The LA-based artist’s first hometown solo show grapples with fantasy and the freedoms of sexual expression
Kate Ahn’s art was taken down from Instagram last week. As a celebrated painter, receiving attention and acclaim for putting her body on display—however exaggerated and modified it may be portrayed, and regardless of the fact that acrylic paint is her medium—censorship is a constant struggle of hers. That struggle, ironically, and the urge to reclaim space and creative and bodily rights, is at the heart of what drives Ahn to the easel.
In recent years, the Los Angeles-based painter has emerged as a rising force in the art world for her overt explorations of sexuality, self-expression, and the boundaries of what portraiture can mean in the modern world. Ahn’s work has clung to gallery walls across the globe, but last month, the artist hit an important milestone—opening her first “hometown” solo show at Los Angeles’s Galerie Murphy. Across the open, light-filled space, just steps from the city’s Dover Street Market, Ahn truly bared all in a multimedia exhibition titled, Oh No! I’m Naked! It was an exercise in appreciating the tension between the female body and desire; profanity and morality. The artist built and manipulated this middle ground with beautiful articulation, offering up her own body as a vulnerable assertion of human rights and female strength, still managing to leave much to the eye and experience of the beholder.
The show featured a variety of old and new paintings, a textile installation, and a gift shop tucked to the side, which showcased Ahn’s capsule collection with beloved footwear brand Yume Yume, as well as a variety of other collectibles, such as delicate Porn-embroidered panties. The experience, like Ahn’s practice as a whole, fostered open conversation between artist and audience, and society and the images we indulge in.
Anna Zanes: Can you tell us a little about your background, and how you became interested in art?
Kate Ahn: Growing up as a Korean American, I felt torn between two cultures. My parents, being immigrants, were typical in that they wanted me to conform to [being perfect]—you know, the doctor, lawyer, business executive that all my cousins and their friends’ kids were. Dress like how everyone else dressed, get straight A’s, go to a prestigious college, don’t have a boyfriend until after [you graduate], and then get married to a really rich guy and live happily ever after. All of that. And I just didn’t want anything to do with that. So that’s where art came in for me. I was living in a world where I had to fit into this mold, but I needed to create another—where I could be whatever I wanted to be.
Anna: How did self-portraiture, speaking to the idea of sexuality, become your primary subject matter?
Kate: From an early age, I always drew myself. Many of my teachers would laugh because every painting was me, even if I drew a beach with people on it—every person on that beach was me. Of course, eventually, I needed to draw other things in order to learn the fundamentals. Looking back, I realized I was always the focus of my pieces because I was trying to find a way to deal with my self-esteem issues. At the same time, I was finding space to rebel against the oppression I dealt with at home, and from my culture.
As I grew a bit older, I was met with even more restrictions, especially when it came to relationships and sex. In high school, I quickly learned that those same rules did not apply to men. It angered me that there was this double standard with sexuality, and just about everything after that. My self-esteem issues kept growing, as I felt like I never developed the ideal female form. It’s so funny—every day, starting from when I was 11, I would say, I’ll wake up with boobs tomorrow. And you know what? I woke up years later and they still never grew, until I got a boob job. I wish I was exaggerating, but not having boobs bothered me to the point where I didn’t want to live anymore. Now I can look back and laugh, but it really bothered me that much.
I started creating self-portraits where I could fantasize the idealized female form, and also focus on sexuality. Sexuality, to me, is the forefront of freedom. Naturally, it became the first thing I wanted to explore in my work. People criticize me, saying that I am working with the patriarchy, as I paint only the idealized female body. But I don’t feel this at all. As a woman, I am owning my sexuality, my fantasies, my own body without restrictions.
Anna: If you had to put it into a few words, how would you describe your artistic style? Even though it’s self-portraiture, how much of it is external—coming from what you see and encounter in the world?
Kate: My artistic style is a fantasy. If people feel like they’re diving into a different world, just for a second, I know that my piece has done its job. I’m influenced by my Korean upbringing, Japanese culture, and sexual spaces like love hotels. I think most of it is external. Like, I know that if my own culture wasn’t so obsessed with perfection, I wouldn’t be so insecure.
Anna: What mediums outside of painting do you appreciate the most, and draw from with your work?
Kate: Fashion was actually the first form of expression that I experimented with. It helped me feel like the best version of myself, even with all my insecurities. And it still does today. I wanted to include it in my work, which is why you see accessories like socks and lingerie incorporated into each piece.
Anna: What’s your studio routine like?
“That’s where art came in for me. I was living in a world where I had to fit into this mold, but I needed to create another—where I could be whatever I wanted to be.”
Kate: I am not a morning person. I wake up around 10 a.m. to answer emails, handle production, and work on graphics from my bed. My boyfriend makes me an insanely good breakfast and we eat together—he keeps me sane. I actually get up and start painting at 1, until around 8. I put on TV shows or YouTube videos in the background. From 8 to 9:30, I take a much-needed break, eat dinner, and [keep painting until 3 or 4] in the morning. If I have a crazy deadline, I’ll stay up until the next day, sometimes two days in a row. Hot Cheeto Puffs are definitely a part of my routine. When I wind down for the day, I usually spend time bidding for new pieces I can add to my closet. My routine makes me feel like a psycho degenerate, but it is what it is for now, since I work better at night.
Anna: Can you discuss any obstacles you’ve faced in your artistic career, and how you overcame them?
Kate: I think there are two major challenges I face: The first is the hate and rejection I receive, due to the subject matter I choose to paint. And the second is instability. The criticism sucks at first, but it [becomes] like fuel. It drives my work and inspires new ideas. The greatest part of the negative feedback is that it solidifies my purpose in life.
I really hate the instability. It stresses the fuck out of me. But, at the same time, I really can’t imagine doing anything but this. I’ve started accepting it, because I realize that instability will probably be a part of my life for a while, no matter how many hours I put into this. This year, I learned that a lot of my shitty experiences have inspired my work. I feel less and less scared to go through the bad times, because my art will always be here for me. I still have my breakdowns, but being an artist has definitely made me a stronger person.
Anna: Can you tell us about a piece of art, in this show, that you are particularly proud of?
Kate: My star piece: OH NO IM N☆KED! I am very proud of it, because it expresses the same ideas as my other pieces, but in such a different way. I wanted to show that sexuality and explicitness can still be expressed, even without nudity—the face alone is so explicit. It’s also a sarcastic comeback to all the hatred. Like, ‘Look, I just painted my face, but I’m still naked… the horror!’
Anna: You’re such an LA girl, in the best of ways. What does it mean for you to have your first solo show here?
Kate: It meant the fucking world to me! I couldn’t eat, sleep, or breathe over the last week, preparing for the show. I was so nervous and excited to be doing this in my city. Opening night was everything I imagined it to be; I wanted it to be a big party, and that’s what it was. And the best part was, there was no Hollywood bullshit. We were all just having fun celebrating together, and actually dancing. It was really a night to remember.