Desire is a Trap, Desire is the Means of Escape: The Forest Paintings of Yeo Hyun Kwon

Jennifer A.González (Professor of UCSC)

“We do not live for the sake of purpose, we pursue purpose in order to live. We set an object of our desire in order to desire.” - Yeo Hyun Kwon.

Floating upside down or sleeping in the branches of trees, stepping through underbrush or caught in a net of vines, the human forms in Yeo Kyun Kwon’s forest series are intimately integrated into a visual history of desire, creating a world of reverberations that arrive, finally, at stillness. A peaceful calm pervades these canvases, but this quiet tone is deceiving, it belies the conceptual tensions that press in on the viewer. Why are these bodies hanging by a thread? What is this imaginary space of the forest? As with William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the forest in Kwon’s paintings is a space of magic, dreams and nightmares, the site of passion and forgetting, untruths and half-truths that nevertheless lead us down a path of honest self-reflection.

How do we decide which mythologies and histories to call our own, which religious traditions to practice, commodities to buy, and relations to construct with others? Rational systems and forms of logic have been devised to map our psyche, our philosophies, our existence, and even our ethics. But are we really rational? Computation and electronic networks now undergird our everyday existence in ways that are difficult to fathom. An inundation, a flood of signs threatens to overwhelm us, to undermine the fragile maps we have used to create the scaffoldings of a possible existence. Some theorists have called this a “post-modern” condition, but if we agree with Bruno Latour that we have “never been modern,” it may in fact be a perennial human condition merely made more evident by the increasing speed of the circulation of people, ideas and images.


Kwon’s painting pursues this human condition from both an autobiographical and philosophical perspective.

Temporality and its mysteries pervade Kwon’s paintings, not only because he makes reference to painting styles of the previous centuries, but also because within a single work we are invited to imagine several different time periods colliding and intersecting. In Monkey Tree in Bricolage Forest (2010) we see philosophers such as Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida transformed into monkeys holding lotus blossoms or Baruch Spinoza soaring through the sky dressed as Superman. They cling to a tree that seems to emerge from a dense jungle but that also merges with an architectural firmament that bears down upon them from above. In the lower corners of the landscape that at first glance seemed entirely organic, we see the emergent shapes of super highways and nuclear reactors. In Rizome Forest (2011) Carravagio’s Self-Portrait as Bacchus (1593) shares the forest with a Sphinx who is gently petted by a female figure with automaton organs. The irony of the title will be clear to readers of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari who argue that a “rizomatic” theory is one that allows multiple entry points and forms of visualization—like Kwon’s paintings—but that is generally opposed to arborescent (tree-like) models of knowledge that tend to resolve in branching, dualist categories of descent. As with our own memories and perception, temporality becomes a fluid enterprise. In the forest of Kwon’s mind the tree doubles as a spinal column, an aorta with branching blood vessels, or neurons that produce an exuberant synaptogenesis—new connections among the neurons that create the knots of consciousness. Here we find pensive flesh caught in the garden-as-machine, bodies wrapped in the tendrils of history, entangled in the meshes of memory. These memories belong to the artist, but also to the collective viewing public and their own exposure to the history of art and ideas.


In important ways Kwon is a painter’s painter, not merely because he demonstrates a mastery of technique, but also because his references include a broad range of representational painters from Henri Rousseau to Vincent Van Gough to eighteenth-century Korean masters like Kim Eung-hwan and Danwon. In Eros and Psyche In Bricolage Forest (2008) one finds the angular branches of a pine tree reminiscent of Kim Eung-hwan’s landscape Gang An Chung Juhk Do, but the angles of the trunk are exaggerated and abstracted, and painted in a deep unnatural, vibrant blue like the trees in Van Gogh’s Olijfgaard (1889). This blue is echoed in the blue used to depict Thomas Train, a popular toy for young children of the past decade that peeks out from under the branches of the tree. In Diana-Frida as Hybrid Deer (2008) the artist borrows and transforms Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Deer (1946) for his own Rousseau-inspired hunting landscape in which Diana, posed in the classic Greek sculptural depiction by Leochares (Louvre), seems to be both the purser and the pursued. Here again the Thomas Train figure winds through the landscape like a snake in the garden, a sign perhaps of the commodity culture invading nature, and children invading the independent life and bodies of the woman. 

