JooYoung Choi is one of the most interesting people you may ever meet. A talented artist living and working in Houston, she has fast-tracked her career in the past several years with mounting shows across the US, all while gaining the attention of national papers and websites. It’s a bit of a challenge to explain her highly imaginative and fantastical work due to the fact that it seems to exist on a plane all to itself. Working within video, sculpture, paintings and puppets, Choi creates all that she desires in this world. But she doesn’t just conjure these worlds on the small scale, she creates them as large, engulfing environments. Choi’s paintings are rich with color and complexity and give deeper insight into her sweet madness. While her alter egos can be seen throughout all of her pieces, they are just a small percentage of her ongoing characters and settings. And with performance as a foundation throughout her work, Choi will never allow you to make a dividing line between what is here and what lies within there. Currently, Choi has her solo exhibition, A Better Yesterday, at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston. This new, highly vivid show is a powerful step for Choi, and it poses her as one of the top artist working both within the region and nationally. Free Press Houston was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to talk with Choi about her practice, the exhibition, and her upcoming workshop.
Free Press Houston: You have been exhibiting all over the country and even had some wonderful coverage from the Huffington Post. Can you tell me a little bit about this experience for you and how these key components of your practice fell into place?
Choi: The last few years have been extraordinary. When I review all the projects I have worked on from the Parliament of the Owls show at Diverse works to now, it takes a moment for me to believe it all has happened since the Summer of 2023.
In the past few years, I have realized that I am a lover of learning, and that art and narrative have been a vehicle to do just that. My piece at the Diverse Works show of 2023, Earth Based Satellite Investigation and Innovative Production of Educational Materials for the Sight and Sound Research Foundation of the Cosmic Womb, also known as E.B.S.C.I.I.P.E.M.S.S.R.F.C.W., pushed me to learn more about video editing, chroma key, puppet making, and taught me that my studio process could be of interest to viewers. It was here that it introduced me to the idea of including an interactive component to my work. As an artist that has in the past often worked alone, moving my studio into the Diverse works artist space and creating a video art project with the public was a growing experience.
In February of 2023, I had a solo show called “Paracosmic Alchemy” at Anya Tish Gallery. For this show, I learned more about carpentry and built my first video art sculptures. I introduced new characters into my narrative and created my first battle painting. This show explores a method of exploring experiences from the past we cannot change, how people can use their imaginations to take a challenging experience and transform it through storytelling and imagery into something meaningful.
July 2023 I worked on the Snow People Space Travel to Texas Initiative, with a generous grant from the Ideafund. For the project, I created a team of intergalactic “snow people” puppets (snow people who had evaporated into outer space and had returned to earth). The project showed me what it looked like to develop a narrative and then let go of some control and let the art develop further through playful interaction with viewers. With the help of submittable.com and a team of judges (myself, two artists and one curator), we reviewed a collection of applicants who wanted to host a snow person puppet for one week, with the condition that they share a photo of them and their puppet each day. After the snow people were delivered to the host families, I watched like everyone else, and saw what kind of joy and magic a play friend can bring to the lives of adults and children.
During the fall and winter of 2023, I produced my first two large-scale sculptures and created my first large-scale immersive installation. “Freedom from Madness” was the first large-scale sculpture I have ever produced and was a wild process of trial and error. I began these pieces in the summer and worked until the fall to present them. Learning what a sculpture made by me would even look like, was a challenge. I ended up watching puppet tutorials and pulling apart dolls to make patterns. I accidentally went to a furry workshop for costume creation, thinking it was a workshop on how to make fursuits of all kinds. Instead, I learned a lot about Furry culture, but that was neat too. I took a week-long trip to NYC to look at art and gather ideas as well as a shorter trip to Disney World to understand my first memorable experiences in immersive installation. I went on the “It’s a small world after all” at least three times, furiously taking notes and drawing pictures. The Peter Pan ride at disney world inspired how I used lighting and figures in the Project Row House exhibit. These projects let me play with ideas about color and race in ways I hadn’t explored prior.
Growing up, and still today, there are not enough leading black women leaders in superhero comics. We can only mention that X-Men’s Storm is black so much until it gets creepy. I wanted to create a character who was black, a woman, strong, powerful, intelligent and beautiful. Spacia Tanno, in both pieces, challenges how blackness is generally perceived in English language metaphor and western storytelling. I read once that black was at one point perceived as “heaven’s color” in Chinese culture, and I thought that was quite beautiful and logical; it is the color of the nighttime sky. Furthermore, the piece at Project Row Houses let me explore my feelings about the violence against black boys in America. The things I have heard from my friends of color that have experienced racism — instances where people have tried to make them feel bad or dangerous and worthless just because of their race — is what I call the myth of the black zero. During the exhibition, the Orionid meteor shower was taking place, so I created a story about a very powerful star being born who was rejected from his constellation because he was born as a black star and was different than his siblings. As he fell backwards from the sky, he transformed from an Orion star to a Noiro star, first perceiving himself as the Black Zero (Noir-O). But the exhibit’s narrative explores the idea that noir, or black, can be comprised of all the other colors on a painter’s palette, and that zero is the number that allows us to comprehend the idea of infinity. The emotional response from people who participated in the interactive component of this installation taught me a lot about the power of art and how it can help heal or soothe the pain of it’s viewers in ways I didn’t know my work could do.
