"Across the Table": The artist's self-portrait with two chatty men, both modeled by her husband. The "made-up" cityscape is inspired by both Paris and Rome.


MICA instructor Hyeseung Marriage-Song paints portraits in the realist tradition: While her full body of work tours like a striking and diverse all-ages yearbook offering of pretty, not-so-pretty, and downright quirky members of the human race, she clearly spies a unique beauty in each subject’s face. Each emits a glorious glow, whether symmetry’s on her side or no. The painter prof’s fastidious and fluent attention to detail delivers, not just reality, but an exciting interpretation of inner light.

Born in Korea in 1978, Hyeseung (pronounced Hey-soong), 33, relocated to Houston at age two, with her first generation immigrant parents. The eldest of three siblings — her brother and sister born in the U.S. — Hyeseung maintained impressive focus from an early age.

“My mother tells me I was pretty weirdly focused when I was three and four years old and would sit at my Fisher-Price desk for hours and draw people and characters,” Hyeseung says. “My mother was my first art teacher; though she was trained as a nurse, [she] was a fair draftswoman thanks to the well-rounded education she got in Korea, and she taught me how to go beyond stick figures. The first things I counted, apparently, were the five fingers on each hand of my squiggly princesses.”

During her public school years in Texas, Hyeseung excelled academically but meanwhile shifted her avid focus away from art. After college at Princeton, she began to pursue a joint degree in law and philosophy at Harvard. A random medical leave when she was 26 got her drawing again.

“It was after I moved back to Princeton, where my husband (then boyfriend) lived so I could recuperate, that I started drawing, sculpting and painting on my own,” she says. “It was both revelatory and quotidian: revelatory in that I realized this was it, and quotidian in that it was so clear that this had always been it, and I’d just spent a lot of time denying it.”

An alumnus of the Water Street Atelier in New York focusing on the classical Beaux Arts tradition – an atelier provides an alternative arts venue and education; the concept is gaining momentum – this spring Hyeseung exhibited paintings in a group show, “The Figure in American Art 2011,” at the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in New York, where she has shown since 2008.

I talked to the painter about her art, her influences and her creative life newly planted in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill.

Who are some of your influences and/or favorite artists?

The most obvious visual lineage is through Caravaggio or Velazquez, but I am very influenced by Whistler, Lucien Freud, Klimt, Edward Hopper, Courbet and Antonio Mancini. That makes me sound a bit like a fuddy-duddy, but I think that the pendulum is starting to swing towards representation these days and people are starting to appreciate realist work more. You see at Sotheby’s and Christie’s that the realist paintings from the 19th century…overlooked for years are now commanding serious prices.

Can you describe your artistic vision?

My personal vision is to build a beautiful life. I see very little distinction between what I do in the studio and what I do in the rest of my life. I feel the particular sensibility that I was born with isn’t easily piecemealed, and everything I do recapitulates a worldview that is explored and manifested in my paintings, in my home, in my teaching, in the food I make and the clothes I wear… Very seldom do I feel like my art communicates answers; rather, it raises and generates questions that I haven’t resolved and will probably — unfortunately — never resolve.

How has your style evolved?

From princesses to nude figures. Just kidding. When I started painting, I was pretty omnivorous and experimented with the range: I painted abstractly for a time as well as realistically. My style was more “painterly” perhaps than it is now. One spring I damaged my right (and dominant) arm while I was making a stained glass window, so I painted for two months with my left arm, and I really liked what came out of that time: it forced me to worry about different things and to appreciate what could come out of “limitations.”

…The Water Street Atelier was [founded] on the classical Beaux Arts tradition, and the work that came out of this small private school was beautiful, timeless and exquisitely rendered and conceived, which meant there were always people who wanted to characterize the work as “tight” and “rigid.” The idiom of realism puts fundamentally different demands on the artist who practices it; because of certain overarching principles the artist is trying to hold to, she has to communicate within a context and oftentimes in very subtle ways that require a great deal of creativity to make the painting work…

I’ve been lucky with the teachers I have had, and I owe them a great deal. I am also lucky, I think, to possess a healthy attitude of incompleteness, this feeling that I will never be done learning and that the whole world is some kind of laboratory for our ant-like lives and that the meaning we bring to each other must be global, somewhat divine and unifying.  I don’t see my path from philosopher to painter as disjunctive at all: the font from which each springs is the same; the means is simply different.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m preparing for a group show of self-portraits in June in New York at Eleanor Ettinger Gallery.

Do you take commissions?

Yes, check my website.

"Girl in Cafe" or "Hopper's Closer Look"

HMS: “When I was finishing up at the atelier, I was searching and defining what I thought about art making—its utility and importance—especially in light of how art is received by the real world, outside of this idealistic vision I had about its creation. I was looking at a lot of Edward Hoppers, and while I was drawn to his paintings, at the same time I was frustrated with the simplification of the faces, simplification that I thought bordered on perfunctory.  The mood he created was lonely and sumptuous at the same time, and was created by summoning the whole environment, not just the people in the painting.”

"I Heart New York" or "Man and Woman at Table"

HMS: “This is a painting I completed last year around Thanksgiving. I been in Baltimore for a year then, having just moved from New York to Bolton Hill. When I was leaving Manhattan, I felt like I was gaining some momentum in the studio, and it was with reluctance that I followed my husband to Baltimore where he had accepted a faculty position at Johns Hopkins. The painting was created with the help of a lovely person who I met on the Charm City Circulator and who has become my go-to model.  The painting is a lot about how we never know what’s going on in someone else’s head, even when that someone else is right in front of us: the ultimate privacy of mind. The window on the right is the view outside my old studio in Hell’s Kitchen on the west side of New York, and the window on the left, to which the woman’s back is turned, is the scene outside my new studio in Bolton Hill.  The woman is literally between two worlds…”

"Inspiration Lies on Top"

HMS: “I was thinking about how spirituality and creativity often come from the same place. When I am inspired, I will see coherence and meaning in the random patterns of the world, just as one might flip up a tarot card and imbue it with a message. That inspiration and the art produced from it can vanquish fears and boredom for humans is a lucky occurrence.”

"Portrait of Renee"

HMS: “For years in New York I would do a quick study once a week with different models. This is a three-hour sketch I did of one of my students.”

Untitled Arnolfini Spoof

HMS: “[This was a] commission from an art historian with a sense of humor. This famous Jan van Eyck painting is being spoofed: the faces are changed, and the iconography modified, and it’s a different kind of work than I usually do obviously, but as anyone who has done Master-copying knows, it’s one of the best and most intimate ways of getting to know another painter.”

3 replies on “Reality Check: Baltimore Artist Hyeseung Marriage-Song Paints Portraits that Persuade”

  1. nicely balanced between interview and exposition, good choices on range of visages, would have expected some still life or landscape to show range, yet this piece’s concentration on portraits may be appropriate to the intent of the writer. -am^2
    If you had a google+ it would have been selected.

  2. I love your style Hyeseung, it is rare to find a very talented artist with a sense of humour like yours . The portrait of Renée is very sweet. A treasure for her parents. Your staging of ladies who seem to be always bored stiff is funny. I’m very pleased each time I discover another piece of work by HMS. Amitiés from Brittany.

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