Jai Tanju, 1999

Jaime Wright

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updated 08.15.2003

Choe Jams:
The Purity of David Choe


This interview was conducted by Jaime Wright for Comfusion Magazine: Winter 2002-03

We hung up. After talking to David Choe for the first time, I was left with the impression that he was your average guy. Polite and to the point. No frills, no pretensions. Upon a brief email exchange, and then after receiving his sex-and-violence comics/travelogue /fuck-you diatribe/sensitive-artist books, I was left with, surprisingly, the same impressionóexcept with the ďaverageĒ part omitted.

ďIíll write spaghetti on the wall . . . then Iíll draw a big fucking meatball. Iíll draw a Spiderman Pez dispenser on the wall, and on the car next to it Iíll draw a Pez on it. I donít give a fuck,Ē Choe quips in Harry Kimís ifilm.com feature Whales and Orgies. Choe delivers this tirade in a tone of voice that hints that the listener should beware. And so you laugh.

In many interviews, Choe emerges from the thick tar of vulgarity, non sequitur, and aggression to give an almost professorial exegesis on concepts such as ďpurity,Ē which he says is expressed when an artist uses ďquickness as the key.Ē He likes artwork (from graffiti to more formal media) that is ďfast ... because itís raw and pure, itís raw energy.Ē But rather than being an absent-minded character locked in the ivory tower of academe, Choe is running loose in the streets (dressed in slacks and blazer, can of spray paint in hand, skateboarding), being paid to destroy movie sets, and falling in love with oils in his studio. He lives. He lives out his artwork and philosophiesóthe postmodern and crazed version of the Zenga artist quickly drawing the enso.

These apparent paradoxes eventually clue the reader into the nature of Choe and his artwork: He is a cultural satirist who is serious about his personal life, with a sincerity that Urb magazine sarcastically described as ďsecretly romantic.Ē

Choe doesnít try to create some great piece of art. It comes naturally. Choe is just doing his thing, following a method similar to what San Jose artist Joseph Demaree calls ďTelling-My-Story-Wellism.Ē In all of his art, from the mixed media (watercolors, pen and ink, white out, acrylics, oils, spray paints, crayons, Polaroids, and Mexican candy wrappers) of his 1999 Self Portrait, to the traditional materials of his more recent Water Color Sketch from Parked Car Outside 7-11, to the pages of his newest book Bruised Fruit (Slow Jams, $20.00), he captures and conveys a stimulating self-reflection that is always embedded in the melancholy tones and subject matter of his work.


David Choe in his own words

Jaime Wright: Going all the way back to your first splash, or hit, the comic book Slow Jams, you play around with the spelling of words and grammar. For example, you use ďreal eyesĒ for the word ďrealizeĒ except when you use ďreal liesĒ for ďrealizeĒ in a sentence that describes someone as psychotic. What was behind some of your decisions to alter and use language in such a way? Do these early signs allude to your approach to your visual art?

David Choe: Itís a sense of immediacy, I didnít ever edit the story, it just poured out of my head, and I just left the puke on the sidewalk to dry. Like every other artfag Iím a self-proclaimed dyslexic. Iím a good drawer [but a] horrible speller: ds become bs and ps, and qs and ps fuck each other back and forth in a stiffer 69 position. Iím on a rampage when I write I type like a retard punching keys with two index fingers probably much harder than necessary mouthing out the words that are coming up, and if I donít know the proper spelling or grammar it doesnít really matter, because Iíll just spell it out phonetically, I donít have time to stop and spell check it.

     This enormous fear of forgetting all the ideas that are balancing on the tip of my mind, either falling onto the page or onto the other sideówhich is oblivion never to be rememberedóis too great to ever stop or slow down the flow. Stupid things happen of course, but sometimes it can get real interesting, and when people start spending hours analyzing stuff that I wrote in 30 seconds, sometimes they can get in too deep, but what usually happens is I end up looking a lot more thoughtful or smart than I really am.

Wright: From the love letter to Yunmi written by the main character Dixon of Slow Jams, wherein you compare the pure ideal of falling in love vs. the reality of ending up with someone just because, to various interviews, you return to this idea of ďpurity.Ē What do you think sparked this ideal, this purity, this drive toward something that you feel to be the most honest?

Choe: Being spoiled. Iíve spoiled myself from as long as I can remember. I take what I want, and I get what I want. For as long as I can remember, one of my greatest talents is that of a crook. The money, the toys, the girl, I always got it, and I never settled for second best. Itís what I project for myself and then make it happen. Hitting rock bottom. Once youíve felt like youíve seen the worst, what can anyone do to scare you, or persuade you to do or say something that isnít anything else but the truth?