In addition to specific historical and cultural references, one can see in the brush strokes that comprise the twisted vines an evocation of the three-dimensional depth one finds in abstract American painters like David Reed or the early work of Jonathan Lasker, as well as the iconographic textural layering of David Salle. To look at a Kwon painting is not only to see historical archetypes and philosophical references, it is also to see a conversation—even a debate—among painters and systems of representation. How should one depict knowledge, wisdom, beauty? With the lotus blossom, the waterfall, the woman’s body? Is photorealism preferable to gestural brush stroke? Each of these presents itself as an option in the rizomatic twisting and turning that comprises Kwon’s own gestural and chromatic network, biding the world together.

In the center of Kwon’s Genesis Forest (2011) William Blake’s wind-swept figure Urizen from Ancient of Days (1794), imposes a soulless, rational order on the world. With a mechanical divider between his fingers, he hovers over the twin texts that form the lower frame of the image: Genesis Apocryphon and Deconstruction. Rather than the binary opposition creation/destruction, Kwon offers a contested territory in which the origins of the human might be in doubt, as suggested in Genesis Apocryphon one of the lesser known of the seven Dead Sea scrolls, and in which “destruction” is replaced by a careful Derridian “deconstruction” of our conditions of thought. Recurring figures such as the monkey, snake and owl stand in for the important roles they have played in pre-Christian stories of creation and knowledge; in Greek mythology the snake Orphion coils about the body of Eurynome, the Goddess of all Things to couple with her. In Mayan mythology, monkeys are the spiritual progenitors and older brothers of human beings, and the owl of Minerva has traditionally been seen as the symbol of wisdom that arrives as one system of thought is dying away and another is born. Animals also exist outside of human symbolism, even if they are caught in its web; they have forest habitats that are quickly disappearing. Genesis Forest invites consideration of this double reading and opens up the intimate relations among humans and animals that are so rarely acknowledged.

Kwon writes, “Ophelia’s death can save Hamlet. In order to accomplish Hamlet’s revenge, Ophelia dies.”

In his most recent series of forest paintings during his residency in California, Ophelia becomes a central and recurring figure. In Ophelia in Rizome Tree (2014) the figures of women and animals rest in stillness, they do not brachiate among the branches. Caught in nets and turned upside down, covered with paint drips like blue rain falling, these living creatures seem to be entirely without volition. Even the one upright female figure that leans against the trunk of the tree has her hands bound tightly behind her in a straightjacket of unforgiving vines. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia goes mad before she falls from a tree’s broken branch, to her death in the stream below. Her floating body surrounded by flowers, immortalized in numerous depictions perhaps most famously by John Everet Millais (1851), becomes a symbol of the tragic, sacrificial death of innocence. Yet there is some debate: was it suicide? In another version of Ophilia in Rizome Tree (2014) blue waters rush forth like a waterfall, but from an unknown source down into watery depths. A clue emerges when the artist reveals his hometown is Hab-Cheon. The Habcheon hydro-electric dam was built in the early 1980s and had a dramatic impact on the landscape. The artist writes: “Memories of my youth-years are corroded and dissolved underwater now….” Are we, as some of his paintings suggest, already in the process of hanging ourselves with our own noose? Who is being sacrificed, and are they innocent? What do the dams provide that we so fervently desire?

In Kwon’s paintings desire is a trap, a lure, a constant seduction. Desire precedes words and gestures. It is also the device that draws us forward, that leads us onward into change, into life, into procreation, into greed, into destruction. Humans put things together in order to take them apart—the activity of children remind us of this. Desire is an animating force, an endless energy, a drive; our desires are also always derivative of others’ desires. Here, in the historical present, we witness what our desires have become: a path to annihilation. Humans have desired the world until, it appears, no world will be left. The two classically opposing forces, Eros and Thanatos, cannot however fully explain the interlocking complexity, the layered histories that have emerged to create the dynamic flux that defines our moment. This network is not merely a trap, it also serves as the veins and arteries of Kwon’s world. The past feeds the present like a living organism, and the present is entrapped and sustained by the routines, the fantasies, the systems devised in the past. But there room for escape, there are gaps in the semiotic net through which the world is defined, mapped and regulated. The future is still unpredictable; though we are growing more and more afraid of our own destruction. Kwon’s work is not altogether pessimistic. While there is life, there is hope. We are organisms within organic systems; we cannot artificially separate ourselves from this fact. It is the illusion of separation that is the real source of danger; this illusion is itself illusionary.