Meet the K-pop stars taking on the art world

Written by Megan C. Hills, CNN

At first glance, the three names beside a series of surreal high-contrast paintings, moody black and white photographs and Jackson Pollock-esque splatters might not jump out among over 70 artists appearing at a London art fair next week.

But fans of K-pop may recognize at least one of them: Henry Lau, a Chinese-Canadian singer who rose to fame with South Korean boyband, Super Junior. Reversing another of the artist’s names, Ohnim, meanwhile reveals his identity as rapper Mino, a member of popular K-pop group Winner. His bandmate Kang Seung-Yoon is flying under the radar using the pseudonym Yooyeon.

The three performers have all forged successful careers in South Korea’s burgeoning music industry. Now, they are attempting to crack an even tougher market: the elite world of contemporary art.

The trio may not be short of potential buyers when their art goes on show at StART, a five-day fair at London’s Saatchi Gallery. Keen-eyed Winner fans have already offered Mino — who asked to be referred to as Ohnim for this piece — thousands of dollars for one of his original paintings. However, speaking via video call from Seoul, the rapper said he was hesitant about selling his work publicly.

“Tons of my fans keep offering all kinds of prices for a piece, because they’re fans,” he said via a translator. “But I don’t want to do that. I want to actually belong in the art world and it be recognized by critics that my artwork is (worth) a certain price. I don’t want to take advantage of my fans… I have to take care of them.”

Ohnim's fellow Winner band member and photographer Kang Seung-Yoon, who goes by the artist moniker Yooyeon.

Ohnim’s fellow Winner band member and photographer Kang Seung-Yoon, who goes by the artist moniker Yooyeon. Credit: From YG K Plus/StART Art Global

When StART founder David Ciclitira spoke to Ohnim, Yooyeon and Lau about selling their art, they were at a loss for how to value them — or even whether to sell them at all. (Ciclitira, a prolific collector of Asian art, purchased one of Ohnim’s paintings ahead of the fair, but declined to disclose how much he paid, saying via video call: “They were just so excited that someone wanted to buy something.”) With some persuasion, the musicians compromised and agreed to produce 250 limited-edition prints (signed and priced at $500) for the fair, as well as an affordable range of face masks, mugs and tote bags.

The popstars’ involvement with StART will undoubtedly attract new eyes to their work — especially in Western markets where they are far from household names. But the relationship is mutually beneficial. Ahead of the fair, they have been excitedly sharing flyers and previewing their art to their millions of followers. In June, Ciclitira organized a Seoul exhibition called Korean Eye 2020: Creativity and Daydream, featuring the trio’s artworks, and K-pop’s pulling power helped it reach a “much bigger audience,” the collector said, adding: “It’s bringing people into art.”

For Ohnim, however, the ultimate goal is having his work appreciated by authoritative industry voices. “I want to really be a true artist,” he said.

Hiding away

With all the trappings of a K-pop star — a gigantic ring glinted on his finger as he fielded questions from behind tinted glasses — Ohnim is not your typical visual artist.

Currently pursuing a solo music career while Winner is on hiatus, he initially began drawing as a hobby. The self-taught 28-year-old, who counts the likes of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele among his favorite artists, eventually became “more serious” and transitioned to painting, occasionally posting his art to his 6 million Instagram followers.

One of Ohnim's paintings, set to be displayed at StART Art Fair.

One of Ohnim’s paintings, set to be displayed at StART Art Fair. Credit: StART Art Global

His confronting, highly saturated portraits are a far cry from the upbeat dance tracks his band is known for, featuring contorted figures slumped over canvases and emaciated bodies being lifted into the sky. Among the artworks showcasing at Saatchi is a colorful yet disconcerting series of paintings from his collection “Hide.” In one, a haunted face peers out between red and green fingers. In another, the eye of a magenta figure’s face is being forced open by a disembodied hand.

“Sometimes I need to hide and (have) my own space,” Ohnim said, when asked about the series.

“Because I’m a celebrity, I can’t show my emotions. I may be sad sometimes. I may be sick, or I may not feel good about something — but I need to maintain a certain image. That’s why I called it ‘Hide’ — to avoid showing the public the emotions going through me.”

Like artists everywhere, Ohnim has had to literally hide away over the last two years, spending much of his time indoors as Covid-19 swept South Korea. While the pandemic put a pin in his touring schedule, the time alone gave him time to focus on his art, he said.
Another painting by Ohnim, depicting a figure surrounded by colorful shapes.

Another painting by Ohnim, depicting a figure surrounded by colorful shapes. Credit: StART Art Global

With Ciclitira’s help, Ohnim — along with Yooyeon and Lau — found a secret studio, away from the prying eyes of their legions of fans. He shared many of his new paintings on social media, completing 20 artworks during the pandemic so far (11 of them will go on display in London).

“I started feeling responsibility and a heavy burden that I need to improve, to be more passionate and dedicate myself as an artist,” he said.

Referencing the so-called “K-wave” — a name for rising interest in South Korean music, movies and TV dramas overseas — Ohnim believes visual artists will eventually enjoy a similar spotlight. “A part of me wants to be leading K-culture and to give other people the chance to show their art around the world,” he said, adding: “I feel like I have to be one of its leaders to perform well.”

A helping hand

Ciclitira may be known as an art collector, but he has also enjoyed a prolific career in the music industry. As chairman of events and entertainment group Live Company, he has worked with and promoted the likes of Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson and Tina Turner. He has also worked extensively in South Korea, developing close links with Ohnim’s label, YG Entertainment, which has managed some of the biggest names in K-pop, including Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame.

While Ohnim was already well-established as a musician, one of Ciclitira’s company’s directors, Sonia Hong, recognized his wider artistry after one of his paintings went viral on Instagram, racking up over a million likes.

“I said, ‘Oh my god, Mino paints?'” she recalled in a video interview.

Herself a music industry veteran, Hong has worked with the StART founder for 14 years and has a close friendship with the managing director of Ohnim’s label. Sensing the rapper’s potential, she contacted the label to see more of his art, which she then showed to curators at Saatchi Gallery. (“We don’t recruit people just because they’re famous,” she said.) After they deemed his work, in Hong’s words, “interesting,” they moved forward with the collaboration alongside Yeoyeon and Lau.

Ciclitira speaks highly of the trio’s attitude, saying they have “never once thrown in my face” the fact that they’re famous.

Featured StART Art Fair participant Henry Lau, who creates abstract paintings in black and white.

Featured StART Art Fair participant Henry Lau, who creates abstract paintings in black and white. Credit: From Monster Entertainment

“They could do, because if you’ve got 10 million followers and you walk down the street in Seoul with everybody chasing you, that could go to their heads,” he said. “But they’re polite, they’re humble, they seek assistance. They genuinely want to ask what you feel about their work.”

Ciclitira is careful to clarify that he and Hong “don’t manage” any of the stars and are instead “helping them,” along with other artists showing at StART. Ohnim maintains his own management, noting that his label has been “very supportive” but “cautious” about his celebrity being “abused.”

It remains to be seen if Ohnim will be able to attend his Saatchi debut in London amid scheduling and pandemic restrictions. Ciclitira, who even arranged for the star to be vaccinated in the hope it would improve his chances of visiting the UK, must contend with the star’s other commitments: namely a South Korean reality TV show, which begins shooting around the time of the opening.

When asked whether he’ll attend the art fair’s opening, Ohnim broke into English for the first time in the interview. Looking directly into the camera and leaning forwards, he insisted, “I want to go there. Really.”