Artist Interview

Monica Hee Eun

"I believe most of us are extremely drawn to the dark side of our own nature"

In collaboration with Lövendahl, Zakarian created and curated BLACKLANDS:
a group exhibition focusing on the color black.
Danish/South Korean Monica Hee Eun was one of the participating artists.

Interview by Mariam Zakarian, January 2024

When I first stumbled upon Monica Hee Eun on Instagram, I was immediately drawn to her wild, fierce femme fatales.
Something about her work is so effortlessly compelling. Maybe it’s the way the lines and silhouettes contain so much energy whether she uses ink, paint or digital brushes. Maybe it’s the way she exaggerates beauty with messy, spontaneous strokes. Or maybe it’s the traditionally masculine energies of raw aggression and physical power paired with iconic, feminine protagonists.

Dai/Emon III. 2023, ink on paper
Dai/Emon II. 2023, ink on paper

Although there is no shortage of images of nude women in art history, the vast majority are made by men, and the women are almost always passive objects of desire. But in Monica Hee Eun’s work you can somehow immediately tell that the artist is a woman. The subjects look right back at you with a daring, almost threatening stare. There is nothing meek or demure about them.
They are the opposite: unapologetically aggressive, sexualized yet powerful.

This week, Hee Eun graciously took the time between finishing her latest artworks for a solo exhibition at Kulturtårnet (opening February 1st 2024) to talk about her process, inspirations and experiences.

Q: Are there themes in your work that you keep returning to and why?

Monica Hee Eun: Yes; the dark side of the human nature. It fascinates me and satisfies me tremendously to try to embody it in my art. It can be quite insightful to investigate that side of ourselves, no matter if you are an artist or not: to acknowledge and work with the aspects of yourself that are not only good and agreeable, to potentially become more well-balanced in character.

Preying Mantis. 2021, ink on paper
Q: Does your work arise intellectually or intuitively? Do you work from a philosophy or artist statement?

I think all of my art arises partly intellectually and partly intuitively. The balance between the two facets is very fluid and it varies based on the specific work or my creative intention.
For example, when I am starting a painting, I intellectually can have a fixed idea or concept of what I want to paint. But from the moment I start sketching, I very much trust my intuition in my visual choices. I think it is important to allow myself to be spontaneous and to experiment when creating.

Death by a Thousand Cuts. 2023, digital painting
Abyss Gaze. 2023, digital painting
Q: When and why did you start drawing these female figures?

The female figures have undergone changes in form, expression and meaning throughout the nearly 20 years since I started drawing and painting them. However, it’s probably in the past 10 years that they began to become more outwardly aggressive in their expression.
I suspect that I mostly draw female figures simply because I love drawing female bodies and because I am a woman myself. That being said, in my art I have often tried to embody darker concepts and I simply find that visually the female form works better as a contrast to the more violent and dark themes. It is important to me that there is a tension of conflicting energies and a kind of ambivalence in the motifs.

"It can be quite insightful to investigate that side of ourselves [which is] not only good and agreeable..."

Q: What does your work process look like? Do you work with live models?

I have photographed others for reference, but not often. I have certainly taken and utilized more of myself. But I also freehand draw and paint without any reference – it varies.
My sketches are mostly done digitally on my iPad, and it is hard to say how long a painting will take for me to finish – it could be up to several months or a couple of weeks, depending on my chosen style and format.

Q: Why do you choose to use black and white in your work?

I actually used to paint very colorful paintings. But through the years I have certainly predominantly used black or dark colors, especially as backgrounds. It is needed for the mood and themes I deal with.
Black is darkness, it is the unknown and hidden, the negative, it symbolizes power, mystery. Death.

Animus. 2021, acrylic painting
悪魔 / AKUMA / DEVIL. 2019, acrylic painting
Tora Fenus. 2021, acrylic painting
Q: Have you gone to art school or taken courses? How did your current techniques and style develop?

I do not have any formal art education, but years ago, I took a course in some croquis, basic drawing and painting. But I would say I practically thought myself by my excessive drawing ever since childhood and by later studying the artists I admired.

Q: Who and/or what are your main influences?

In comics I loved Frank Miller, Ashley Wood and Jamie Hewlett. Also the manga aesthetic has something which is appealing to me. Among painters; H. R. Giger, Phil Hale, Zdzisław Beksiński, Takato Yamamoto, Dave McKean and Francis Bacon have influenced me a lot.
The style of Japanese ink painting and calligraphy has also had a big influence on me with its minimalism, tight composition and the disciplined control of every single brushstroke.

"[Art] should be the realm where everything should be allowed to be expressed freely."

Q: Do you have any experiences with censorship?

Luckily, I do not have much experience with censorship and I never think about self-censoring either. I was reported on social media a couple of times, but that is all. I am very much for freedom of expression, especially in art, which in my view should be the realm where everything should be allowed to be expressed freely.

Primal Female VI. 2020, acrylic painting
Tokyo Ghoul. 2019, acrylic painting
Q: Do you have a dream project that you would undertake if you had unlimited time and resources?

I have recently started painting on ready-made ceramics and I’ve now become extremely curious about creating the ceramics myself, entirely from scratch. I would love to make a sculpture project, mixed with functional ceramic art of various kinds, that I would also paint on.

Q: And finally, why do you create art?

I just get great satisfaction from formulating my inner visions and ideas in a visual language. Also, the urge to create and work with my hands is almost like an obsessive thing for me.

Find more of Monica Hee Eun’s work on Instagram, on YouTube and on her Website.
And catch her solo exhibition at Kulturtårnet, Copenhagen, February 1st to March 31st, 2024.

Primal Female II. 2017, acrylic painting