Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on November 13, 2006 with the permission of the Knoxville Museum of Art. The essay was written in conjunction with the exhibition SubUrban: Seonna Hong, being held at the museum November 17, 2006 - March 11, 2007. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Knoxville Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Seonna Hong

by Dana Self


Los Angeles based artist Seonna Hong deftly stitches together the fabric of her work, blurring the boundaries between animation and painting through autobiographical works in which childhood stands in for, and even meliorates adulthood and its myriad challenges. In addition to her painterly output, Hong paints backgrounds for feature and television animation and earned an Emmy for Individual Achievement in Background Styling for her work on Nickelodeon's My Life as a Teenage Robot. Her animation work influences her painting style. In her individual paintings, Hong paints on wood panels and canvas, in simplified styles and vivid colors that suggest animé, cartooning, and children's books. Many of the paintings include collage elements similar to 3-D pop-up books. Hong focuses on children as the embodiment of humanizing power, often working in series that are influenced by personal events where children are the protagonists who dramatize her narratives. For instance, Hong completed the sepia-toned Railroad series after her daughter was born, suggesting the nonstop forward momentum that childrearing, living, and working engender. All of Hong's narrative and often-autobiographical works in this exhibition suggest yearning, growing, and the ingenuousness of childhood. Life in persistent emotional and physical motion punctuates all of Seonna Hong's paintings.

Children, specifically little girls, comprise Hong's central characters, driving the stories and generally interacting only with other little girls or animals. Like a modern and Asian Alice in Wonderland, Hong's heroine navigates her fantastical terrain replete with black dogs, forest animals, and other little girls. Like Charles Dodgson's (Lewis Carroll) Alice Liddell -- the real life inspiration for Alice in Wonderland -- Hong's girl centralizes each narrative, for without her there is no story. Hong understands, as did Lewis Carroll, that children are in many ways the perfect vehicles to sustain a meaningful narrative. We may relate to them as they compel us to excavate our own childhood and its relationship to our adult selves. There are even similarities between some of Hong's paintings and Alice's adventures. In Spring, the child picks flowers in a forest scene while a fawn and bunny look on. Similarly, Alice walks through a forest with a fawn in Through the Looking-Glass. While the girls have different relationships to their surroundings -- the fawn spoke to Alice -- the scenes both place the girls in fictitious places, interacting with nature in a world on the other side of the "real" world in which fawns don't talk and life is orderly.

Hong's fictitious, fantastical places parallel the nonsensical place Alice encounters. Yet, while Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass represented a nonsensical world in opposition and in critical response to England's 19th century bourgeois Victorians, Seonna Hong crafts a site of reconciliation and empathy to manage the complexities of living in the 21st century. Other than the black dog -- the child's nemesis with whom she may ultimately reconcile -- most of the animals in her paintings are reassuring. Of the Buddha-like hippo in Unnie, Hong writes, "Unnie means big sister in Korean...I also wanted to have these large looming characters that were part of the backdrop but that represented that some things remain hidden...sort of like you're only seeing the tip of the iceberg, or in this case the tip of the hippo..." [1]. The hippo in Unnie seems to quietly stand sentry over the two girls who wade through the pond. He may represent the guardian that the girls emotionally conjure to protect themselves.

Childhood is what we often spend the rest of our lives trying to fix, overcome, transform into something tolerable or better yet, reinvent as wonderful to re-experience and extend into adulthood. Hong seems to understand these impulses and how we may employ our childhood memories (either real or constructed) as palliative to adult anxieties and wounds. According to art historian Carol Mavor, "The fantasy of the child, pure tabula rasa, is ripe and ready for our own predetermined inscriptions: pink, blue, pants, skirt, dress-up, play, sailor cap, wide-brimmed hat, short socks, knee socks, naughty or nice...Our desire for the child is the lure of the 'blank page.'" [2]. The girls are the personification of Hong's childhood successes and even her losses. According to Hong, "Animus is a collection of images depicting a journey toward emotional resilience. The young girl appears again as the protagonist, while a black dog represents the antagonist. I choose children to be my storytellers because of their innocence and innate honesty. The purity of a child's character, before it is shaped by social propriety and shaded by self-doubt, inspires me. Although Animus illustrates a story of growth, it is not a morality tale. Rather, it is about the response to aggression; initially a reactive one, stemming from fear and discomfort, maturing to a more hopeful and compassionate resolve." [3].

Hong's works are deeply humanistic, embedded with emotional depth and a search for holistic living. In Nightmare, the child dreams of a large black dog that appears as a frightening disembodied head in the child's dream bubble. The dog's head looms over the sleeping girl, dominating the child's small room in which she sleeps. And while the simplified forms and saturated lively cartoon-like colors connote the animation from which Hong derives her inspiration, the work's complexity and sophistication underscore its resonance. As adults we long to identify with the child in the story who stands in for our complicated childhood. As a storyteller, Seonna Hong designs her work to intrigue the viewer with the narratives that are at once concise and self-contained, yet broad enough to be interpreted individually. Fantasy, critical to the success of Hong's visual stories, propels the viewer through her paintings. The paintings are small, sometimes barely bigger than a children's book, suggesting the physical and conceptual intimacy of children's literature.

