In Eunkang Koh’s intaglio print, “Down To Earth,” a narwhal with human arms crawls somnambulantly from a hole, along with an animal that looks like an ox with the head of a serious young woman sporting a chic A-line haircut. Other human-animal creatures emerge from their own holes, their expressions possibly glum, but there’s plenty of room there to interpret other states of mind, from determined to confused to matter-of-fact in an Edward Gorey kind of way.
Although the image is not set next to words, everything about it makes it look like a storybook illustration: the creatures’ subtle gestures, their unexplained environment with all its holes in a dark, black, textured ground, and their not-yet-revealed motivations. Not to mention the finely detailed lines that make drawing look like as much an escape hatch as a drafting method.
If these creatures don’t exactly seem earnest and unassuming enough to illustrate the expression “down to Earth,” that’s because Koh, originally from Korea, is playing on the literal meaning of the expression “down in the earth.”
She explains that in this picture, she’s making a more literal translation of the idiom, “down to Earth.”
“Everybody is under the ground,” she says.
Cross-understandings like that are everywhere in her work. (They’re too intentional to call them “misunderstandings.”) Koh says her fantastical characters come more from looking closely at reality than from intentionally trying to construct an escape from it.
The mixes of people and animals, figurative and literal interpretations of expressions, has developed in accordance with Koh’s changes in environment over the last several years. She started out making abstract work, and in her last year of college in Seoul, Korea, she started responding to the urban environment, making work about cities.
“I spent about three hours a day commuting,” she says. “The very first works I was drawing about people were a series of people in [a] subway, walking, running, going to work. … If you keep looking at people you see a lot of interesting things. You see fish. A human is an animal. Somebody’s more like a squirrel; somebody’s more like a monkey. You know how we describe humans as ‘pig,’ ‘snake,’ ‘rat?’”
She was interested in both the physical resemblances and the metaphorical ones.
“I think there’s a kind of general understanding about how we see animals to describe people,” she says. “The pig symbolizes somebody as greedy. A snake is sneaky, sly.”
After her working method was established in Seoul, Koh moved to Los Angeles to attend grad school, then to Reno to accept an assistant professorship in printmaking at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Each move has affected her aesthetic—Reno’s mountains juiced up her color palette a bit, for example—while her concepts continued developing on a similar track. She’s interested in exploring ideas that are shared between cultures and just as interested in noticing how idiomatic expressions don’t always make sense when they cross a national or linguistic border.
“At the moment I’m making my work I don’t really think of the specific,” she says. “I spend a lot of time looking at people making observations, then I put it in my brain, then I mix it in my brain, like a fermentation. Later when I use them, it becomes my own hybrid kind picture.”