Minyoung Choi’s fish are symbols of sharpness

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“BATH” features a yellow canary fish in a tank, surrounded by plants, sponge and fish food. The vessel is too small – there is not enough room to turn the creature around – and water is pouring over his side as he touches the tail. The fish’s eyes are glassy and its mouth is shaped into a strange smile. For some, the image (pictured), painted last year, may symbolize the viewer’s claustrophobia and confusion while living in lockdown.

Fish is the favorite subject of Minyoung Choi, a Korean artist now based in London. She has been fascinated by animals since childhood, when she would look at the tropical aquarium in her family’s apartment in Seoul or read about her zodiac sign, Pisces. Boundaries are a central theme in Ms Choi’s work – between night and day, dreams and reality, freedom and protection – and fish tanks have become a way to explore this idea.

Many artists are similarly inspired by marine life. Gyotaku, a Japanese method of printing that dates back to the mid-19th century, which originated from fishermen recording their catches; the technique is still used around the world. Henri Matisse made a series of goldfish after being moved by the animals on a trip to Tangier in 1912, where he saw how the locals would spend hours lost in thought as they ‘ look into fish bowls. Goldfish are a source of tranquility in the paintings of Sanyu, a 20th-century Chinese-French artist; one of his works was sold by Christie’s for HK$146m ($18.8m) in December. In East Asian folklore, goldfish are good luck and have the power to grant wishes.

Fish are often fascinated by a kind of mystical attraction in Ms. Choi’s work as well. In her watercolors, she places small ships in the foreground with glorious sunsets in the background, mixing her trademark palette of blues and purples with yellows and oranges. Oil paintings show swarms shimmering within fluorescent waters, bringing joy to domestic settings. In “Desk 2” a workplace is visible through the water; Stationary seems to float alongside the glorious denizens, merging with their underwater world. In “Goldfish” and “Goldfish 2” candles and glitter shine even though they are underwater. Ms Choi says these writings “capture the wonderful moments of everyday life”.

Elements of the ideal are also present in the cartoonish smile and watchful eyes of some of Ms. Choi’s fish. She does not keep the animals as models in her studio in East London, working from her memory or her imagination instead; their anthropomorphic charm is born of nostalgia for the talking creatures she encountered in the fairy tales of her childhood. This style often has a poignant effect. The fish in “Aquarium”, “Bath” and “Fish Tank” look out of their narrow enclosures. Instead of transporting the viewer to another dreamy, aquatic world, these paintings highlight the limited practice of keeping fish as decorative objects.

Although Ms. Choi began painting the animals more often in 2020, it was not a conscious reflection of the pandemic. But locking up changed the way her art was viewed and, with it, her relationship with her subject. A friend printed “Aquarium” on a New Year’s postcard with the message: “After aquarium 2020, back to the ocean of friendship in 2021!” ” During a two-week quarantine on a recent trip home to South Korea, Ms. Choi realized she had had enough. “I started to feel suffocated by the fish tanks I was painting,” she says. “For now, I’d rather paint fish in open water instead. ”

Minyoung Choi’s paintings will be on view at bo.lee gallery in London from March 16th to 22nd

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