Autobiography colors Hongs works a vibrant spectrum of intimate resonance. She recognizes that the self is often a fictitious conceit and that to truly describe the self one must view it from a distance, in this case, the distance of a simulated childhood. Autobiography can often most easily be constructed through this distancing technique. Hong's girls embody everyday emotions, metonyms for herself and for us as sympathetic comrades. Yet while the images are endearing and empathetic, they are not nostalgic or insincere. The girl protagonist engages in activities that suggest timelessness. For instance, in The Unlisteners two girls walk away from a third who covers her ears with her hands as if to not hear. We may recognize this as a painful reenactment of a childhood experience, or even an exchange that takes place, however more subtly -- or not -- in our workplaces and within our intimate relationships. Hong's series Animus refers to dealing with bewildering people and situations through a young girl's battle with her fears that take the shape of a large dog. According to Hong, the main character in many of the works is a combination of herself and of her daughter. Autobiography requires a self reflective, self-critical position, engaging the viewer in direct examination and confrontation with troubling issues rather than in obliquities. Hong's autobiographical paintings, if not as confessional as, say, St. Augustine's Confessions (often thought of as one of the first Western written autobiographies), still vet deeply private and individual (yet recognizable) emotions for our public scrutiny.

Seonna Hong understands the complicated passage from childhood into adulthood and how we carry our childhood experiences with us on that expedition. She notes, "Animus was about dealing with things or people who are confusing -- where there's no right or wrong answer -- and trying to figure out what hurts your feelings and how you deal with it. Nothing really has that happy ending you see in movies." [4]. The happy ending is the dream of Hollywood and of childhood fantasies. Hong's works offer us consolation in the face of the practicalities of emotional and physical maturation. She provides a visual and conceptual conceit that suggests that remembering and even re-experiencing a child's resilience may humanize us on our circuitous and often arduous journey.



1. Email exchange with Dana Self, 14 September 2006.
2. Carol Mavor, Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess of Hawarden, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), p. XXXII.
3. Undated artist's statement, Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery.
4. Eric Nakamura, "Seonna Hong: Uneasy Art," Giant Robot, Issue 38, Winter, 2005


Special thanks to Seonna Hong, Caryn Coleman, sixspace, Culver City, CA; Liz Jonckheer and Oliver Kamm, Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery, New York, NY, and the lenders to the exhibition.


(above: Seonna Hong, Unnie, 2005, cel vinyl on wood, 8 x 8 inches. Private Collection. Courtesy sixspace, Culver City, CA) 


(above: Seonna Hong, Winter, 2004, cel vinyl on wood, 21 x 30 inches. Private Collection. Courtesy Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery, New York, NY)


About the Author:

Dana Self is Barbara W. and Bernard E. Bernstein Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Knoxville Museum of Art.


About the exhibition:

Los Angeles-based artist Seonna Hong is both an artist and an animator. In addition to making her paintings, she paints backgrounds for feature and television animation and was recently awarded an Emmy for Individual Achievement in Background Styling for her work on Nickelodeon's My Life as a Teenage Robot. Her work has been published in the Artistic Utopia calendar, the Beatsville Sci-fi Western and The Truth Show books.

Hong paints on wood panels and canvas, often in bright acid colors in a retro style that suggests anime, cartooning and children's books among other references. Many of the paintings include collage elements that give her work the look of a 3-D pop-up book. In her paintings, Hong focuses on children as the embodiment of humanizing power. Children are her protagonists, acting out the dramas in her narratives.

The exhibition will feature work from several series including Animus, Railroad and People in the City. Hong completed the nostalgic looking Railroad series after her daughter was born, suggesting the nonstop forward momentum that childrearing and working engenders. The pieces seem to suggest yearning and the innocence of the contemplative young girls that Hong features in her work. Animus refers to dealing with bewoldering people and situations through a young girl's battle with her fears that take the shape of a large dog. According to Hong, the main character in many of the works is a combination of herself and her daughter.

Seonna Hong received her B.A. from California State University, Long Beach. She has had solo exhibitions at sixspace, Los Angeles, and Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery, New York. This is her first solo museum exhibition.

SubUrban is the Knoxville Museum of Art's critically acclaimed, ongoing series, focusing on the most thoughtful, innovative and engaging work by the finest emerging artists in contemporary art.

The SubUrban series is made possible with the generous assistance of the Lucille S. Thompson Family Foundation through its ongoing support of new initiatives at the museum.


Resource Library editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Angela C. Thomas, Marketing & Communications Director, Knoxville Museum of Art, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above texts.

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