Through painting, video, sculpture, animation, music, and installation art multidisciplinary world builder JooYoung Choi documents the interconnecting narratives of a highly-structured, expansive fictional land called the Cosmic Womb.
Since receiving her MFA from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Choi’s artwork has been exhibited in such venues as Contemporary Art Museum Houston, Project Row Houses, The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Seattle, Washington; The National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, Illinois; and Lawndale Art Center, Houston, Texas.
JooYoung joins us for a brief discussion about her work.
A: You received the Artadia Award in 2015. Can you tell us a little about what you were working on at that time?
J: 2015 was a big year for me concerning video art, interactive installation and painting. For 9 months I was an artist in residency at the Lawndale Art Center in Houston, TX. During that time, I made a list of everything I felt I still struggled with as a painter. I made myself a curriculum and invested in books about color, form and design. I gave myself homework assignments which included color exercises from Wucius Wong’s Principles of Form and Design and Josef Albers interaction of color, and composition and form exercises by Dorr Bothwell and Maryls Mayfied’s book Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design. Understanding Notan, changed my understanding of how to make paintings and I fell in love with the challenge of creating dynamic compositions that were also visually balanced. I left the residency seeing the act of painting differently, it had become a welcomed challenge a game like three dimensional chess, or a type of cosmic visual math.
Also around this time, I began teaching myself how to use adobe premiere pro, I learned how to use chroma key and create video art, mixing hand drawn animation, and puppets with music I composed on a Casio keyboard.
I created my first two puppets during that year with patterns from Project Puppet (Dallas, TX). Around the end of my residency, I was asked to participate in an exhibition at Diverseworks, a curator named Rachel Cook had visited my studio and felt that how I worked and organized my space could make for an interesting installation. At the time I was building tiny sets, making puppets and creating costumes for video art project. She explained that we could reinstall my studio into the art space as an installation. I honestly didn’t understand why she would want to do that. As we moved all my CRT TVs, VHS machines, costumes, sets, and puppets into the space, I learned that people wanted to interact with my art and help me create work, and that this could become an integral component of process.
After my solo exhibition at a local gallery, I found myself increasingly interested in sculpture. I wanted to know what a sculpture created by me would even look like. What was the difference between puppets and sculpture? I also wanted to see the characters from my paintings in 3 dimensions and at scale, and also, I wanted to build things that were bigger than me. The Artadia Award allowed me to do just that, after receiving the award, I planned two important trips to help me understand sculpture. I went to New York, and spent three days dedicated to the Met, taking notes, and seeing what types of sculpture I was drawn to, and why. Then I went to Disneyworld and signed up to go on a tour behind the scenes to see the animatronics, sets and costumes. I went to Disneyworld because it was the first immersive installation environment that impressed me as a child. When I was 8 I went to Disneyworld, and I remember the Peterpan ride malfunctioned, we were travelling over a tiny model of a city, I remember being scared, but as my eyes adjusted, I realized, “oh these are just tiny cars like the ones I have at home, these are buildings I could make”. Over the years I have looked back at that memory fondly, thinking about how much I liked the feeling of knowing that this immersive art experience made me feel as if I was as high up as the plane that brought us to Florida. I realized that art was powerful, and that it could bring about extreme feelings of fear and wonder, all at the same time.
During that trip, I went on the same rides multiple times, furiously sketching everything I felt might inform my new sculpture project. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone thought I was a spy from Universal Studios or Six Flags, considering the copious notes I was taking. After I returned I was able to use funding from my Artadia grant to experiment with large scale sculpture. I mixed carpentry with quilting materials and created “Freedom From Madness” my first sculpture involving wood and fabric.
Here is a time lapse showing me trying out a number of techniques, finally finding a method of making that would become my standard soft sculpture process. The music was something I composed around the time this sculpture was created.
This project was inspired by a painting from 2015, featuring a character named Spacia Tanno.
From there, I began wondering what the repercussions of this character’s decision to rebel and escape could be. Who else was involved, who is this Lady Madness? The more I painted this character or worked with her as a large sculpture, she became real to me, and so did Spacia, a black star from outer space who was taken away from her family and used as a battery to power Lady Madness’s kingdom, located on Volcano Island, on a planet called called the Cosmic Womb. After some investigation I determined that Lady Madness not only was the Dictatress of Volcano Island, but she was also an entrepreneur, who manufactured and sold Lady Madness’s Box Whine, a libation enjoyed by only for the most powerful of villains in my imaginary world. It was made by embarrassing snow people, she would collect their embarrassment sweat and transform it into a blush whine. She also made a white whine by making Snow People run on treadmills, collecting their sweat and fermenting it. If you didn’t know, all the snow people we humans have been making on Earth, evaporate, and end up reconstituting in outerspace, they were floating all over the place until Lady Madness “harvested” them and enslaved them to produce the sweat needed for her Box Whine Factories.
Luckily, Spacia liberated herself through the help of a giant cosmic spider named Prime Weaver. She destroyed Lady Madness’s castle and rescued her boyfriend lover Amplexus and freed the snow people.
