A sense that something has existed before and that it will continue to exist hereafter — a sense that I will exist forever. These were the emotions that Candy Koh’s works evoked within me when I encountered them for the first time. Through her work, the artist says: “Why can’t I smile so brightly like other people? Why am I always tired? Why do I perpetually feel so sad? Why does my heart race all the time? Why is everything so unenjoyable?” She asks, as though a scarecrow that acts without knowing the precious value of its true self. Yet liberation and hope emanate from the works. Her powerful drawings are mournful, as though wailing their hearts out, but at the same time, they appear very strong. Koh’s lyrical variations seep out through thick and winding drawings on view at her solo exhibition 10:30 at Space 776 in New York from September 29 through October 15, 2023.
Koh’s paintings, created with a brush but appearing brushless due to irregular lines, draw viewers into intricate and visceral experiences. For a moment, I lost my way amidst those intricate touches that obscured where they began and ended. Only after a long gaze, beyond the transient boundaries of thirty seconds, does one realize that one walks in step with the work: The distorted and twisted drawings are not logical but impulsive, manifesting a kind of desire. Within her works, there is a palpable tension as conflicts arise from the intricate interplay of elements and feelings. Each line in her art embodies conflicts among contrasting ideas, emotions, and visuals, each striving for dominance and resolution. Koh consistently creates and resolves these conflicts, which extend beyond the visual realm into her emotions and thoughts, prompting introspection and discovery. Her works represent a feeling of repression, which she resolves through communication and compromise through her painting.
Her persistent attempt at discourse permeates her solo exhibition. Koh’s drawings and abstract paintings done in swift gestures contain her feelings about the world and the universe. These paintings are spontaneous and suggestive. The exhibition 10:30 provides a survey of Koh’s distinct style and how her body of work continues to evolve over the course of her artistic career. It explores her life-long struggle with health issues and draws from her experiences in various disciplines. Featuring works spanning the course of her career from 2007 until the present, the exhibition juxtaposes abstract paintings with works employing figurative elements that she sees as two sides of the same coin. Her work Memorial to Self (2007-2023) — including a sculpture Koh’s first created during some of her deepest struggles with illness in her early 20s — holds the past, present, and future together in one participatory work.
On the right side of the gallery wall, approximately ten drawings and eight abstract paintings from Koh’s Untitled artwork series spanning 2018 to 2022 are displayed. These parallel-in-column drawings predominantly explore themes related to dreams, souls, and memories. They are depicted with hazy and expansive representations of the spiritual realm, connected by swirling lines and repetitive brushwork, where the brush and paint blend together. Like Untitled (20180605-Orange Head) (2018), it reveals forcefully scrawled and whipped-around lines, carrying a heavy sense of visual weight. These earlier drawings exude a rawness of pure viscerality, unencumbered by the filters and checks required by everyday life. While Koh has said that she does not employ automatism as part of her technique, these early drawings evoke a Miro-esque cross-section between Expressionism and early 20th-century surrealism, which used automatism to express the world of the unconscious and dreams. To transcribe the world of the pure spirit, surrealists employed the technique of automatism. They believe that by capturing the incongruity of randomly conjoined objects, they could see a world that exceeds reality. Each accidental combination and their inherent dissimilarity offers a doorway to an alternate universe beyond the real and the expected. Koh’s paintings deeply explore personal experiences and memories, aiming to connect with her own self. She uses drawing as a medium that emphasizes the interaction of graphite, oil pastel, paper, and her hand, creating a relatively fast-paced artistic process. Her works, free from logical boundaries and biases, resemble unfiltered thoughts, giving her a strong sense of freedom.
A characteristic feature of this introspective journey is the reliance on drawing as a formal instrument that facilitates such a deep exploration. It is simple yet complex. Along with the previously mentioned lines with mysterious start and end points, the artist uses odd colors by mixing and diluting two or three colors rather than clear and distinct colors. Smudging and rubbing, Koh tries to express a sense of frustration through her paintings, but the more she tries to resolve that frustration, the deeper she sinks into a labyrinth. With an obsessive method, she disperses the gaze and then reconcentrates it.
