Artists

The Constant Gardener: Hein Koh Talks Parenting, Photoshop, and Her Sprawling Rockefeller Center Show

Hein Koh, “Braving the Cold,” 2019.

COURTESY THE ARTIST

A few weeks ago, on one of the coldest days of the year, anthropomorphic, one-eyed flowers began appearing all over Rockefeller Center in New York. These fantastical botanical creatures are the work of the Brooklyn-based artist Hein Koh, installed as part of a new program called Art in Focus that has been established by the nonprofit Art Production Fund.

Through the initiative, the Art Production Fund plans to stage three-month-long exhibitions of artists’ work in spaces around Rockefeller Center, according to the organization’s executive director, Casey Fremont. The program, Fremont told ARTnews, “is really about utilizing smaller-scale spaces and making them an interesting experience for their visitors and tenants.”

Indeed, the wonderfully odd flowers that Koh has created for her exhibition, “Braving the Cold,” are rather distinctive in the context of Rockefeller Center’s Art Deco interiors. The show comprises seven sculptures, eight murals, and seven light-box installations, which enliven nooks and niches across 10, 30, 45, and 50 Rockefeller Plaza, and along Fifth Avenue. (More details about the works’ locations can be found on the Art Production Fund’s website.) Koh got to know the labyrinthine area very well: the process of installing the sculptures in their respective vitrines took 18 hours.

Hein Koh, “Braving the Cold,” 2019.

DAN BRADICA

Earlier this month, Koh took me on a tour of the many sites in the exhibition, which felt like going on a treasure hunt because they’re scattered throughout the complex. She talked animatedly about some of the challenges that came with the exhibition, including putting it all together in about 60 days (“I was kind of crazy for the past two months”) and fitting her pieces to new environments (“I never did windows before, and the insides of these vitrines are really ugly and there’s a lot I had to cover”).  

Koh tried out materials that were new to her, like velvet and satin, for the show, and taught herself to draw in Photoshop for the purpose of creating the murals and light boxes. These digital drawings, printed on vinyl, depict a one-eyed rose bracing against wind and snowstorm and, alternatively, basking in a psychedelic light radiating from a similarly cyclopean sun. The largest mural in the exhibition, which chronicles this seasonal cycle, measures some 126 feet in width.

I’m kind of discovering my own style in Photoshop,” Koh said. “The result is very satisfying, and I realized that I really like symmetry. I like the perfection that the computer offers, which I didn’t realize I would be into before.” She wants to make use of the program in future works, though she conceded that “there was a lot of cursing out loud” this time.

As for the sculptural works in the show, Koh has situated three roses, two lilies, and two violets in three vitrines at 45 Rockefeller Plaza. Despite the icicles hanging from their leaves and the soft layers of snow covering their petals, these flowers stand tall against shimmering backdrops of sequined fabric. The three vignettes within the glass windows are—like the aftermath of a winter storm—dreamy and mesmeric.

But she acknowledged that her artistic output hasn’t always been quite this playful. Koh’s single-eyed beings—which have ranged from flowers to hamburgers to ice-cream cones and beyond—began as lone eyes that would hang on walls. Until her twin daughters were born in 2015, she said, her sculptural practice was more abstract, but children’s books have since come to inspire her—in particular, those of the inimitable Eric Carle, author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

When I made my first rainbow sculpture I was a little self-conscious about it because I thought, ‘Oh, is this corny?’ ” Koh said. “I didn’t used to make such bright and happy work before. I was so used to making work that was dark and kind of scary, too, with glass shards or nails. Now I totally embrace it.”

Hein Koh, “Braving the Cold,” 2019.

DAN BRADICA

“I end up twinning a lot of my work,” she told me. “I think a lot about relationships in my work. I can get very sappy and sentimental—I think my kids have allowed me to tap into that.”

Even in this relatively new phase of her sculptural practice, though, some of the darkness of her older work is palpable. Koh’s creations possess a complicated, even contradictory, set of characteristics: all at once, they’re humorous and disquieting, endearing and surreal.

At one point, Koh gestured to one of the groups of flowers with large eyes, and said, “These roses—there are three and I think of them as me and my daughters—are kind of scary with the eyes. But it’s also kind of funny. I want it to be a lot of different layers.”

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