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A conversation with Markus Hustle Lee

by Minjung Suh

A conversation with Markus Hustle Lee by Minjung Suh

A song, acrylic on canvas, 2018
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A conversation between the painter
Markus Hustle Lee and Minjung Suh

This conversation was originally
conducted in Korean

Joohyuk Lee, born in 1996 in Suncheon, is my long-time high school friend.
My first impression of him was that of unabashed amicability - donning a basketball jersey at all times, throwing jokes around at complete strangers, he flamboyantly called himself ‘Markus Hustle’.

I could tell straight away that he and I were two very different people. A conversation with him always left me feeling awkward and unsure of how to react - but he paid this no mind, and over time, I became used to it too.

Perhaps inevitably, kids at my school were drawn to him. I thought him a funny character, and someone who can’t, and won’t, lie about his opinions.

I first saw his drawings during art class. No matter what the assignment on hand was, he would insist on choosing his own subjects to draw. They were always solitary figures, bodies facing forward with long necks, and their faces - eyes, nose, lips - turned sideways. Always somewhat lopsided or crooked, they felt very Joohyuk. He would go rummaging through other kids’ pencil cases, mine included, fishing out highlighters, colored pens and whatever he could get his hands on to fill his sketches with vibrant colors.

Joohyuk became a bit more reserved once he turned 19. Before, he had been adamantly opposed to college - but now he was intent on going off to the UK to study art, and started to apply himself to his art with a newfound diligence. Practicing his drawings on a little black sketchbook he always kept in his pockets, I remember the stacks of used notepads in his locker, piling higher and higher as the year went on. Throughout all his hundreds of drawings, there was always one or two solitary figures in the centre of the page, never more.

His drawings were always thick with silence, the figures, objects, clouds and trees enveloped in clear, black lines. They were still rife with color, which I thought were brought into calm by the distinct outlines. While the colors shouted out “I’m here!”, the black lines seemed to simultaneously mute their voices. As his sketches piled on, I began to wonder: who was he drawing over and over again, why did he insist on boxing in his figures in with those black lines, and most of all, what kept him glued to his art all these years?
I was also looking to study art in college, but unlike me, he seemed so sure of himself and his art - and this made me wonder all the more.

After we parted ways, me going off to the US and he to the UK, we kept in touch, with sporadic but long phone calls about our art.

I remember the conversation we had over the phone after Joohyuk had first shown his works to his peers. He said someone had cussed out his work. Had I received such unfiltered criticism, I would have been devastated. But Joohyuk said matter of factly that it didn’t bother him in the slightest, and while that person was entitled to their opinion, he was still sure that his approach, his art, was right. How different we still were. These conversations went on for years, the two of us doing showing each other our works and discussing both art and our day-to-day lives.

Unlike me, who came back to Korea to work on my paintings while interning at a gallery in Seoul, Joohyuk went on to study a bit more at the Slade School of Fine Art. During a period when I had quit all my other jobs and was focusing on my paintings, he came back to Korea for a brief respite during the Covid pandemic. It was then that he first started talking about doing a show. He had never had a solo exhibition before, and apparently had been giving it some thought.

“What if I do a show like this? Not at a gallery but a small theatre, with chairs in the middle and grass on the floor. I want it to be a space that goes with my paintings, not a typical white square type of gallery.”

Upon hearing this plan, I was reminded of a phrase by Camus in [The Stranger], which had brought to mind Joohyuk’s paintings when I first read it:

“We stared at each other without blinking, and everything came to a stop there between the sea, the sand, and the sun, and the double silence of the flute and the water. It was then that I realized that you could either shoot or not shoot.”

This ‘double silence’, the moment of intense quiet filled with unbearable tension and the imminent threat of violence breaking out at any moment. This was what so many of Joohyuk's works had captured, and one that I imagined playing out in his imaginary space.

At this remark, Joohyuk brought up the theme of violence in his works. He said he wanted his works to be in a state of limbo, stuck between imminent action and the moments preceding it. Full of both suffocating silence and a piercing cry. Though neither of us wanted to arrive at a clear-cut definition of his works just yet, it felt to me like achieving this state of balance between contradictory notions was a key part of his process, one that he has been honing since the early days when I first met him.

