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Artist Spotlight: Ki Yoong

Ki Yoong (@ki.yoong) is an artist based in London, UK. Ki’s approach is figurative, taking inspiration from a breadth of material, notably the people around him, places - both real and fictional, poetry, and art history. He studied his undergraduate degree in Fine Art at The University of Leeds, going on to complete an MFA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins. ⁠

Yoong is one of the three artists featured in the current STUDIO WEST Exhibition, The Blush Upon Her Cheek. Drawing from Restoration Court painter Sir Peter Lely’s Windsor Beauties (1660s), a set of eleven portraits depicting ladies of the court of King Charles II, the exhibition sees a trio of contemporary artists examine the problematics entrenched in the cultivation and appreciation of beauty.⁠

We sat down with Ki to discuss the exhibition, his focus on the face as a subject and more…

How was the reception to the opening night of the exhibition?

It was good! I chatted to lots of interesting people and my friends came, which was always affirming. It was the first time I'd actually met Florence and Leo as well so it's nice to just really get to know them and talk to them, and also to decompress with them as well, and just sort of enjoy the fact that we've done something together, I guess. But yeah, it was nice - I was quite tired, to be honest.

Where did your journey as an artist start?

I've always loved drawing and painting and as cliché as it sounds - not that I’ve always known that I want to be an artist because I haven't - I've always just loved art and I've always loved creating. Ever since I was a child, it was the thing that I always was my go-to. So throughout being a child and growing older, that was always my central focus. And I never really thought about really doing anything else. There's nothing else that I ever enjoyed as much or that I felt as good as either. It was just a thing of that was the thing I needed to do. 

Then when I went to uni, I did fine art at Leeds Uni - I’m from Leeds. So I studied and then after that, I went to London and did my MA in fine art at Central Saint Martin's. And then I guess it all became real. It was one of those things where I always kind of felt a bit of an imposter saying ‘Oh I’m an artist’. It seems like one of those titles that you should give yourself when you've reached a certain point but I guess it's important to call yourself that to take yourself seriously. I think I’m still working on that.

After Uni I did a few different things, some teaching, some curation. Again, I think it was still a confidence thing of being like I need to have something else in case this doesn't work. And I realised more in the past two, three years that actually just put that stuff to one side and just focus on the thing that you’ve always wanted to focus on so that's what I'm doing now. 

I'd love to know what drew you to focus so closely on the face in your work and if this has always been the same from the start of your career as an artist.

It has always been the same. There's something about the face which I've always found fascinating. I think most people probably do to some degree, maybe not necessarily in an artistic way. But I've always just been really fascinated by the face and how it's seen as a way of understanding the person and its ability to communicate without needing language. The way that it can speak without needing to speak, the way that we can walk down the street and see a person's face and sort of understand something about that person and their experience in that moment, just through their various expressions, even though it may be very subtle. I've found it really always attracted me. 

Again, ever since I was a child, it's always been portraits that I've wanted to paint and so it's been portraits that I've always found fascinating from other artists. And like when I used to teach, for example, I think there is something intrinsic that people connect with when it comes to faces. Like when I was teaching in primary school, the children were always wanting to draw faces. That was the thing that they loved drawing most. And I think it was kind of a way of exploring their connection with other people and with themselves. But yeah, it's something that I've always been really drawn to.

Your paintings didn't give any context other than the face itself as they don’t have a background. Can you talk me through the reasoning for this?

It's kind of to do with what I was just saying about how a face has the ability to communicate so much if you just sit with it. So I think the cropping of the face is a means to make that perception more immediate, I guess. I’m very interested in the gaze and also within our experience of other people, the power of the gaze and meeting someone's gaze, or them averting their gaze from you, and how that can really change your relationship and experience with either a person or with a piece of art. And I guess through cropping the face and sort of omitting all other information that kind of makes that relationship much more direct with the viewer.

I absolutely love the way that yourself, Leo and Florence's work all interplay in this exhibition, because you have such different focuses and I think there's such a nice contrast and melding together of your work that plays into the theme of Sir Peter Lely’s portraits. What do you want people to take away from this exhibition?

