A Farmer-Printmaker's HarvestScoffing at Many of the Art World's Conventions, He Says He Prefers 'Labor'
Woodcut printmaker Lee Chul-soo says practicing art is like working in a wheat field. And he means it. He is a farmer-printmaker living in the northern province of Chungcheong, in a small city called Jecheon. In his own words, to find him, one "has to cross a river and a mountain," and his house is at the very end of Taebaek Mountains. He and his partner, who now have two children, moved there 20 years ago.
For Mr. Lee, 46, everything in life comes down to "labor." He says he finds "great comfort" in hard work. He likes to be introduced as "the farmer who makes art" instead of the other way around.
This partly explains his involvement with the "Minjung misul," which was part of the labor liberation movement in the 1980s. Literally meaning People's Art, "Minjung misul" referred to a group of artist-activists who used their art as a political protest against the abuse of power by the Korean upper class. Often presented in a didactic manner, Minjung art made its point on posters and murals.
Although his approach to social issues has changed over the years, Mr. Lee still holds firm to the idea that artists should be cultural pioneers.
"I still think artists should reach the public," he says. This is probably why he often shows his work through different mediums of communication rather than by holding exhibitions in galleries. For the past few years, he has been producing postcards and calendars. Just recently, he began printing images on tablecloths and ceramic plates. He allows his art to be used as "life products" to communicate with a wider audience.
"It seems that contemporary art works simply fail to communicate with the public," says Mr. Lee, who feels bitter about artists who makes a fuss about what they consider to be "high art" and "low art."
"Looking at these works is like listening to a foreign language," he says. "I understand that alienation is everyone's illness in Korean society, but the role of the artist is to liberate and heal people from it. I just don't think artists should underestimate the public as a bunch of fools who cannot take their eyes off stupid TV shows."
Mr. Lee may have a lot to say, but his exhibitions at Art Space Seoul and Hakgojae have been toned down compared to his last ones at the same galleries five years ago.
Titled "One Fine Day," the exhibitions present 200 images elaborately rendered with text. He makes particular reference to traditional eastern paintings, where images accompanied poems or artists' narrations.
"I guess it's one of those trends in art history," he says. "There seems to be this idea that art should speak only through image. That's really absurd. If you look at the classical paintings, the images always accompanied the text."
Mr. Lee's works are contemplative, both spatially and conceptually. Instead of filling in the paper with provocative images, he allows a few lines and the corresponding text to speak for itself. In the form of a parable, the text often depicts everyday trivial subjects.
Though his colleagues claim cynically that his work is "too precious," he avoids images or subjects that are too sensational. He says that because he does not live in the same jungle as they do, he "takes it as their sincere comment to always be aware of what's happening 'out there.' "
Part of Mr. Lee's inspiration comes from the Buddhist scriptures. At Art Space Seoul, his works reflect his spiritual journey. Dealing with such heavy issues as human nature and eternity, his works softly critique society's obsession with speed and "its culture slowly dying." Just last year, he did a book cover for the well-known Buddhist monk known as "Beopjeong." The book is called "Flowers Bloom on the Mountain," and Mr. Lee printed a tiny red flower on a white background. The print is a poetic metaphor for Beopjeong's philosophy about life without possessions.
Mr. Lee is humble. He says his art is nothing to boast about. "For me, art is only a trace of life," he says. "It's not a fruit and surely not an achievement. It's only a part of daily life."
He explains the main differences between art and farming. "Watching the grain grow always fascinates me. All I really do is harvest the grain. I only facilitate the growth. The rest is all the Almighty's work. But creating art is the opposite. I do the nonsense of creating the part to give 'inspiration' to people. I become the creator. It's a foolish thing to begin with."
And he freely lets this "foolishness" show through in his work. His prints are filled with visual puns that make playful reference to heroic figures and classic masterpieces.
For Mr. Lee, December is a relaxed month. He farms in the summer and makes art in the winter.
As for his plans, his answer is not surprising. He does not have any. He understands that plans exist to be unplanned. He politely pours tea in the interviewer's cup and says he has another interview in the afternoon, and leaves it at that.
His exhibitions at the two Seoul galleries will end on Dec. 16. He also has print shows at Pusan, Daegu, Jeonju and Cheongju.
For information, phone 02-736-1713.
by Park Soo-mee