At first glance, GaHee Park’s paintings of interior domestic scenes – mostly at the dinner table – picture well dressed couples living the good life. The men smoke cigars, have elegantly trimmed moustaches and nearly always have a drink in their hand. Similarly, their female counterparts carry the same air of refinement, with their carefully manicured nails and coiffured hair. Yet, if you look closely the work is not as ‘sophisticated’ as one might initially think. Behind the curtains and painted as reflections in mirrors, the glamour is stripped away to reveal a sensual and suggestive relationship between the characters.
Titled Every Day Was Yesterday, Park’s oeuvre is a brightly coloured exploration of intimacy and relationships in a world full of trompe l’oeil. As the viewer spends more time in front of the work, hidden narratives begin to expose themselves, causing the viewer to play the role of the voyeur. In Interruptions, 2018, our eye is first drawn to a woman dressed in orange who is sitting alone at a table. A perfectly innocent scene one may think. However, after a few seconds one begins to notice a cat’s tail hanging from the side of the table at which the woman is sitting, the feline tail caresses her body in a suggestive manner in between her legs while another black cat with knowing yellow eyes stares on in the foreground. Our eye then moves up to a curtain above where the cat is hiding. On one side of the drape an unclothed leg save for a crimson red boot pops out while the shadow on the other side of the textile reflects a much larger limb. We then see that this woman is sitting on top of another figure who remains hidden but whose naked legs can be seen in the corner of the painting. Not only does the female figure sitting alone play an evocative role as the viewer, but so too does the viewer, who joins her in the act of voyeurism.
‘I am interested in the private sphere in our society’, explains Park, ‘Growing up in a rigidly patriarchal society in Korea, I have a keen understanding of how public and private spheres are fundamentally expressed through gender roles.’ Within Park’s paintings, the sexual details only appear in the background, whether seen through a mirror or behind a curtain that has been opened to reveal something that is always taking place within society, but is nearly always hidden and seldom talked about. Within the exhibition’s press release, the show is described as an ‘exploration of the absurdities and perversities of intimacy, and the tensions between our public and private selves.’ One certainly gets a sense that the private self is one that needs to be tucked away from prying eyes, where the sexual undertones are always subtle and in the background. In most of the paintings the viewer is made to feel like the observer – through the eyes of the hand that is opening the curtain or the woman who has stopped in the middle of walking her dog to peep through a neighbor’s window.
Speaking to Park about her work, it is clear that her experience of growing up in Korea and then relocating to the USA has had a big influence on her choice of subject matter. She explains: ‘I am now in the position of being a member of a minority. I feel marginalized and experience a kind of sustained racism. As an Asian woman…I am viewed as inherently “domesticated” and submissive.’ It is interesting that Park describes herself as coming from an Asian perspective, where her fair-skinned characters look particularly western on first appearance. That said the women are anything but submissive in fact, in the majority of her paintings it is the female character that is taking control and dominating her male companion. ‘In mainstream American culture, the private sphere…is the only space where minorities and marginalized people are allowed the freedom to be themselves’, Park explains, adding, ‘…this private realm is fragile and its existence is easily interrupted because it’s embedded in the hierarchical structure of the dominant culture, and therefore always secondary to the public realm.’ Perhaps this fragility manifests itself in Park’s work in the inclusion of fauna and flora, as well as dozens of cigars that will eventually be burnt away. All of the scenes depicted in Park’s paintings are imaginary, with the artist stating: ‘the longer I live in America, the more I understand that for a private space to be truly utopian, for it to be truly free, it has to be fictional.’
‘There are no specific stories or questions that I intend to bring up here because I want the viewers to explore different levels of layers in the paintings’, explains Park, ‘I do really enjoy to see different reactions from people and it’s amazing how they project themselves into the work.’ Yet there are some details that leave the viewer wondering what is intended. For instance, in Every Day Was Yesterday, 2017-2018, two dogs are included within the painting both of which are wearing the protective plastic cones that animals often wear after an operation, but why? The presence of animals seems to be a constant, with a blue bird in House Dance, 2018 and cats in Valentine’s Dinner, 2018 and Interruptions, 2018. The longer one looks at the paintings, the more they begin to notice elements that add more layers and questions to Park’s narrative.
Every Day Was Yesterday asks its audience to think about the details that go overlooked, forcing us to ponder what happens behind closed doors. If we consider the title ‘Every Day Was Yesterday’, it even suggests that everyday, we are missing something that already happened in the passed, in the moments we miss in-between the gaps in our relationships. Park’s paintings show us what we are apparently oblivious to, demonstrating that to find it, we simply have to look for it.
GaHee Park: Every Day Was Yesterday is on display at Taymour Grahne, 9B Battersea Square, London SW11 3RA until 13th June 2018