Song Minho, the 29 year old otherwise known as MINO of K-pop group WINNER, is standing on the steps of the Saatchi Gallery on a rather nondescript London morning. Autumn leaves fall silently from nearby trees as a cluster of press and fans take his photo, one of the latter wielding the trademark hardcore stan lens, which is intimidatingly telescopic. It’s, for once, unnecessary, he’s close enough to reach out and touch: Song Minho isn’t here as the rapper and songwriter he rose to fame as but as OHNIM, the award-winning South Korean painter and multimedia artist whose first showing was a mere three years ago.
The StART art fair, now in its ninth year, will be OHNIM’s 11th exhibition and his second appearance at the fair and third at Saatchi. He’s brought nine pieces over from Seoul, paintings that create a bridge from earlier work – in which features like eyes and hands were exaggerated through size and colour, and bodies distorted into cramped, protective positions – yet seek and explore new horizons through hot pinks and dense yellows that saturate large depictions of giraffes.
Animals have been notable in his work previously, such as the mechanised ostrich of Burning Planet, his dystopian collaboration with Korean sunglasses brand Gentle Monster in late 2021. His latest work, he says, reclining in one of the Phillippe Starck Ghost chairs dotted about the gallery, is underpinned by a deeper contemplation of his motivations. “These days I think about the concept, I study it more and how it relates to me, then I put it into the art. Back then it was just putting the feeling straight onto the canvas, I was drawing impulsively and without thinking about how my feelings are represented in my art.”
Above OHNIM’s shock of blonde hair hangs Stoked, a large self-portrait – part realistic, part surreal – where he’s painted his mouth open wide and eyes screwed tightly shut, and his neck that of a giraffe’s. He glances at it, this capture of such extreme joy that it’s one small and unsettling shift away from an expression of pain or terror. OHNIM might be comfortable with such honest transparency but his desire is to push it further. “I’ve always been quite truthful about myself but now I want to see how I can be truthful with myself from many different angles, I want to show it in many different facets. In a way it’s much more complicated now,” he adds, then settles deeper into his chair to discuss (via a translator) his progress as a painter, his process of self-acceptance, and being a visual artist in the era of internet domination.
Early on you had a phase of being captivated by flowers, particularly blue roses. If that was your floral era, how would you describe your current focus?
OHNIM: I used to like flowers and the blue roses had a meaning – to make the impossible possible – and that’s why I drew those because that’s what I felt I could do… make the impossible into possible. Now I like to draw sunflowers because they symbolise hope, and I began drawing giraffes. I’d been searching through various animals but felt a similarity between myself and giraffes. It has such a long neck that it can see very far and very high and that’s how I’ve been trying to live, to look to far away because I’m not happy with where I am.
This self-portrait of your face atop a giraffe’s neck – there’s so much emotion and energy being released into this painting. Would you call this the truest version of you?
OHNIM: Every piece of my artwork has a different stage of meaning to it. This one, when I was doing it, I was experiencing one of my highest moments of happiness and I wanted to show how excited I was. If you look at my work, even though it has bright colours, there’s a darkness in it. And that’s how I feel, I do go through mood swings. But this was a moment where I was drawing to remember my happiness.
In earlier works, such as Hiding or Hush, the overriding emotion is the need to conceal but in Stoked, your face is completely exposed. Is this indicative of a new life path or do those older pieces still have a place within you?
OHNIM: They do, yes.
Egon Schiele is an influence and, similarly, you enjoy playing with the human form. You also bring a creature-like, sometimes an almost monstrous element, into your work, that appears to expose our hidden selves. Where does this stem from?
OHNIM: It’s not that I look at humans as like animals + people, instead I feel human needs and human instincts are something I need to be true to. If I’m hungry, I have to eat. As people, we have to sex to have children but also to enjoy. And these needs are not something I feel ashamed of, neither am I embarrassed to express my true needs and feelings. So I won’t ever hide that. I’ll live my life to my needs.
Because you’re still also an idol under YG Entertainment, have you ever felt you needed to be a little restrained as an artist and take that position into consideration?
OHNIM: Actually when I’m composing music and lyrics, I’m much more concerned about censoring myself but in art I feel more free and I don’t really worry about YG!
The art you create for your albums – such as the pop art on TANG! – differs greatly from what we see in this exhibit. Do you purposely keep them, as well as your music/art selves, very separate?
OHNIM: When I first started, I thought they were quite similar but when I started painting, music and art became different and now I really separate them.
You embrace using digital formats – what does this allow for in your art, and what do you enjoy about the medium?
OHNIM: It’s very different. Digital doesn’t have that human touch to it. When I do digital, it’s usually me thinking about how I’m going to paint, what colour to use, like a pre-painting work. Digital is also for when I’m working on an album.
In an interview with CNN, you stated you wanted to be a “true artist” but it was expressed that you felt it was only possible through validation by art industry insiders. Was this a correct understanding of your thoughts?
OHNIM: Of course if the critics say you’re a great artist then you’re going to feel good about it, but I don’t draw just to get those compliments. I do it because art heals me. Art has been around for a long time and I don’t think people have ever been involved for the praise. You’re in love with painting, you enjoy doing it, and anything else is just added value.
Being an artist in the internet age is more multimedia, experimental and unpredictable. You’re open to brand collabs and you do NFTs but not everyone sees these ventures as conducive to good art. What are your thoughts on those who are more traditionalist?
OHNIM: If you’re an artist who has been drawing for a long time, maybe you’d say that’s not art but I don’t think you can define art to just being one thing. There’s new kinds of technology and there’s different kinds of artists, so you cannot define someone as not being an artist just because they’re making an NFT or something away from traditional art.
Do you have a mentor?
OHNIM: I have a very close friend who I’m collaborating with on designing jewellery. He’s the only person I’ll say to, like, ‘I’m doing this, what do you think?’ He’s not a mentor but because he has an artistic sensibility, he’s someone I discuss things with.
Being self-taught, have you ever wished you had formal training or has this been the best way for you to develop?
OHNIM: I did think about, from time to time, about what it would be like if I’d actually studied art. I’m really interested in learning, not by going to school but I’m very interested in developing myself. I don’t want to stop where I am. Someday I’d like someone to look at my art and it brought them to tears.
StART art fair is currently at the Saatchi Gallery, London, until Oct 16th, 2022.
Words: Taylor Glasby
Photography: Elliott Morgan