     Everyone in your life, from the media to parents and teachers, are lying to you almost all the time, but once in a while you get to look past the curtain and it opens your eyes. And I know how well I respond to the truth. I appreciate it and I think itís honorable. Of course ignorance can also be bliss, but I know how much I appreciate the truth, so I like to deliver it: in my work, in my relationships, in my life, no matter how painful or embarrassing. When you send that kind of message people will respond. Iím spoiled and Iíve seen my worst, Iím not scared of anything. Sometimes I come across arrogant and like an asshole, but really you canít fuck with this. You canít stop it. I donít think I could even stop it if I tried, there seems to be some bigger driving force behind all of this.

Wright: Is this search for purity or honesty in artwork behind your self-restraint that you mention when talking about your ďstraight ahead watercolors . . . and oilsĒ in the beginning of Bruised Fruit?

Choe: Oh thatís just me coming full circle. When I started painting I always looked at just any one medium as antiquated. For me everything was about mixed-medium to the point where I never let my paintings breathe. Some paintings would have 10 different mediums repeated, thatís like 20 layers. It became too obsessive, and cluttered, and I would think back to layer three and go, ďfuck it looked really good at layer three I shouldíve stopped there.Ē But there was no going back, so that was my style back then, I still do it now occasionally, but part of growing as an artist is learning when not to paint. And part of it was that I was insecure in my skillsóas just a watercolorist or just an oil painteróso I mixed it all up to mask my skill from any one particular medium. But I do love the smell cocktail of spray paint and oil and glue. Iím just keeping it pure and simple.

Wright: In Slow Jams, Dixon is seen walking toward his death, his unfulfilled temptation and attempt at suicide by walking off a building, with what appears to be stigmata as he stands still in a Christ-like pose, palms up. Was the naive Dixon a sort of parallel to the figure of Christ? Is there a theme of self-sacrifice as a way to truth that you were working with?

Choe: Well I did grow up in a hardcore born-again Christian family so thatís not lost on me at all. If you asked me this question after I finished Slow Jams I would have said, ďYES.Ē Thatís exactly what I was going for. But really itís just Dixon being a little bitch. ďOh this girl who I have a crush on who Iíve become obsessed with doesnít like me back, Iím gonna kill myself.Ē Itís just some melodramatic goth fag shit. Just for the record anyone out there that has attempted suicide in a discrete cry for help is a fucking pussy. Just kill yourself and do it right the first time, and do us all a favor. Or get the fuck over it already. Fuck you and your petty bullshit and whatever youíre going through. Life is not that bad.

Wright: In Bruised Fruit you mention that figurative painting is ďinĒ again. Yet, it seems that you are straddling the line. Your watercolors, oils, and mixed media pieces are definitely not aspiring to naive realism. Rather, your work elicits that same feeling I get when I slip between being asleep and being awake. Your sketched outlines add definition to your color fields so that they become recognizable images, but this also adds a motion. You seem to shift between the worlds of abstraction and figuration. Do you ever see yourself abandoning figuration in a way that may come full circle with, for lack of a better term, abstract expressionists such as Mark Rothko or Ad Reinhardt?


Choe: I used to hate abstract art, and would spit at it in museums, and would get the worst case of road rage in the museum, just the fact that I had to waste even a second looking at it, but over the years maybe the serene Rothko colors may have soothed my soul. I used to think all that art was gay, but now I have a little bit better appreciation of it, and my friends who have seen me develop from a real tight-asshole style to a really loose pussyfart style, think Iím gay.

     I half-heartedly tell everyone that thatís the direction Iím moving in, that thatís my goal in life. But I think I may still be too conservative to go all the way abstract. I think I may have to stay . . . halfway in the closet. Abstract art is super academic and liberal, and I may really have to become gay to go out like that. I know when I paint the art-of-painting, it doesnít have to look like anything, but my conservative mind always pushes my brush into making faces. Weíll see. All the great artists are gay anyways.

Wright: It almost seems out of place when you mention Edward Hopper as an ďartistic hero,Ē since many of your other influences express a more energetic style. His landscapes are idealisticóin a real slow-moving, middle-America wayóthough as lonely as the people he paints in such popular works as Nighthawks. Is it this loneliness that attracts you to his work? Or is there something else?

