In conversation: Yvonne Boag

For more than 20 years, Yvonne Boag has divided her time between South Korea and Australia. The works in ‘Travelling, Leaving, Settling, Scotland, Korea, Australia: Paintings, Works on Paper and Artists Books’, a survey exhibition curated by Akky van Ogtrop at Cowra Regional Gallery in New South Wales, connect and emphasise the relationship between the painted surface of her paintings and the intimacy of her prints, drawings and artist’s books – all of which address her own personal experiences with migration, immersed in the deep links and multi-layered relationship she has with her changing landscapes. Chloe Mandryk speaks with the artist.

Yvonne Boag in studio

How did you work with Akky van Ogtrop on this show?
I’ve known Akky for about 30 years. I do a lot of printmaking and we’ve done different things around the world as printmakers, art fairs and so on. So she knows my work pretty well. She came to the studio about three times, we discussed the plan and she went through my work and picked out pieces she felt illustrated each place; Paris, Aberdeen, Japan and Korea. I left it entirely up to her because it’s very hard to be objective when you’re the artist.

Did her process reveal anything to you?
Oh yes, I’ve got a huge storage area and in my mind it’s chaotic, but she could see patterns. It was really interesting for me to hear someone else articulate that. Usually I’m working on three things at once, which I do without knowing. When I’m painting I also go and make prints because I love being in workshops to get to know people in different countries and feel the atmosphere. At the same time, at night, I draw in notebooks or small gouaches. I thought of these as quite separate, but actually they link in to each other. I didn’t consciously know that. She was able to see that and pull out books that related to certain paintings. I’d never really looked; once I make a book I put it away. It’s something I have to do to get the overflow out of my mind.

It all coalesces and there are relationships between things.
I had never imagined she’d want to use the little notebooks or small sculptures. She saw their relevance. I saw them as an auxiliary. But she pulled them in as part of the story, which was good. Where ever I go, I buy the cheapest stuff in the local art shop so that changes the way the books look, strange designs and colours and new materials. The feeling of the country comes into the book. In Japan it was very bright and colourful and Paris was quite different. Each country has it’s own feel for the stuff you use.

Yvonne Boag, Sounds of Gangseo-gu, 2016, acrylic on linen, 130 x 162cm

You’re in Sydney now but the majority of your time is dedicated to South Korea, what made you fall in love with the place?
All I knew about South Korea was the war, I was living in Paris in 1993 and I had just had my son. I was invited to an exhibition in Seoul, with American, French and Australian artists. It was really one of the first international exhibitions in South Korea. I went up the Champs-Élysées to the Korean Air office, and I said ‘I’ve been invited to this exhibition. Will you give me a free ticket to go’? And they did, and I took the work with me. I had 10 days there it fascinated me, I knew I had to go back.

Can you discuss the symbolism of colour in the Korean context and how this has been integrated into your work?
Yes when I first when there, I noticed Hangul the Korean text all over buses and signs and it was wonderful it was like seeing drawing everywhere because I couldn’t understand it. As I got to know more about the Korean way of thinking and how they saw art I understood they see colour completely different. Colour has always been an emotive thing for me, synaesthesia. In my Western training at art school I was sort of told to ignore that, it’s not important. They wanted me to look and analyse the colour. But in Korea it’s symbolic it all has meaning, and I thought ‘This is how I think!’ It’s a Confucian system where colour represents authority, power, your age, marriage (green and red for the first year) and death (white). It was all about the emotion of colour. Each direction, North, South, East and West is designated by colour.

And you bring that into your compositions?
I wasn’t aware I was doing it at first. I shared a studio with another painter and he said you’re using colour in the Korean way, he explained in my landscapes I had been using colour to indicate direction. After he talked to me about it, it became very important to me. When you go to buy your art materials the colours are quite different than a Western art shop; they’re a higher tone and a wider range of artificial colours. I felt liberated by colour.

Yvonne Boag, Winter Landscape Seoul 2017 No. 3, 2017, watercolour on paper, 23 x 30cm

That’s interesting to be liberated by new guidelines!
Yes I had a very Western training and tradition and I’d spent 5 years in Paris and all the museums there. So this was just like an explosion in my head. Colour doesn’t have to be connected to reality. It can be directed completely to your thoughts, emotion, state of mind… the direction of the wind, anything!

Especially if you felt that early on, but were trained in another way.
I always felt that my instinct feeling wasn’t quite right. When I was at art school in Adelaide it was a male-oriented ‘rational’ attitude and colour field was a trend. I don’t think colour would have meant as much to me if I hadn’t experienced that repression beforehand. It wouldn’t have been so freeing.

‘Unsettled’ is a word attributed to your work/practice, how do you connect with this?
It’s very important because to me, I am unsettled when things are too familiar. When I’m in an unfamiliar place I am physically unsettled but emotionally I feel very comfortable. I’ve never worked that one out. Maybe it’s about understanding, the language, culture; so I have all this input from the environment. In Korea or Mongolia you’re thrown into your own mind so you get rid of the superfluous and you look for the real meaning of what you want to do. I like that freedom. I feel like I’m cut loose when I get away from the familiar. You’re free from the control of your ego. You can become whatever is essential to you at that time.

Yvonne Boag, Lockhart Community, 1998, linocut, 50 x 50cm


‘Travelling, Leaving, Settling, Scotland, Korea, Australia: Paintings, Works on Paper and Artists Books’

Cowra Regional Art Gallery
13 December 2020 to 7 February 2021
New South Wales