Suejin Jo was born in South Korea and emigrated to New York after receiving a fellowship from Columbia University. Jo studied at the Art Students League where she won the McDowell Fellowship, juried by Richard Pousette D’art and Romare Bearden. In 2008, Jo won the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Solo Exhibition Award sponsored by the NY Artists Equity Association and juried by DC Moore Gallery. Jo participated in Pool Art Fair New York and Miami 2007, Manif 2008 in Seoul Korea, Scope with Chashama, AAF with Tria Gallery, KSK Fine Art, and Julio Valdez Studio. Jo's work is in many private and public collections including the Library of Congress, Chase Manhattan Bank, General Instrument Company, Embassy of San Marino, NAPABA Law Foundation, Sogang University, Ahl Foundation, 9/11 Memorial Museum, Art in General, and Korea Exchange Bank. Jo's paintings were included in the U.S. Embassy Exhibitions in East Timor and Mexico. In 2012, the U.S. State Department chose Jo's "Pontchartrain" to be included in its desk calendar, "Homage to American Women Artists".
You’ve been working in New York for a long time. How has the art scene here evolved since you began working?
I studied at the Art Students League for four years and won McDowell fellowship which sent me to Europe for a year and gave me a solo show at the Phyllis Harriman Gallery. I maintained a studio on the Upper West Side. Larry Aldrich visited my studio and showed my work in his gallery in Soho. He also brought corporate art consultants to the studio who purchased several paintings. Then my daughter was born and I became a fanatic mom and “an artist interrupted”. It was not easy to get back into the art world part time. I felt isolated and almost disconnected from the art world.
How does identity play into your work?
Sublimation dominated my early work. Habit of sublimation came from my upbringing as a girl in the pre-industrialized Korea. Girls were trained not to express openly what they desire but wait for things to be given to them. I escaped into books and mountains and seas. Later on I read in the autobiography of Bertrand Russell that he realized his extreme love of nature as a youth was sublimation of sexual desire. It is natural that I embraced Catholicism since love of God is the ultimate sublimation. I left church since then but the religious feeling lingers on in my Cross paintings.
You have a fascination with dualities. Can you talk about the origins of this?
I am an immigrant from Asia married to an immigrant from Europe. Both of us belong to the group of expatriates deeply rooted in the old world we left behind for one reason or another. My initial struggle with the duality was painful--choices of what to keep and what to discard of the values of the old world in order to survive in the new. Then motherhood and married life made me think of “fish and cactus” which inspired my painting series of the same name. Fish and cactus: the image came to me while I was sitting on the dunes of Westhampton Beach. I am the fish having to live with a cactus, my mate. The struggle of the two opposites ensues. It is not just the East and the West. It is a universal, archetypal battle between the opposing camps: male and female, yin and yang, vertical and horizontal, Plato and Aristotle, Rothko and Newman. I am the fish who left her native ocean. I left it so long ago and came so far that I lost my way back home. Home exists only on my canvas, in my Platonist longing, in the struggle of fish and cactus, in the resolution of my horizontals and verticals. Perhaps one day I will turn into a diagonal.
Did the 2016 election affect your work?
My work has been much about mining my own emotions, remembered landscapes, and memory that I felt almost immune to politics until Trump came along. Suddenly this country felt foreign to me. It reminded me how I was singled out and interrogated in another room by Russian customs officer when I was crossing to St. Petersburg from Helsinki with an American passport only because I was born in South Korea. Some Korean friends were postponing visiting family members in Korea. I named my first painting of 2017 Be Strong 2017. Then Looking for Peace and Eluding Peace came along. I am on my toes and paying close attention to what’s going on politically--much more now than before.
Interviewed by Madeleine Le Cesne