“I’m still getting the hang of it. Every so often, I would put all my past works in a room and review them altogether. When seeing them together, I can perceive this recurring theme throughout my works, undergoing a slow development. To me, these moments are like seeing the pieces of a puzzle come together.”

After much conversation, Joohyuk decided that he wanted to showcase his works on a different platform - in the form of prints. As I continue to split my time between my art and teaching at an international school, Joohyuk is working towards fine-tuning this project. We still talk, though our correspondences cover a wider range of topics than just our artworks.
On the cusp of the release of his prints, we met in a sunlit studio in Seongsu-dong for a chat.

Minjung Suh: How’ve you been? This studio gets so much sunlight.

Joohyuk Lee: Same as always, how’s the teaching going?

MS: It’s fun. Definitely a refreshing break from doing my own art, both in terms of my approach and the experience. You’re sticking to smaller paintings these days, aren’t you?

JL: Yep, don’t want to take up too much space these days.

MS: I get it, splitting your time between Seoul and Suncheon probably isn’t easy. You seem to be using a lot more paint than before, though. What is painting for you these days? I mean, not paintings themselves, but the act of painting?

JL: I’m never one to write long-winded anecdotes about my paintings. To me, painting is communicating, through images rather than words. Painting is a very connotative medium, with hidden layers and meanings.

MS: So do your works carry bits of your subconscious, or unconscious, self?

JL: I think both. Parts of the message I already know, others are not so clear-cut.

MS: As I’m sure we both know from experience, we can never fully predict how paint will act when placed on the canvas. So much of it is a result of unconscious strokes and touches, without a precise vision of how it will turn out.
Which is where I think the atmosphere, and the narrative, of a painting comes from; that added unconsciousness on top of our conscious intentions. 
What is your idea of the unconscious in your art?

JL: You know those recurring stories, in mythology and religious texts like the Bible?

MS: Recurring as in how?

JL: Stories as old as human history, repeated time after time in slightly different iterations. My idea of unconsciousness is just like that, an endlessly repeating human story. Someone who lived ten thousand years ago and I live in completely different material circumstances - what we wear, eat, and see are worlds apart. But the stories our lives tell are pretty much the same, just slightly different versions. To me, that story is personified in my unconscious self.

MS: You’re saying that in your unconsciousness, there’s something that transcends just you as an individual, something innately human that all mankind shares?

JL: Yep, that’s it.

MS: Then let’s zero in on you for a bit, which of your works do you think captures Joohyuk Lee as an individual, at this exact moment in your life?

JL: I think I really started to get a grasp on what I want to express through my art in
[A Person] and [Equity]. They’re far from what I imagine to be my final works of course, but I could feel myself getting a bit closer, at least. 
When painting [A Song], I was hooked on portraying my figure through a mix of geometric, constructive lines and human curves. From there, I explored those motifs a bit further through [I Wanna Live].

MS: [A Song] is definitely more geometrically composed, architectural even, compared to your previous works. 
Very flat, with strong shapes resembling blocks of color. All this seems to stand in stark contrast to the very subtle texture and volume of the scenic background.

JL: Just like a poster, or a graphic cartoon. Looking back, I always loved cartoons.

MS: Like?

JL: Do you remember, back when we were kids we got Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon on cable. And during grade school, my brother, who lived in the States at the time, would bring back issues of [Calvin and Hobbes] when he came home for the holidays. The drawings had very thick lines, not so much filled with shading but with color blocks. 
And in school, I always found the classes dull, so instead I’d daydream about what kind of characters would populate my own cartoon. Like a dog, who’s also human. I’d draw these weird, made-up characters in my notepad all day.

MS: So cartoons were what made you realize you wanted to be someone who draws, or an artist?

JL: Yeah, at first simply because it was fun. When we were kids, the images most familiar to us weren’t paintings, but rather characters, cartoons and such. And once I got my own computer, I would pore through blogs and forums, which is where I first saw graffiti. These cartoonish images I had seen on comic books and TV, people were drawing them on walls. Even the artwork on my cousin’s skateboard somehow seemed fresher, cooler.

MS: These cartoons you loved, ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’, ‘Powerpuff Girls’, these are all characters that breathe, move in the television, or online. Graffiti on the other hand is very static, a still image fixed on a wall, in the streets. What about them seemed so much ‘cooler’ to you?

