COOHAUS GALLERY | MARCH 14 – APRIL 1, 2013
Zaun Lee is a young, New York-based abstract painter who comes from Seoul, South Korea. Educated first at Seoul National University and then in America, both at Alfred University and Pratt Institute, she is representative of a Korean generation that wants to investigate Western as well as Asian aesthetics. As her viewers might imagine, it is very hard to incorporate the very different kinds of space and mark-making found in the two cultures. Borrowing can be enthralling, but it also entails the dangers of eclecticism, which can weaken an artwork through excessive influence. Remarkably, in Lee’s fine, new solo show, the artist has found a way of building imagery that combines the strengths of both cultures without becoming overly beholden to either. Working with pencil, ink, and resin, Lee constructs filmy palimpsests whose final versions record the imagery’s history.
As Lee asserts in a short artist’s statement, the basic building block of her graphic approach is the grid—a modernist device for creating a context that conveys no cultural bias or history. The older works on view, consisting of a series of highly abstract, architecturally influenced black-and-white paintings of Lego pieces arranged in rows, show off the achievement of her hand while seemingly presenting a site in which an intellectual sublime may occur. (We remember that Lee was a philosophy major at Alfred and has translated Habermas into Korean.) In “Border 03” (2009), a series of Lego parts cap the up-and-down wall facing the viewer. A small work of art, 9 inches high by 18 inches wide, “Border 03” is a highly successful exercise in linear abstraction, whose theme can be described as restraint before impending obstacles. “Cloud and its Shadow #2 and #4” (2008) put forth a hard-edged abstraction in which even the black and white clouds are painted using a linear outline. On the left, the black cloud sits square in the middle of the painting; on the right, we are given half of a white cloud that interacts with the Lego parts. Taut as art, the work shows us linear elements that are meant to be considered over time.
As good as the above-mentioned paintings are, a triptych called “Pixels” (2011) steals the show. The three works may be taken as individual works of art, but they are most effective in conjunction with each other. Consisting of acrylic paints, graphite, and layers of resin over linen, “Pixels” manages to evoke the historical landscape paintings of Asia, the expressiveness of the New York School, and the incursion of the digital world into a younger artist’s consciousness. The painting on the left offers a white square surrounded by brush marks on the lower left, above which is found a partial grid, structured by vertical lines and, at the top, by one horizontal line. A dark, shadow-like bar descends from the top left, while across from it is a rectangle with the same tonal values. The middle painting plays with rectangles and stripes, whose regularity is undermined by messy graphite scribbles. One black and gray image is done in a trompe l’oeil effect, with the rectangle looking like it has depth beyond the surface of the painting. The painting on the right, filled with rows of graphite scribbling, possesses, on the left, a white geometric form that stands out in contrast to the grays covering the rest of the painting. This white area is also scribbled over. There is an architectural precision to the paintings, which use considerable amounts of graphite to deliver their vision of a post-geographical aesthetic.
Lee might best be described as a gifted painter committed to successful form rather than identifying with a particular culture: an artist who explores the West in order to invest her work with an intellectual clarity contemporary Korean art may well miss. Her years of practice show her to be spectacularly accurate with the draftsmanship of her effects. At times the work feels like a postmodern landscape, complete with pixels; at others, it feels like the rendition of a sublime so delicate, it can only be recorded through overlapping surfaces, with great difficulty. This combination of evanescence and accuracy of detail join together to produce work that is memorably independent of the elements Lee uses to put the composition in place. Her gifts and outlook are mature; she is not someone to watch so much as she is someone who has arrived.
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Jonathan Goodman is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.