After a cancer scare in 2018, Koh underwent a drastic transformation. She saw the world anew, as she believed every moment could be her last. As the weight of illness began to lift over the years, her relationship to the ideas of life/death, and the artificial nature of time shifted. Each encounter, every breath of the whispered wind, became a testament to this revelation, echoing a quiet, omnipresent grace. For example, Untitled (202012-Oil) (2020) and Untitled (202206/07)-Peach Green) (2022) are delicate arrangements and balancing structures that imbue them with a sense of solidarity. Koh’s eye is still ambiguous yet generous; she uses clearer and brighter color tones and slows down the swiftness of her brush.
Dreaming plays an important role in Koh’s artistic journey. Her dreams were intensely vivid, leaving her awash with emotions upon waking. These weren’t just typical dreams but intense experiences that were her reality. In moments when reality feels too heavy and expressing her internal world becomes challenging, she retreats into these dreamlike spaces, a place where her unutterable thoughts and emotions can exist freely beyond the confines of the physical world. What is the stream of consciousness that Koh seeks? It is to express the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of the past in their most visceral, raw form. Bluntly put, like a howl or a purge. Carl Jung suggests that dreams primarily reestablish psychological balance by generating themes. If we understand Koh’s work to unveil aspects that enter her consciousness, perhaps she foresees a psychological state or potential in the future. Jung mentions his analysis of long-standing archetypes in early religions and cultures; in Koh’s works, people can observe expressions based on traditional themes and shamanistic representations. In her ongoing performance teller, which she has continued since 2018, it is as if the artist performs the role of a “shaman,” communicating with visitors and extending emotional sympathy.
Abandoning a theoretical perspective, Koh plays the role of aiding others and understanding their stories and dreams. That’s how she continues her artistic practice. Ultimately, humans are those who take away the essence of these stories and dreams but also the ones who refill and enrich them. There is a sculpture she first created during some of her deepest struggles with illness in her early 20s titled Memorial to Self (2007-2023). Rubbing the rough surface of the thick rebar, a memo that heals the past and caresses the future. It holds the past, present, and future within this sculpture participatory work. I also drew the hopes that bridge my past and future, connected them to her sculpture, and left the gallery.
Koh’s deep connection to drawing is essential to her artistic identity, reflecting an intense desire to communicate with others. Finally having to address her increasingly debilitating health issues in 2018, she reevaluated her life, ultimately choosing a fuller pursuit of art. Koh’s self-reflection provided her with a distinct perspective to create the works she does in the bursts of energy found between extended bouts of illness. She records each creation with a date, weather, and sometimes a time, resembling autographs that affirm her existence. Her Untitled series resembles autographs meant to reveal her existence. The date is consistently positioned at the bottom right. An autograph is like a final testimony of self-revelation. Koh’s drawings, with ambiguous beginnings and endings, reveal a sense of humor in her 2023 works. Perhaps because of her background in literature and writing, the drawings sometimes read like text, structured with an order and system. An ‘unreadable text’ can be seen as a ‘writable text.’ Although people might struggle to interpret it as traditional text, it can be viewed as a form of non-verbal communication akin to drawing. Her extensive body of work reflects a steadfast commitment to drawing for the pure joy it brings. Even if some drawings lack a specific narrative, they can be meaningful for capturing her true self. Through her art she shapes various forms, moving between moments of happiness and sorrow, all leading to a desired conclusion.
When people open their palms, numerous lines are drawn across them. Palm reading is a technique that reads the human heart, a practice known in various cultures worldwide. Observing the endless lines sketched on white paper evokes the sensation of studying the lines etched in the artist Koh’s palm. The numerous lines converge at a single point, then scatter again into multiple paths — the lines of inescapable destiny, like reality unfolding from her hands. From what I can see, Candy Koh herself is a hand that draws, one that finds satisfaction in merely drawing the lines and wielding a brush. This exhibition seems particularly meaningful as an encapsulation of her entire body of work. What Koh can feel overall in her work, from her choice of materials, expression methods, and titles, is the result of experiments that follow her principles of sensitivity, emotion, and extreme opposition to reason. In this regard, Koh’s artworks enable us to escape reality through spirited gestures, allowing us to savor freedom. It becomes a starting point for imagining a world beyond physical reality. Koh is about to take another notable stride in her artistic journey. It would be intriguing to see her continue to create works that are even more like her than her current self, despite the countless trials and obstacles where she may stumble and fall – just like her name. *
*Candy was named by her mother after a character in the manga series Candy Candy that was popular in Korea in the 1970s, after importation from Japan. The theme song in the animated series created later describes the character Candy as one who goes through a multitude of hardships in her life, but perseveres no matter what.