A vision that cuts like a knifeThey are neither male nor female, young nor old. Lost, trapped in pain, little differentiates one from the next in their grim, hellish world. Are they numb? Are they in mourning? Will they exist like this forever?
The figures in these black-and-white woodcut prints seem powerless to change their bleak existence. But in the hands of artist Lee Joo-youn, they amount to a powerful political attack on society.
In the piece “Watching Out,” faces bob in a black sea, or perhaps they are trying to rise from an abyss. In “Friend I and II,” figures reach for each other, but never make contact. Whether drowning together, marching together or riding the subway together, the figures are often engaged in collective activity. Their facial expressions are disturbing, and the prints themselves exude anxiety; they are raw and tactile, full of crude slashes and gouges.
“Paperman,” the title of Lee’s recent exhibition at Gana Art Space, finds a metaphor for the vulnerability of the human condition in paper ― powerless, acted upon and easily ripped up and thrown away.
The artist says her work stems largely from her emotional response to the social order in Korean society. People who’ve viewed the 34-year-old printmaker’s work have told her that they would have guessed the artist would be someone older and more experienced, perhaps with a background in political activism.
Many viewers were also shocked to learn that she was a woman. One elderly gentleman, she said, came up to her younger brother, who was sitting next to her at a show, and offered him a handshake to congratulate him on his work.
“It’s probably the idea of using a knife in the work,” says Lee. “The images are so poignant. People interpret that as being masculine.”
Another reason might be that so many of her works, for woodblock prints, are huge. To create larger pieces like “Parade,” which is almost two meters square, she will stand on top of the panel and carve into the wooden surface with all her weight.
Lee says her prints are a testimony to her fears about death and life. Her father spent the last 10 years of his life bedridden, struggling with complications from diabetes. At 20, the artist herself was afflicted with tuberculosis, followed by other maladies. Once she lost all of her work when her studio was destroyed by arson.
“I consciously try to incorporate personal frustrations when I work,” she says. “That allows me to focus my strength in my arms and create strong imagery.”
In person, Lee doesn’t come across as a particularly political person, or even a “serious artist” type. She wears a stylish suit and a makeup to an interview, offering a hearty handshake to anyone she meets. She teaches art to high school students at a private institute, and says she enjoys what she does very much.
Nevertheless, darkness and agony prevail throughout her work, both in form and in subject matter.
The intensity of the black-and-white prints, and the edginess and the crude slashes of the woodcut medium, are reminiscent of Kathe Kollwitz, a German expressionist printmaker whose work reflected the agony and savagery of World War I. Ms. Lee cites Kollwitz as one her dominant artistic influences.
She was also influenced by Edward Hopper, the American realist painter from the same period who was also interested in portraying stark social landscapes.
Death seems to be a reoccurring theme in Lee’s work. In “Utopia,” the artist presents a seemingly infinite number of dead bodies floating in a void, a visually arresting image of life after death. Notions of the afterlife seem to creep into many of her works, even when the titles clearly reflect that they’re based on sources in the living world.
“I am not pessimistic about any of these subjects,” she says. “I try to be honest about it. But people take it in many different ways.”
Indeed, she saw visitors to her Gana Art Space exhibition reinterpret her work in playful ways. She recalls high school girls posing for camera phones, hiding their chins behind their school bags to imitate the figures in “Watching Out.” A few visitors suggested that she adapt the series as a comic book or an Internet flash animation. A scriptwriter in his 70s patted her on the shoulder at her reception, saying he could sense the struggles she had lived through.
“It was quite delightful,” she says. “Something I hadn’t shared with the public before.”
Lee is involved in lighter aspects of life as well. It might come as a surpise to a viewer of her work to hear that her interests include origami and belly dancing. She is intrigued by the idea of being “different,” and how individuals cope with that in a society like Korea that puts so much emphasis on conformity and order. That is one reason that many of her pieces include one or two figures that are noticeably different from the rest of the crowd, whether in color or in form.
The sheer size of many of her prints is unusual in contemporary printmaking; most prints produced today are perceived as modest home accessories, something to hang prettily on a living room wall. Most of Lee’s recent prints are in black and white, making it even more difficult to sell her work in the local art market, which generally regards printmaking as a dying medium anyway.
With the exception of some established printmakers, woodblock printing is generally considered the least popular medium in the visual arts. This is partly because of its political associations.
Woodblock prints are thought of as an icon of revolutionary movements, mainly because they can be reproduced inexpensively, using basic tools. Woodblock printing was used by China’s Communist party to spread political ideals among the country’s illiterate peasants. Artists in Korea also used woodblock prints for propaganda during the country’s pro-democracy movement.
Lee started working with woodblock prints about 10 years ago, shortly after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Before falling ill, she had worked in media ranging from silkscreen to lithographs, which often involved toxic chemicals and laborious pressing techniques. She said she had turned to wood and ink, mainly because her respiratory system could no longer take heavy industrial solvents. Her health has since recovered, but she still works only in wood.
“It delivers the kind of energy I like to convey in my work,” she says. “It carries that intense flavor of a knife.”
by Park Soo-mee