Park Hyung Jin

Doll Face: Deconstructing the Asian Idol

Park Hyung Jin’s typically monumental paintings of young Korean women are intimate portraits of real individuals that offer a glimpse of pure, sublime beauty. Jin draws attention to the physical qualities and features that make his subjects unique, while glossing over the actualities that other Photorealists might feature- he smooths skin, tames hair, and straightens teeth. Jin purposefully idealizes certain aspects of his subjects’ features to give these woman a veneer of perfection. As such, Jin’s paintings straddle Eastern and Western culture. They are meant to deconstruct the stereotypes of Asian women that prevail in western culture, such as the demure geisha or fiery dragon woman, by focusing closely on the individual physicality and personality of each of his subjects. Yet, Jin’s attention to idealization and beauty is reflective of the Eastern notion that spiritual experience and the sublime should be valued above reality.

Understanding Jin’s process is integral to any discussion of his paintings. Jin teaches at several universities in Seoul and most of his subjects are students in his painting classes. He believes that beauty can be found in the faces of any of these young women, although their features may not align in real life with societal ideals of symmetry and attractiveness. For each painting, Jin brings his student-subjects into his studio for a series of photographs. Jin then works from these photographs as he begins to paint his large-scale canvases, modifying and “perfecting” the appearance of his subjects as he goes. His subjects return to his studio throughout the painting process, so that Jin can compare the work on canvas to the actual woman. Jin is particularly concerned with transforming the appearance of painted skin, and renders the faces on his canvases as smooth and luminescent as traditional Asian ceramics.

Jin’s compositions tend to be extreme close-ups, in which the subject’s face takes up the majority of the picture plane, with a hand or shoulder occasionally entering the canvas. Any visible background is neutral, reinforcing the viewer’s directive to focus on the visage of the featured woman. The scale and cropping of the paintings implies the familiarity between subject and artist, and invites viewers to experience a similar sense of intimacy as they admire the geography of the facial plane, while making inferences about the personality of the woman depicted.

J H Wee (2013) is a striking seven foot tall painting of a young woman’s face that is characteristic of Park Hyung Jin’s oeuvre. Obscured by the darkness of her hair and the limited light source, the sitter’s portrait could not be clearer. She is confronting the viewer with a solemn stare paired with an indecipherable smile. The tone of her skin is highlighted by an innovative approach to chiaroscuro. The young woman is starring directly at the viewer, confronting us with her identity. Her hair, a rich warm auburn, is obviously dyed. She is wearing a black and white stripped knit sweater with a boat neck that evokes Americana. This painting is breaking the stereotype of Asian Idol by depicting this woman, influenced by a different culture yet so comfortable in with her identity.

Jin’s paintings of women highlight the tension between physicality and the interior life of the mind, and challenge the assumptions viewers place upon the faces of others. Although idealized and lovely to contemplate, Jin’s subjects are not merely masks onto which Western viewers can freely ascribe information. These young women are given agency by the subtle hints at individual personality we see in the pursing of lips, shy smiles, and simpers. Ultimately, Jin believes that his paintings are an expression of ideal beauty – both physically and spiritually, real and augmented. He modifies reality and real women, and presents viewers with faces approaching the sublime.

Abby Merrick and Marina Press
September 2013, New York City