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COLLABORATIONS – Monad, Dyad, Golem (and Me) – By Hyeseung Marriage-Song

Posted in: Guest Essay

Hyeseung Marriage-Song, The Fall of Clerval
Hyeseung Marriage-Song, The Fall of Clerval, 2019 (oil on linen, 62 X 62 inches)

My life is quiet. From the hours upon waking until 3 pm, my life is quiet. And because I live and work alone in a one-thousand-square-foot loft in Brooklyn, the majority of my life is also hermetically, and hermeneutically, rather sealed. During those hours, I do my best to paint and write, to keep the draw of texts and emails and phone calls at bay, and the person I most commune with is myself. This life is hard and unnatural for an extrovert, almost always subsumed by a measure of self-loathing, but it is what has proven to work: out of it, what comes is much hair-pulling and also a little art.

On occasion my life is less quiet. I first met my friend T at a residency. Residencies are never quiet, but they can be fecund. The artists are given studios or offices from which we are pulled three times a day to share meals during which we must chat, and lo! There we are cross-pollinating over the penne pasta without even knowing it. A drink in the studio? In fact, what is occurring now is a studio visit.

I was starting a new series of work when T and I first started chatting over drinks at one of those residency-studio-visits. He wrote reimaginations of old myths, and I later read his trilogy on the life of Jesus. We kept in touch and a few years later, he acquired a cemetery painting I’d started back at the residency. In the winter of 2017, I fell into a psychological crevasse. Into that void, T stepped in, called, made a proposal. On the phone, he even used that word, collaboration. “I’m writing a reimagination of Frankenstein set in Nazi Germany. I keep thinking of your cemetery paintings from the residency.”

“I love monsters,” was all I could say.

I read the first two chapters of T’s manuscript, which he was still writing, and reread Mary Shelley’s novella, coming up on its bicentennial. In all of it, I found large swaths of the golem myth, of Aristotle and the pre-Socratics; in truth, I was just bringing my own background to the work, locating the threads with which to weave my own creation. The idea of art-making, the creative impulse, what it is to be human and the responsibility of the creator–– those questions I’d been thinking about for years, even before coming to painting.

Our partnership, happily, was very independent. I did not consider myself to be illustrating T’s book, nor did I feel I couldn’t push the boundaries of his or Shelley’s story. I looked at canvas, linen, paper, and in their raw material or golem form, I saw only everything I could shape it into, and the trepidation I’d often experienced staring in the whiteness of the tabula rasa vanished. The first piece I made was an eleven-foot long cemetery painting featuring a statuary that often shows up in my work, a weeping woman with her hand covering her face. In the studio, I still eked out a very quiet life, but the usually-fraught space between my ears was now galvanized with purpose.

To reinterpret themes portrayed countless times from Gothic to pulpy, I decided to go epic and sumptuous. The majority of the work was figurative, and led to several artists and art-world figures sitting for me. I portrayed them psychologically, the action of the story reflected in the visual idiom of fractured forms, brushwork that I sometimes resolved, other times left broken. I kept in mind my thematic conclusion: that every generation creates copies of themselves which are let loose upon the world, and then those, inevitably, become artist-makers themselves, create again, and so on and so forth, thereby making us all a little bit monster, a little bit artist. In the course of a year, I showed the work four times in New York. The press picked it up, including HiFructose.

It turned out to be a good thing that the collaboration was fairly independent, because halfway through the year, I stopped hearing from my old friend T. From social media, I got the sense he’d been taken away by other projects and was having a hard time communicating to me that he would not be following through on ours. I don’t know if he ever finished his manuscript.

I finished my paintings and prints– eight paintings, a dozen prints, numerous studies and drawings. After a short period during which I wondered what happened to T (had I lost a friend as well as a collaborator?), I realized my collaboration had been with many people. It had been with T, the artists who had modeled for me, the gallerists who hung my pieces in such ways that they interacted and created more interesting conversations, and the many friends and colleagues I spoke with while I was laboring for a year. It is too much to say that among my collaborators were the disembodied voices of Mary Shelley or Aristotle? I do not go that far.

It had been thanks to the quiet life that my work had been born into existence; but the work’s inception, its growth and change? That had been due to the quiet life’s expansion and stretch to include others.

Hyeseung Marriage-Song is an American painter best known for large-scale figurative oil paintings in which visual idioms toggle between resolution and fragmentation. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Marriage-Song grew up in Houston, Texas, with degrees in philosophy from Princeton and Harvard Universities. She completed her arts training at the Water Street Atelier, in New York City, now Grand Central Atelier, after which she was twice awarded the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation grant. She has taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art and was cited in Baltimore Magazine’s “40 Under 40” for her work creating synergies between the science and art communities. She has been awarded fellowships at the Vermont Studio Center, Penland School of Arts and Crafts as well as the Alfred and Trafford Klots International Residency in Brittany, France. She is completing her first book, a philosophical memoir about creativity and family, entitled “Head Study.”

More work at and @hyeseungs (IG).