JL: Maybe because they were immobile, static, they seemed more like a statement to me. They focus the viewer’s attention on that one still image, put out there for everyone to see. That always seemed very confident. And graffiti artists all have their own tag, or logo. Sometimes painting over someone else’s work. That kind of confidence, that attitude, felt ‘cool’. Well, at least back then it definitely did.

MS: And this kind of attitude, or approach, is where you felt the power of the image?

JL: Exactly.

MS: So in your images, who are the figures, exactly? Are they imaginary characters? Or you, or people around you?

JL: All of the above, I think. Obviously the figures don’t look anything like me, but they’re all very absorbed in their own roles, like an actor in character.
They remind you of a friend, or perhaps a movie character you once saw. I do have some fictional characters in mind when drawing some of my figures, though.
The one holding a cigar, for instance. He’s like Joe Pesci in a gangster film, full of confidence to the point of arrogance.
But like I said, it’s simultaneously a self-portrait, as well as a rendering of a characteristic any human being may possess.

MS: It feels like there’s a link between this ‘coolness’ you found as a child in graffiti, and the bravado of a Joe Pesci-like character’s attitude in a gangster movie.

JL: But I feel like there’s a religious undertone to these stories as well. Like in the Bible, every deed is met with judgement. This story of comeuppance is a very human one, an endlessly repeating tale. It just so happens to have the outward appearance of a gangster movie. Beneath that shell, there’s an innately human essence, one that people have been searching for and re-living all throughout history.

MS: That type of confidence you find so fascinating is based on self-assurance. Do you think there’s any particular reason you particularly feel attracted to this emotion?

JL: I always liked that old-school kind of cartoon, or shōnen manga, where the main character is on an adventure, full of dreams. The best stories to me were the ones that tracked this type of journey, showing the protagonist’s struggles and growth.This archetypical story is yet another repeating tale, for example like The Odessey. Same story, just told differently. And though they have their ups and downs, these protagonists are always sure of their path.

MS: I’d imagine that your personal experiences had something to do with your fascination with theses recurring motifs, these repeating narratives. Would you agree?

JL: It probably had a lot to do with my teenage years. The world I lived in seemed so small, with no room to express all these things I had pent up inside. I started questioning things I had previously taken as a given, and wanted to Record my story, in one way or another. I started drawing things on the inside, things that were more personal.
Over time I realized that these narratives, stories, were personal, yes - but also universal, told in different mediums and forms but essentially the same.

Equity, oil on canvas, 2019
A person, oil on canvas, 2019
I wanna live, oil on canvas, 2018
A song, acrylic on canvas, 2018

MS: In [Equity], [A Person] and [I Wanna Live], there’s blatant signs of violence. Objects like a gun, an arrow, aimed at a figure. Was this theme of violence apparent for you back then?

JL: Yes, but in those works, I think I just painted human traits. Violence just so happens to be one of them. Tragedy has always come hand in hand with comedy, and the objects of violence are just reminders of the cyclical nature of the two.

MS: How about [A Song]? What story does it tell?

JL: There’s supposed to be a guitar in [A Song], Burt it’s not there yet. The story is before he got a guitar, when he was a figure in a room, with a dream: “I Will Sing My Song”. He’s not out of his room yet, like me, back when I felt my world was too small. Back when I had just started to question my worldview from within my tiny room.

MS: It’s also the only painting with a figure inside a room.

JL: And the scenery outside, I think I wanted to show a beginning yet to come, a bigger world outside.

MS: Though you say violence is just a partial theme of your works, as a viewer I find myself drawn to it the most. What I find fascinating is that your portrayal of violence is very noiseless. It’s not a loud, dynamic violence, but rather a very suffocating, static moment of dead silence. Do these types of moments feel more violent to you? Or do they carry more meaning?

JL: I’m not sure. I do know that it’s a bit too early for me to say definitively.
What I can say for now is that when there’s no noise around, it’s much easier to focus, to concentrate on something.

Consciousness and unconsciousness, straight geometric lines and curves, inside and outside, image and fine art, noise and silence, destruction and construction.
All contradictions, and all present in Joohyuk Lee’s works. In them, I can make out attempts to find balance between these notions, as well the desire to embrace them all.

