Jonathan Ahn takes dramatically different approaches to his cityscapes and figurative works
By Norman Kolpas
Step into a gallery featuring a cross-section of oil paintings by Jonathan Jungsuk Ahn, and you might at first believe you’ve come upon a two-artist show. Some of the canvases present shimmering, impressionistic cityscapes of present-day San Francisco-where Ahn has lived and worked since 2005-so powerfully evocative that you’d swear you can hear the patter of rain and the whoosh of tires on slick streets.
Other works, however, portray impeccably detailed images of Asian women dressed in finely embroidered silk kimonos, portrayed with a cool restraint that seems to channel Ahn’s cultural heritage. In contrast to the cityscapes, these canvases possess a hushed, timeless aura, leaving you wondering whether you’re viewing scenes from the present or the past.
Distinctively different though they may be, both sets of paintings have evolved naturally from the experiences of the 34-year-old Korean-American artist. Ahn’s life has always straddled the Eastern and Western worlds, and his works express that duality. However, they share one important quality: a confident mastery of the medium that may seem especially rare in an artist still in the early stages of his professional career-rare, that is, until you realize that in his early years, Ahn was a classic example of a child prodigy.
In 1979, 2-year-old Jungsuk was visiting his grandmother in the countryside outside of Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city. One day, the youngster saw some cows in a nearby field. “I came back to my grandmother’s house and drew [the scene] exactly as I saw it,” he recalls.
The boy’s talent was vividly apparent. “My grandmother knew how to do traditional Korean ink paintings, and she tried to teach me,” says Ahn. But she couldn’t teach him much for two reasons. First, his innate talents already exceeded his grandmother’s skills, and, second, the family’s life at the time was peripatetic: His father was pursuing medical studies in both Korea and the United States, shuttling Jon as well as his older sister, Alice, and their mother back and forth between two continents.
Back in Korea, when Jon was 4 years old, his parents enrolled him in a private art academy aimed at high-school-level students. “At first, the other students just thought I was cute,” says Ahn, hesitating and then adding, “until I started doing paintings better than theirs. But to me the classes were just fun, a plaything.”
Art playtime quickly turned more serious when Ahn was 7, after the family moved permanently to greater Boston, where his father took up a teaching position in pathology at Harvard Medical School. With his parents’ support, Jon began studying painting privately under the mentorship of _Nancy Angell-Rickenbacker, a former student of Pablo Picasso and Oskar Kokoschka.
The once- or twice-weekly, several-hours-long, one-on-one sessions proved just the sort of rigorous instruction the boy craved. “She was very gentle and nurturing but had very high expectations and expected exceptional work every time,” Ahn says. “She gave me a lot of assignments, like handing me a book of Michelangelo drawings and telling me to copy every one, which took six or seven months. She also introduced me to a lot of art history, mostly in books. Although she did sometimes take me to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and show me works by the great American portrait painter John Singer Sargent or the 19th-century French master of academicism Jean-LÇon GÇrìme.”
Most importantly, says Ahn, “She instilled in me a work ethic that I just have to practice my art consistently. She told me that success is all about how much you put into it, saying that ‘it’s 10 percent talent, 40 percent hard work, and 50 percent luck.’” Asked about the high percentage given to luck, Ahn adds a further message _from his teacher: “If you’re born at the wrong time, well, that’s too bad for you.”
His devotion to realism sometimes led Ahn to feel that he might, indeed, have been born at the wrong time. Throughout middle school and high school, he says, “A lot of art teachers said I should be a graphic artist or illustrator.” Still, he was already making some money for himself painting portraits and making small sculptures on commission, while “sweeping every school art award.”
Some of those practical concerns expressed to him, however, seem to have taken hold. After high school, in 1996, Ahn moved across the Atlantic to study art history and computer science at the American University of Paris. Soon after his arrival, his devotion to painting took a serious blow with news that Angell-_Rickenbacker had died suddenly at the age of 58. “I was so sad,” he says, “and I didn’t do anything art-related for about two years.”