Choe: Hopperís paintings are crazy, and they just get me thinking and imagining, and to do that with in one image is fucking great. They evoke a strong sense of feeling I canít quite describe, his people are usually lost in contemplation, his landscapes and architecture are wide and solid, and look normal but donít make any sense. Water comes right up to the door, windows are bigger than any window Iíve ever seen, thereís a big huge bush that hints at an enormous forest just off the frame. Ok I got it, his paintings make me feel like itís 3 am, I just went through some shit (good or bad), Iím in love after the first meeting or chance encounter, or I just dumped someone or got dumped, everyone sucks, so I go to eat by myself, or go to a show or the movies by myself, or Iím sitting in a cafť, or bed and canít go to sleep, but want to and I donít know what the future holds. Itís mysterious and beautiful. Last year I saw an original Hopper from Steve Martinís collection at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, after I lost $1000 gambling. It was beautiful.

Wright: Thereís another idea that you play with in both Slow Jams and Bruised Fruit: something moving so fast that it appears as if it is completely still. You introduce the idea through a joke, but it recurs, leaving me to believe that itís something on your mind, rather than a passing joke. How do you think this idea plays out in your artwork? Or does it? (Your paintings and drawings are completely still, yet they invoke a sense of motion).

Choe: Itís a train of thought, but it still needs to stop once in a while. Iíve hopped onto moving trains [and] almost had my arm rip out the socket, Iíve been chased by the police, I leap tall buildings in a single bound when Iím painting on the street, Iíve been in two riots, and have had AK-47s shoved into my face in different parts of the world. Itís this sense of motion, and a fear that all the fun is coming to an endótime to pull the plugóthat comes with me even when I return home and the fear and the threat of danger is gone. I sit in front of a piece of paper. There is no one chasing me, no one out to get me. So it is calm and still, but still in my mind Iím in escape mode, so . . . what comes out on the paperówhether itís drawing or writingóis fast and furious, even if Iím just trying draw bowl of fruit. (Iím visiting my parentsí house right now, and Iím trying to finish this interview up in twenty minutes and bounce out the house, before my mom breaks down the door and starts shoving her vitamins down my throat. Iím not paranoid, but I am on my toes, and I do look back.)

Wright: In the Ď50s and Ď60s there was a movement by the Catholic Church to employ secular artists in creating the artwork for chapels. Out of this arose such examples as the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas and the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France designed by Henri Matisse. Both men had no ties to Catholicism, and Iím sure were seen by some as antithetical to Christianity in general. Given the opportunity to design the artwork for a chapel, would you take it? Do you think youíd take it as seriously as Rothko or Matisse? What do you think you might do and why?

Choe: I would do it, I would illustrate the entire Book of Revelation because the visuals are ridiculous, and thatís the only thing they never taught me in Sunday school. But above all this, my parents are pretty liberal for Korean parents, and theyíve raised three horrible sons, and itís every Korean parentsí right to brag nonstop [about] how successful their children are. My parents know Iím an artist and they know I make a living at it, but I canít ever show them shit because all my art and writing would be an embarrassment to the entire family. So I tell my mom every year [that] one day I will rock something she can show to her friends. You can believe that it will be the best mural youíve ever seen in your life. When given a chance to rock murals I will knock it out of the park every time.

Wright: What do you think of LAPD Chief of Police William Brattonís new commitment to erase all graffiti from the walls of Los Angeles?

Choe: Cool.

Wright: Bratton is focusing on gang graffiti, but Iím sure any graffiti artist will be punished, if caughtóbut if we could pretend that he would only crack down on gang graffitióleaving all other graffiti artists alone, would it change your answer?

Choe: No, itís still cool. Itís a game, and I came to play. Just ícause the rules change a little means [doesnít mean that] everyone drops their cards and stops playing. It just makes it a little more interesting. It would be fun if they had an Olympic event for roof hopping, and the teams that competed were law enforcement and known felons. I bet I would be a champion. And also, it would be cool if I had my own helicopter and knew how to pilot it. On the side of the cockpit door would the name of my gang in vato letters: ďKoreans Gone Bad.Ē

Wright: Do your whales serve as public service announcements?

Choe: The whales are a mouthpiece to everyone that feels like theyíre a whale from a beautiful sea, washed up on the streets; they speak from their tiny sonar brains, leaking pathetic haikus on the human condition that end up having much more deeper meaning, because itís the largest mammal on earth delivering the message.

     Actually forget what I said, Iím not even gonna pretend to know what the fuck the whales are talking about, they speak for themselves, Iím nothing.

Wright: Advice to young and/or struggling artists?

Choe: Just because you, your mom, and your best friend think itís the best doesnít mean anything to anyone but yourself, be honest with yourself, know who and what you are, donít deny it, accept it and move on from there, or get left behind.


For more information about David Choe visit his website: www.davidchoe.com.