For my exhibition at the CAMH, I learned more about composition, design and color harmony. I put together a stack of books and went back to school. I took notes and researched what worked in past pieces and what aspects of my process were less helpful. The CAMH project brings a narrative that began in 2023 to a finale work called “Time For you and Joy to get Acquainted.” This work celebrates the main character’s journey of making peace with her past before riding off into the future with her beau, a rabbit, and an octopus with eczema. I have been wanting to make a dinosaur for years, and here was my chance. I couldn’t have done it without the help of volunteers who travelled out to my studio to make flowers, sew dino parts, and help with wood working. It has been such a journey!
FPH: Your work is ever evolving, and I have gone back several times to see your show currently up at the CAMH? How did this come about? As one of your first major solo exhibitions, how did you envision approaching this on its new platform? What was your goal for this particular show?
Choi: Well, I was at Fiesta buying guacamole when I got a message asking if I’d be interested in participating. I almost dropped my guacamole! I was so happy! Bill came to learn more about my work at Lawndale and again when I did a show at Front Gallery. We talked more at Diverseworks, and so forth. He’s really fun to talk to about imaginary worlds, children’s television, and video art. He just knows so much, and it’s fun to get his perspective on things. Working with him and the team at CAMH on this has been super fun. My goal for this show was to get the whole narrative of Spacia Tanno in one place, with the finale in the middle. It was an amazing and challenging process with lots of hard work and lots of help from volunteers. Some of my goals were more simple like: I want to see what a garden made out of fabric will look like; I want to make a giant dinosaur who can grow flowers and sit on it’s back; I want make a painting that expresses the moment of breaking out of imprisonment — enlightenment; I want to make a super big painting that has the whole gang together; and I want to make a giant spider lady. It’s a mix of these TIWTS (things I want to see) and narrative ideas.
FPH: Your work is so adventitious and fantasy bound but calculated at the same time. I’ve enjoyed spending time within many of your large-scale installations, and your attention to the smallest components is impressive. Can you talk about your process when creating one of your environments?
Choi: Hmmm, I am very much interested in meta realities. My favorite movie since I was a child was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Things like knowing where Eddie Valiant’s office is located (1130 South Hope Street in LA), or where the tunnel to Toon Town is, Griffith Tunnel, were important to me. This is where my husband and I technically got married — in Toon Town!
So I try to ensure that whatever I am doing is connected to reality here on earth. So if a show is happening on a certain date, I research what else is going on that day. Is a meteor shower happening? Is it the anniversary to something? Does the location of the place connect to something within the narrative I am working on? Why would these characters want to be on Earth, and why at this location?
Currently I am working on a show that will open on Friday the 13th of April, so I have been researching April 13th’s throughout history, and a particular April 13th in 2023, when an asteroid will come very close to the Earth. I am also exploring an aspect of the narrative that plays with a deck of cards since there are 4 suits (4 for April) and 13 cards per suit. Hopefully the narrative and paintings will play with the idea of my imaginary friends saving the Earth from a golden snake creature named “Apophis 44492.”
It has to feel real enough and compelling enough for me to care, to believe, and then to make. If I don’t believe in the power of my narratives or get excited by the mythology it is weaving, it’s incredibly hard for me to sustain my interest in a long term project. This is especially true when it comes to a body of work that will require months of work. It’s gotta feel genuine and include a narrative, characters, and imagery that I care about.
FPH: How does your inner layer of characters and imaginary realms interact with your day-to-day, and how much of it just remains as contemporary art?
Choi: Hmmm, well, it’s all kind of one in the same. My character Plan-Genda is the force energy being who represents thoughtful planning and time in my imaginary world. The gridded pattern that decorates her skin resembles the gridded time management system I use to plan my work schedule. A new character named “Sputnik” is also the name of a new task brainstorming template I use to plan out more complicated projects. So the characters are part of my everyday life. I know that they aren’t real, but as with any good paracosm, I feel responsible for them, and I feel it is my job to maintain and continue to develop the world that they live in.
FPH: Your creature creation workshop is coming up this weekend. Can you tell us about your projected outcome for this event? What is it you are trying to help the participants tap into?
Choi: So much of the world building workshops or video talks I have heard focus on writing: Take a sheet of paper and draw little picture in the box and then write out stuff like eye color, race, place of birth, age, blah blah blah. For writers, this seems to work well. I know for myself, a lot of my ideas about my characters and worlds come from making and play. Instead of knowing everything about a character through a worksheet, puppets have been incredibly helpful.
When I made Putt Putt, my pink octopus, he had only been in two paintings. He hasn’t a very popular character, and I didn’t really know anything about him. But after I made him, I brought him out with me and people played with him and he began to have an identity. My husband does his voice, and we’ve done videos where Putt Putt sings with me, and he really has developed a personality.
I like the idea of building a workshop about world building upon play. Let’s play and each make a creature! Who are the friends of this character? What do they eat? Where does this creature live? What does it do? What does it fear, and what makes it happy? Through playing with the creatures, the mind can be invited to build a bigger and more immersive world. We will be making creatures, interviewing each others puppets, getting feedback, making small backdrops that can be chroma keyed into videos, and filming presentations with people’s creatures. Hopefully, this will give people a look into a method of world building and character creation and what it is like to generate ideas using making, playing and feedback from fellow creators.
This workshop has been limited to 14 participants per class, and it appears the classes may soon fill up.
Right now we are trying to coordinate one more artist walk through of the work, so anyone who couldn’t get into the class could bring their questions about world building to this upcoming artist talk, and I’d be happy to share what I know during that event.
Join “A Better Yesterday” artist JooYoung Choi at 1 pm on Saturday, Sept. 2 at CAMH for an artist Q&A session, where she will field questions from attendees about her work.