With the sparest choices, artist renders meaningThere are several things the artists Nam June Paik and Lee Ufan have in common, other than peculiar ways of spelling their Korean names. Both artists were born around the same time; both worked abroad. The two based their artistic practices on minimalist ideals.
Paik emerged as the father of video art, Lee as a forerunner of the “Monoha” artistic movement, or object school, in Tokyo.
With Lee’s upcoming retrospective, “Lee Ufan ― The Search for Encounters,” which opens today at the Ho-Am Museum and at Rodin Gallery, it seems unavoidable that critics will compare the two artists. They are the only artists to whose work the Samsung Cultural Foundation has devoted retrospectives in its major museums. Yet Paik is a household name for anyone serious about art, while Lee remains a relative unknown.
Lee was born in Haman, North Gyeongsang province, in 1936. He moved to Japan at the age of 20 and spent the next 10 years studying and writing critical studies of art.
By the end of the 1960s, Lee was one of the leading members of Monoha, the Japanese art movement concerned with the relationship between objects and the spaces they occupy. The movement was quickly picked up by the international art world as a unique departure from the more conventional sculpture and environmental-based art going on at the time.
Lee’s earlier artwork often creates optical illusions, and stems from the artist’s skepticism about the viewer being able to “see” and “understand” an artwork from his point of view. “Situation,” an installation piece that marries a wooden plank with a light bulb, is a condensed form of this concern. Viewers at first assume that the darkened area near the board’s edge is the shadow created by the light bulb. But upon closer examination, the dark patch is revealed to have been painted on. The artist has rendered shadow manually, complicating the viewer’s perception.
Lee’s interrogation of perception is reflected in his collection of essays titled “The Art of Encounter.”
The artist writes, “Of course the works are not reality as such. Nor are they bundles of concepts. They lie between reality and concepts, penetrated by both, and are intermediaries that influence both. This mediating function transcends the artist and belongs to the territory of art separated from everyday life.”
In the ‘70s, Lee increasingly began to work in minimalist forms, mostly monochromatic works consisting of dots and lines, metaphors for, according to the artist, “existence” and “living.”
Lee’s paintings from this period show marked control; critics have gone so far as to describe them as “anti-expressive.” With consistent patterns and repeated colors filling up the life-size canvases, Lee’s ‘70s paintings reject imagery and symbolism.
Retrospectives of formalist artists never fail to reveal the subtle development of the artist’s style, often bridging 10 or even 15 years before showing the slightest change in palette tone or form.
With Lee’s works in particular, one can see the artist beginning to accept outside influence. When his strictly controlled creative environment loosens, we get works more tactile and more disorderly, but never necessarily more real.
by Park Soo-mee
“Lee Ufan ― The Search for Encounter” runs through Nov. 16. On Saturday at 2 p.m. the artist will give a gallery tour at the Ho-Am Museum. For information, call 02-771-2381.