealand Foundation. In tandem with Shin’s visit, a Korean-based artist will stay in Auckland at AUT University.

Shin was born in Korea, and sees the residency as an opportunity to research Korean minimalist painting and its relationship to similar impulses in Europe and the US. “There was a strong group of abstract painters active during the 1970s in Asia” and she wants to “find the connection between them and my own practice in a way”. The pared-back pattern formations in her work are developed from sources such as fractal mathematics and the ancient paper folding art of origami.

Shin’s wall paintings crystallize her ambitions and are what she is best known for. Her two latest works operate in quite different ways: the Auckland project stretches out through time, and the Dunedin project extends scale. But either way, the light dredging the surface of her work and the subtle perceptual changes that result are an experience of almost religious intensity.

JEENA SHIN: STAIRWELL PROJECT, Artspace, Auckland; JEENA SHIN: FRACTUS, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, May 7-October 30.

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