His figures seem hard, sometimes to the point of indifferent, but upon closer inspection, this static, silent prose allows for that exact moment to be portrayed in crystalline clarity.
Just how Markus and his art will change, taking on different forms and influences, is hard to say. 

But hopefully we’ll keep having these conversations every now and then,
and I’ll get to watch every step of the way.

I first saw his drawings during art class. No matter what the assignment on hand was, he would insist on choosing his own subjects to draw. They were always solitary figures, bodies facing forward with long necks, and their faces - eyes, nose, lips - turned sideways. Always somewhat lopsided or crooked, they felt very Joohyuk. He would go rummaging through other kids’ pencil cases, mine included, fishing out highlighters, colored pens and whatever he could get his hands on to fill his sketches with vibrant colors.

Joohyuk became a bit more reserved once he turned 19. Before, he had been adamantly opposed to college - but now he was intent on going off to the UK to study art, and started to apply himself to his art with a newfound diligence. Practicing his drawings on a little black sketchbook he always kept in his pockets, I remember the stacks of used notepads in his locker, piling higher and higher as the year went on. Throughout all his hundreds of drawings, there was always one or two solitary figures in the centre of the page, never more.

His drawings were always thick with silence, the figures, objects, clouds and trees enveloped in clear, black lines. They were still rife with color, which I thought were brought into calm by the distinct outlines. While the colors shouted out “I’m here!”, the black lines seemed to simultaneously mute their voices. As his sketches piled on, I began to wonder: who was he drawing over and over again, why did he insist on boxing in his figures in with those black lines, and most of all, what kept him glued to his art all these years?
I was also looking to study art in college, but unlike me, he seemed so sure of himself and his art - and this made me wonder all the more.

After we parted ways, me going off to the US and he to the UK, we kept in touch, with sporadic but long phone calls about our art.

I remember the conversation we had over the phone after Joohyuk had first shown his works to his peers. He said someone had cussed out his work. Had I received such unfiltered criticism, I would have been devastated. But Joohyuk said matter of factly that it didn’t bother him in the slightest, and while that person was entitled to their opinion, he was still sure that his approach, his art, was right. How different we still were. These conversations went on for years, the two of us doing showing each other our works and discussing both art and our day-to-day lives.

Unlike me, who came back to Korea to work on my paintings while interning at a gallery in Seoul, Joohyuk went on to study a bit more at the Slade School of Fine Art. During a period when I had quit all my other jobs and was focusing on my paintings, he came back to Korea for a brief respite during the Covid pandemic. It was then that he first started talking about doing a show. He had never had a solo exhibition before, and apparently had been giving it some thought.

“What if I do a show like this? Not at a gallery but a small theatre, with chairs in the middle and grass on the floor. I want it to be a space that goes with my paintings, not a typical white square type of gallery.”

Upon hearing this plan, I was reminded of a phrase by Camus in [The Stranger], which had brought to mind Joohyuk’s paintings when I first read it:

“We stared at each other without blinking, and everything came to a stop there between the sea, the sand, and the sun, and the double silence of the flute and the water. It was then that I realized that you could either shoot or not shoot.”

This ‘double silence’, the moment of intense quiet filled with unbearable tension and the imminent threat of violence breaking out at any moment. This was what so many of Joohyuk's works had captured, and one that I imagined playing out in his imaginary space.

At this remark, Joohyuk brought up the theme of violence in his works. He said he wanted his works to be in a state of limbo, stuck between imminent action and the moments preceding it. Full of both suffocating silence and a piercing cry. Though neither of us wanted to arrive at a clear-cut definition of his works just yet, it felt to me like achieving this state of balance between contradictory notions was a key part of his process, one that he has been honing since the early days when I first met him.

“I’m still getting the hang of it. Every so often, I would put all my past works in a room and review them altogether. When seeing them together, I can perceive this recurring theme throughout my works, undergoing a slow development. To me, these moments are like seeing the pieces of a puzzle come together.”

After much conversation, Joohyuk decided that he wanted to showcase his works on a different platform - in the form of prints. As I continue to split my time between my art and teaching at an international school, Joohyuk is working towards fine-tuning this project. We still talk, though our correspondences cover a wider range of topics than just our artworks.
On the cusp of the release of his prints, we met in a sunlit studio in Seongsu-dong for a chat.