In “Time for You and Joy to Get Acquainted” we see Spacia with her boyfriend Amplexus about to ride happily off into the sunset
Luckily the Snow people created an anti-melting serum. The Queen of the Cosmic Womb contacted me and asked if I could help relocate the snow people to Earth. With the help of the Ideafund, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual arts, and a number of concerned citizens, we created a Snow People Island Intergalactic Exchange Program. They arrived to Earth as a set of puppets that lived with different families around Houston for one week, each day the participants would share a video or photo of their Snow Person learning about Earth culture.
Spacia’s choice to liberate herself and others caused an enduring echo throughout the universe. A war began between Lady Madness’s empire called the Virdian Crown and all who were against the enslavement of Black Stars and Snow People.
Here we see the Virdian Crown’s failed attempt to take over the Veritas Space Station.
My exhibition at the Art Museum of South East Texas continues that story, we see how people have chosen to cope with the trauma and horrors of war and family separation. By the time we get to my exhibition Big Time Dreaming in the Age of Uncertainty Lady Madness has begun “harvesting” all who stand up against the Viridian Crown. A group is formed by Queen Kiok, the benevolent ruler of the Cosmic Womb, this coalition is called the Veritas Circle, they strive to reunite families, fight for justice, and stop the wave of destruction brought on by the Viridian Crown.
I was asked by Queen Kiok to join the Veritas Circle, and together with the help of the Art Museum of South Texas and the National Endowment for the Arts we built a portal that allowed a magical bed that travels on a superhighway of dreams and delivers children and their parents to reunion centers like the one you see in my installation “Like a Bolt out of the Blue, Faith Steps in and Sees you Through.”
A: During the installation of your exhibition at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, you also participated in a week-long residency where you interacted with museum visitors throughout the process. Can you talk about how this fits into your practice?
J: Being able to work with the museum visitors and help them create new flowers for the garden was so rewarding, I heard powerful stories both painful, beautiful and inspiring. Seeing folks run up to their flower during the opening and explain it to their friends and family brings a deeper meaning to my work. It was an incredible week of hard work, we built not only a reunion center, we grew a garden and added stars to the universe.
A: As a multidisciplinary artist you work with many different mediums, can you talk a bit about why you are drawn to this form of expression?
J: Some people tell me they need four seasons, but for me, I have had enough snow for a lifetime growing up in the Northeast, but what I do need is a rotation of media to focus on. My seasons are Painting, Sculpture, Video Art and Installation.
Painting will always be my foundation, it is the art form that I am most challenged by but feel an enduring urge to return to. Sculpture has helped me understand the characters in my work and improved my ability to rotate images in my mind when I’m creating new compositions for paintings and video projects. The characters become more real when they are to scale, building them works different parts of my brain, and I enjoy the physicality of using the chop saw, the nail gun, and all the other cool power tools I have been collecting. Once they are wrapped with quilt batting and the fabric is stretched and tagged into place, I invite people to visit my studio, we eat pizza or snacks and I learn about their lives and I teach them how to sew, some times we will have 6 or 7 people all crawling around a giant sculpture, it is like a modern day sewing circle. Video art invites motion and sound, I studied at Berklee College of Music and was trained as a classical pianist, I was also in many musicals in my home town of Concord, NH. My mother was involved in sewing costumes, and sang with me in variety shows. I was the first and maybe the only Korean American to sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow as Dorothy from the Wizard of OZ at the Concord City Auditorium. One of my earliest solos was singing It’s Not that Easy Being Green to a Kermit doll in a variety show. When I wasn’t practicing piano or writing stories or poetry, I watched tons of TV. I watched the movie Roger Rabbit religiously at 7pm every night for years. That movie integrated, live action, animation, puppetry and music. I enjoy making video art, it comes very naturally to me, as I am just making all the TV shows I never got to see growing up, ones with people who look like me that get to play leading roles as heroes, crime fighters, punk rockers, super stars and space aliens.
A: Are there any artists or exhibitions that have resonated with you lately or have been of particular interest?
J: The best exhibition I saw last year was called Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass, it was created by my husband Trenton Doyle Hancock. Each step of the way, I got to see him push forward striving to manifest what was in his head and heart into being. It was an incredible show. Also, I had the honor of jurying the Society for the Performing Arts 21st Annual Student Art Contest. The exhibition was wonderful. I take the art of young people very seriously, and this group of young people created some powerful and inspiring work. This year, I have been able to catch Ruckus Rodeo by Red Grooms, at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which is amazing. Since I have been working on my video project, I have spent most of my time behind a computer creating special effects and animating, while listening to interviews and talks given by director Taika Waititi, animation lectures by Richard Williams, or talks recorded by the Manhattan Edit Workshop’s Artist in Residence Series. I also listen to books while I work, right now I’m listening to “The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History” and “Broad Strokes 15 Women Who made Art and Made History (in that order)”. As for music, the best live show I saw was GWAR, they fought a puppet of Trump and took over the world, it was pretty surreal since Trump was holding a rally about half a mile away that same night. In a few days I’ll travel to Dallas to see The Adicts perform which I’ve heard is an experience not to be missed. Once we wrap up filming, I’m looking forward to seeing Norman Rockwell: American Freedom at the MFAH, and in late April, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power and if possible a trip to the Albuquerque Museum for The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share about my work, Artadia has helped my work grow in ways I couldn’t have imagined. If you would like to visit the Cosmic Womb, I was commissioned last year by the Veritas Circle to create this informative and fun video explaining one way you can get to this magical land.