Interesting question. Well, I guess the starting point of the exhibition was in loose terms, ideas about beauty so that's one of the central themes I was kind of thinking about. I guess that's something that I would like people who visit the exhibition to meditate on is the idea of beauty and what it means to different people, even though it can be really complicated. But I hope the show gives a moment for people to pause and sit with their own idea of what beauty is and what it means to them. And to examine those ideas and how those ideas have formed for them without being prescriptive. Just be like, Okay, what does this mean? Why does this mean this to me? 

I don't really want to describe what I think people's experiences should be but I think that's one of the things that can be within their minds when they view the works. Sort of, to pose the question back at them - What is beauty to me? And why is it this?

And what kind of themes in Sir Peter Lely’s paintings does your work look to tackle?

Well, I've known about the paintings for quite a long time, because when I did my BA, at least one of my modules was about portraiture. We spoke about the Windsor Beauties, and I suppose kind of held a place in my mind. But I’d never actually seen them in real life so a couple months ago, we went to Hampton Court with Caroline and Bella from Studio West to go see the paintings, which was really interesting. But what struck me most was like how homogenous they all looked. They’re in the corridor and very, very much feel like replicas of the same painting. Slightly different features, slightly different colours, but their faces really do look the same. And, I guess, like, during the time, these portraits represented the very English notion of what beauty is, and the pinnacle of beauty and this is what it was. 

I think I just wanted to reimagine the idea of a national beauty - like the English rose. The English rose in these paintings is very much a white woman with pale skin, etc. Just on a basic level I want to be like, what does this look like today? Even just a snapshot, what could it look like? What is today's English Rose? What is today's national beauty? And just sort of reexamine that to a degree.

So that was one of the things and then I guess a more positive thing - not that's a negative thing, it's just one of the things that kind of was contrary to my experience with the world today - I also just wanted to celebrate Lele’s techniques within my works and tie that element into my work. When you look at the paintings, when you look at the Windsor Beauties, they’re radiant, and they feel like they're emitting their own sort of light in a way. I did some research into his techniques and there was a technique that he used called 'the glow', which was a technique where he used different glazes, light-coloured glazes, to sort of create the sense of depth and sense of light beneath the surface. He used red tones within his shadows in order to create a very alive feeling to his flesh. That was something that on a technical level I wanted to incorporate into my paintings as a celebration and connection to him as an artist and his methods of working. To create a sense of life, a connection to the past and also a starting point of inspiration for these works.

As a whole, where do you draw most of your inspiration from?

I'm just very interested in people's perceptions. How they perceive other people and how in turn those perceptions are actually a reflection of their own self-perception. So, say they're looking at one of my paintings like, or any painting, actually, or anything in real life, but what is it that they perceive about what they're looking at? Say it’s a portrait, what is it that they see, and perceive about that person based on their features or their expression? What is it that the viewer reads into? What stories do you tell about that person? How do you feel about that person? And in turn, what about those perceptions reflect back onto the self? What is it that these stories are actually saying about you and your experience? I think that's something that I'm always thinking about when I'm making works and I see my paintings as a prompt for people to have that experience I hope. [People should] be able to look at something and sort of think about it and reflect on it and tell their own stories, and then think about, okay, well, what do their stories say about me, and my experience, my prejudices, my sense of self, etc?

And so many things. People have always been my primary source of inspiration and lots of sensitivity I guess. Lots of things inspire me in that sensitive way that feeds into my work, even though it may not be a direct relationship, such as poetry. A poem that I read might give me a certain feeling that I might want to embed into my paintings. So I guess all of these kinds of things. A beautiful garden, a lovely day, a conversation I might have with a friend. It's kind of like, it's kind of hard to articulate.

But first and foremost, it has to do with people, and it's a perception and identity as well. My own identity and other people's are something that I definitely want to explore more within my work.

If you enjoyed this conversation with Ki, make sure to check out our other Artist Spotlight interviews over on and whilst you’re there, why not have a look through all of the fantastic art we have for sale from emerging artists? Head to the ‘Browse’ tab of the app or website to see what catches your eye…


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