Minjung Suh: How’ve you been? This studio gets so much sunlight.

Joohyuk Lee: Same as always, how’s the teaching going?

MS: It’s fun. Definitely a refreshing break from doing my own art, both in terms of my approach and the experience. You’re sticking to smaller paintings these days, aren’t you?

JL: Yep, don’t want to take up too much space these days.

MS: I get it, splitting your time between Seoul and Suncheon probably isn’t easy. You seem to be using a lot more paint than before, though. What is painting for you these days? I mean, not paintings themselves, but the act of painting?

JL: I’m never one to write long-winded anecdotes about my paintings. To me, painting is communicating, through images rather than words. Painting is a very connotative medium, with hidden layers and meanings.

MS: So do your works carry bits of your subconscious, or unconscious, self?

JL: I think both. Parts of the message I already know, others are not so clear-cut.

MS: As I’m sure we both know from experience, we can never fully predict how paint will act when placed on the canvas. So much of it is a result of unconscious strokes and touches, without a precise vision of how it will turn out.
Which is where I think the atmosphere, and the narrative, of a painting comes from; that added unconsciousness on top of our conscious intentions. 
What is your idea of the unconscious in your art?

JL: You know those recurring stories, in mythology and religious texts like the Bible?

MS: Recurring as in how?

JL: Stories as old as human history, repeated time after time in slightly different iterations. My idea of unconsciousness is just like that, an endlessly repeating human story. Someone who lived ten thousand years ago and I live in completely different material circumstances - what we wear, eat, and see are worlds apart. But the stories our lives tell are pretty much the same, just slightly different versions. To me, that story is personified in my unconscious self.

MS: You’re saying that in your unconsciousness, there’s something that transcends just you as an individual, something innately human that all mankind shares?

JL: Yep, that’s it.

MS: Then let’s zero in on you for a bit, which of your works do you think captures Joohyuk Lee as an individual, at this exact moment in your life?

JL: I think I really started to get a grasp on what I want to express through my art in
[A Person] and [Equity]. They’re far from what I imagine to be my final works of course, but I could feel myself getting a bit closer, at least. 
When painting [A Song], I was hooked on portraying my figure through a mix of geometric, constructive lines and human curves. From there, I explored those motifs a bit further through [I Wanna Live].

MS: [A Song] is definitely more geometrically composed, architectural even, compared to your previous works. 
Very flat, with strong shapes resembling blocks of color. All this seems to stand in stark contrast to the very subtle texture and volume of the scenic background.

JL: Just like a poster, or a graphic cartoon. Looking back, I always loved cartoons.

MS: Like?

JL: Do you remember, back when we were kids we got Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon on cable. And during grade school, my brother, who lived in the States at the time, would bring back issues of [Calvin and Hobbes] when he came home for the holidays. The drawings had very thick lines, not so much filled with shading but with color blocks. 
And in school, I always found the classes dull, so instead I’d daydream about what kind of characters would populate my own cartoon. Like a dog, who’s also human. I’d draw these weird, made-up characters in my notepad all day.

MS: So cartoons were what made you realize you wanted to be someone who draws, or an artist?

JL: Yeah, at first simply because it was fun. When we were kids, the images most familiar to us weren’t paintings, but rather characters, cartoons and such. And once I got my own computer, I would pore through blogs and forums, which is where I first saw graffiti. These cartoonish images I had seen on comic books and TV, people were drawing them on walls. Even the artwork on my cousin’s skateboard somehow seemed fresher, cooler.

MS: These cartoons you loved, ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’, ‘Powerpuff Girls’, these are all characters that breathe, move in the television, or online. Graffiti on the other hand is very static, a still image fixed on a wall, in the streets. What about them seemed so much ‘cooler’ to you?

JL: Maybe because they were immobile, static, they seemed more like a statement to me. They focus the viewer’s attention on that one still image, put out there for everyone to see. That always seemed very confident. And graffiti artists all have their own tag, or logo. Sometimes painting over someone else’s work. That kind of confidence, that attitude, felt ‘cool’. Well, at least back then it definitely did.