Eventually, his love of art re-emerged. He began to brush up on his skills by visiting Paris’ great museums in his spare time, making personal copies of masterworks by the likes of ThÇodore GÇricault and Claude Monet. And, he says, “Nancy’s lessons continued to stick to me, just like the smell of the dark-roast coffee she always drank.”
Meanwhile, Ahn dipped his toe into a number of possible career paths, considering law for a short while and also studying biochemistry. His computer science studies eventually won out, and in 2005 he moved to the Bay Area to work as a programmer in the Silicon Valley headquarters of leading video-game company Electronic Arts.
Wanting to move forward in that career, Ahn considered taking advanced courses in computer animation and design through San Francisco’s respected Academy of Art University. He visited the school’s spring 2006 student show and was impressed by the quality of the paintings and drawings he saw; soon after, based on his portfolio, the Academy’s fine-art department convinced him to sign up for their master of fine arts program instead.
He began that very summer with a basic class in figure drawing. “It felt good doing it again,” he says, and suddenly Ahn found himself to be “pretty much a full-time artist.” Perhaps because of his decade-long mentorship, however, he didn’t follow the traditional path in his studies under such respected Academy faculty members as Craig Nelson, Warren Chang, Baoping Chen, Zhaoming Wu, and Tomutsu Takishima. “I was pretty stubborn and confident in my abilities, and they were always patient with me. Eventually, we would find a middle ground.” Since receiving his MFA degree in May 2010, Ahn has been a member of the Academy’s teaching faculty himself. And the paintings he’s been creating since graduating express a mastery he has now been honing for almost 30 years, from those first classes back in Korea at the age of 4, through his mentorship under Angell-Rickenbacker, to his Academy degree.
Consider such San Francisco cityscapes as THROUGH THE DRAGON GATE, which depicts the iconic entrance to Chinatown on Grant Avenue at Bush Street. The idea for the 4-foot-by-4-foot oil began on a walk Ahn was taking through the city. “It was a really gorgeous view, but nobody was looking down the street. I wanted to yell out to people, ‘Hey! Look at this!’” So he sat on a bench and quickly made a little watercolor sketch. Back in his studio-the converted storage area of an old apartment building in the Russian Hill neighborhood-he developed a slightly larger oil study from the sketch that “worked out the composition a little more” before painting the final picture.
In such works, Ahn deliberately keeps his details loose. “I don’t use brushes, applying paint with anything from screwdrivers to rollers, palette knives to my hands. If I need to cover a wide area, I’ll even pick up a coffee cup and dump the paint on the canvas in pretty thick stripes. I don’t want to overcomplicate the idea. I want it to feel visceral, capturing the atmosphere and the mood, not trying to tell a story but leaving a little sense of mystery.”
His figurative pieces, by contrast, deliberately depict their subjects with far greater precision. THE WAITING ROOM, for example, shows a young woman (Ahn’s sister, Alice, in fact), dressed in a traditional Japanese bridal kimono, sitting in the waiting room of a wedding parlor. Behind her pensive figure hangs a print portraying a scene from The Tale of Genji, the classic early-11th-century novel of courtly love and intrigue.
“There is a narrative quality to the painting,” Ahn explains. “But through image, mood, and design, I’m trying to convey personal feelings, a sense of the woman’s anxiety, a little bit of sorrow. I’m trying to push that sense of mystery as much as I can.” And the way in which he renders the scene, through underpainting and meticulous brushwork, only enhances the viewer’s deep involvement with the narrative. “I’m trying to convey basic human emotions,” Ahn concludes, “without being overt.”
Such highly accomplished execution, whether in detailed figurative pieces or impressionistic cityscapes, has sent Ahn’s paintings flying out the doors of the several galleries that now represent him. Demand for new works is high. Once the spring term concludes at the Academy of Art University, he plans to head to his old Parisian stomping grounds for several weeks. No doubt many more atmospheric scenes and poignant portraits will result.
Ahn’s goals for that trip, and his work beyond that, remain simple and straightforward, firmly rooted in his own background as an artist. “I want to create an awareness for representational work,” he says, mindful of the skepticism with which his early devotion to realism was met. “And I want to be able to teach what I’ve learned over the years.”
Featured in April 2012.