MS: And this kind of attitude, or approach, is where you felt the power of the image?

JL: Exactly.

MS: So in your images, who are the figures, exactly? Are they imaginary characters? Or you, or people around you?

JL: All of the above, I think. Obviously the figures don’t look anything like me, but they’re all very absorbed in their own roles, like an actor in character.
They remind you of a friend, or perhaps a movie character you once saw. I do have some fictional characters in mind when drawing some of my figures, though.
The one holding a cigar, for instance. He’s like Joe Pesci in a gangster film, full of confidence to the point of arrogance.
But like I said, it’s simultaneously a self-portrait, as well as a rendering of a characteristic any human being may possess.

MS: It feels like there’s a link between this ‘coolness’ you found as a child in graffiti, and the bravado of a Joe Pesci-like character’s attitude in a gangster movie.

JL: But I feel like there’s a religious undertone to these stories as well. Like in the Bible, every deed is met with judgement. This story of comeuppance is a very human one, an endlessly repeating tale. It just so happens to have the outward appearance of a gangster movie. Beneath that shell, there’s an innately human essence, one that people have been searching for and re-living all throughout history.

MS: That type of confidence you find so fascinating is based on self-assurance. Do you think there’s any particular reason you particularly feel attracted to this emotion?

JL: I always liked that old-school kind of cartoon, or shōnen manga, where the main character is on an adventure, full of dreams. The best stories to me were the ones that tracked this type of journey, showing the protagonist’s struggles and growth.This archetypical story is yet another repeating tale, for example like The Odessey. Same story, just told differently. And though they have their ups and downs, these protagonists are always sure of their path.

MS: I’d imagine that your personal experiences had something to do with your fascination with theses recurring motifs, these repeating narratives. Would you agree?

JL: It probably had a lot to do with my teenage years. The world I lived in seemed so small, with no room to express all these things I had pent up inside. I started questioning things I had previously taken as a given, and wanted to Record my story, in one way or another. I started drawing things on the inside, things that were more personal.
Over time I realized that these narratives, stories, were personal, yes - but also universal, told in different mediums and forms but essentially the same.

Equity, oil on canvas, 2019
A person, oil on canvas, 2019
I wanna live, oil on canvas, 2018
A song, acrylic on canvas, 2018

MS: In [Equity], [A Person] and [I Wanna Live], there’s blatant signs of violence. Objects like a gun, an arrow, aimed at a figure. Was this theme of violence apparent for you back then?

JL: Yes, but in those works, I think I just painted human traits. Violence just so happens to be one of them. Tragedy has always come hand in hand with comedy, and the objects of violence are just reminders of the cyclical nature of the two.

MS: How about [A Song]? What story does it tell?

JL: There’s supposed to be a guitar in [A Song], Burt it’s not there yet. The story is before he got a guitar, when he was a figure in a room, with a dream: “I Will Sing My Song”. He’s not out of his room yet, like me, back when I felt my world was too small. Back when I had just started to question my worldview from within my tiny room.

MS: It’s also the only painting with a figure inside a room.

JL: And the scenery outside, I think I wanted to show a beginning yet to come, a bigger world outside.

MS: Though you say violence is just a partial theme of your works, as a viewer I find myself drawn to it the most. What I find fascinating is that your portrayal of violence is very noiseless. It’s not a loud, dynamic violence, but rather a very suffocating, static moment of dead silence. Do these types of moments feel more violent to you? Or do they carry more meaning?

JL: I’m not sure. I do know that it’s a bit too early for me to say definitively.
What I can say for now is that when there’s no noise around, it’s much easier to focus, to concentrate on something.

Consciousness and unconsciousness, straight geometric lines and curves, inside and outside, image and fine art, noise and silence, destruction and construction.
All contradictions, and all present in Joohyuk Lee’s works. In them, I can make out attempts to find balance between these notions, as well the desire to embrace them all.

His figures seem hard, sometimes to the point of indifferent, but upon closer inspection, this static, silent prose allows for that exact moment to be portrayed in crystalline clarity.
Just how Markus and his art will change, taking on different forms and influences, is hard to say. 

But hopefully we’ll keep having these conversations every now and then,
and I’ll get to watch every step of the way.

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