Seung Lee: Changeable Nature, written by Jonathan Goodman
The art of Seung Lee indicates a changeable nature—from beauty to terror, from figurative imagery to the abstract, from nature to cultural expressions. These contrasts result in highly individual art and, in some cases, installations. As a painter given over to a certain lyrical abstraction, derived from an equally evident figuration, Lee constructs a bridge between the two kinds of thinking in art. Nature—specifically the presentation of trees—is extremely important for the artist, who seems transported into another realm when painting his images. The spiritual world also plays a major role in Lee’s development, enabling him to paint otherworldly states through the depiction of nature—actually, the point where nature and culture meet in agreement. The vivid intensities of his colors push forward a sense of deeply animated life, enabling Lee to indicate his intense pleasure in both art and life. Despite the otherworldly effects, or perhaps because of them, Lee communicates a remarkable world of possibilities, in which everything seems to be more than what it is. The presentation of a space in contradistinction to what we usually know, its visionary characteristics, is taken up with genuine style in the complex changes exampled in his art.
We can see this happen in Violent Tree (2012), an excruciating image of a tree with lozenge-shape wounds in the bark and branches; on top of it is a bright-red abstraction, looking rather like (but we are not certain) a spider and its web. In the background there is a deep blue, on top of which are a series of white, radiating concentric circles—a mystical net to be considered. Still, the overall effect of the painting must be finally understood a violent one, whereby abstraction and, to a certain extent, deformed figuration play out a powerful drama whose components are that much stronger because of their familiarity. The dynamism in Lee’s paintings makes them feel as if nature has never been quietist but always vibrantly alive. The depths to which the paintings allude contain not only the best and most original assortment of colors, filled with a joyous, almost minatory energy, but also fashion a meeting place for the prophets to delver electrifying messages, in which there is nearly a sense of fury—as happens in Lee’s Violent Tree. The rawness of the tree imagery pushes the viewer’s response in the direction of a cartoonish, animated sequence, which indeed portrays an apocalypse seemingly made for each viewer alone.
In the equally powerful Yellow Tree, we see the white outline of a tree onto which a series of yellow lines and blots have been painted; in the distance, seen also through the tree’s open horizontal lines, one comes across other tree forms, stars, and a deep, dark-blue atmosphere. It is a fine work of art—a visionary aura compels us to contemplate and admire the daring quality of Yellow Tree’s atmosphere. This kind of openness to the difficult, mystical aspect of nature involves a complete re-reading of the sky, stars, and trees. The paintings have a tendency to overwhelm the viewer, no matter what the size.
Beehive (2012) indicates a grossly distended, dead tree with drooping, leafless branches, out of which a yellow-green swarm rises. The bright-green background maintains a series of concentric circles, the center of which is the bee swarm. Light beams down from the upper right, with a spiritual fury that we can only experience rather than comprehend. Mystically inclined, Lee offers us rare presences that speak to a large awareness even as they are rooted in natural forms. He demands our full attention in the sense that his imagination balances the extraordinary with a seemingly mundane nature, one that is rooted in reality despite the cosmic touches in his art. In a sense he returns to the artist’s ancient role of mediating the divine and ensuring that it is believable by paying attention to the particulars of its presence in the real world. He does us the favor of informing his audience of close-to-miraculous scenarios, which grab our intention with their intensity and grace.
Eternal Circulation, written by Jai Kwang Lim
Seung Lee, an artist and professor of Long Island University, is a 1.5 Korean-American generation. That number reflects people who were born in Korea but went abroad, following their parents. They are different in various ways from first or second generation Korean-Americans. Memories of Korea linger dimly in 1.5 Korean-Americans’ mind. They use different languages and they have to accept both Korean and American cultures. Accordingly, they cannot be completely American or completely Korean. They are in a grey area. Understanding this tension is an important key to understanding Lee’s art works.
The artist Seung Lee’s art world deals with a continuous looking back at his own life and artworks that he created. From revisiting his own past to discovering his present self, he has a very Asian attitude about karma.
Seung Lee’s 2004 exhibition at the Gallery WooLim in Seoul, Korea was
very unique and shocking. He exhibited hundreds of collected bottles, which contained his previous artworks cut with scissors. Because his works are a part of his life, he must have had a mental conflict with ruining the paintings. However, by placing the cut paintings into a beautiful bottle means he’s not rejecting or forgetting his past, he is reusing it. Having his cut paintings reappear or be transformed into a different art form means he accepts his own life the same way. Showing the transformed paintings to gallery audiences, reassures that he is not rejecting the past. Through his art, we can read Buddha’s philosophy of the transmigration of souls, natural cycles, and karma.
Lee’s attitude towards Korea is similar to his cut and bottled art. He is without many fond childhood memories or close relatives in Korea. He approaches Korea as a tourist. Using his work, he is trying to hold onto little bits of his past fond memory and past experiences and bottle them in his heart.
He is staying in a village nearby a Cheong Pyung dam in Ga Pyung, Kyung GiDo this summer. The village is close to his birthplace where he lived until he was seven-years-old. Not only does he not have many memories of his hometown, but also it has changed extensively over the last four decades. Why has he come back to his hometown? Or what is his reason for visiting the birthplace he has no memories of?
Lee has brought his drawings and paintings from the United States for an exhibition at Jang Eun Sun Gallery. Through his art works, one can see his honest narcissism and recurrence. It means that he will never forget or reject his own past; instead he is searching for truth in his vague past memories.
His current drawings are reflective of his previous artwork of capped bottles from the 2004 exhibition, which contained cut paintings. These transformed drawings expressed his endless search for self-existence.
There are three keywords to be aware of when discussing Seung Lee’s artwork.
The first word is the Recycling or reusing component of his work. When he was working as a taxi driver in New York, he created his artwork with abandoned or trashed wheels and automobile accessories. One of his strengths at the time and the work he is most recognized for are the artworks that are made by recycling the abandoned things.
For this exhibition’s paintings, he recycled his students’ abandoned canvases. Many students keep their paintings when the work is successful; others throw away their paintings when they fail or are not liked. Seung Lee thinks the abandoned canvas reflects a failure of his teaching. He believes that his students’ failed paintings reflect his personal failure as a teacher. He redeems himself from this failure by reworking the students’ failed and discarded paintings. He made new paintings by reworking the abandoned or thrown away canvases. In some paintings he alters the technical component of the work, and on others, he redevelops the failed conceptual aspect of the painting.
The second key word to consider when discussing Seung Lee’s work is location or an area. His artwork reflects the place that he is working from with honesty. I felt a Brooklyn influence when I saw his current works. Mr. Lee lives in Brooklyn now. His paintings brought out the color of Brooklyn as it is. He employs good use of color and technique, and the image tells us regional information. A stenciling and a spray painting technique, which were used in his paintings, are a specific technique and media used to make graffiti; achromatic colors and dark brown are main hue of Brooklyn itself.
The third keyword to keep in mind when discussing Seung Lee’s work is identity. America is the nation where an individual constantly has to contend with one’s identity. Most Americans are immigrants and offspring of immigrants. Lee’s art works shows us the process of self-examination. On the one hand, he destroyed his art works, but on the other hand he rediscovered them and showed them to us from another angle. Viewers can read into the process of circulation and recurrence. The work deals with self-reflection and investigation of identity.
Circulation, the title of this exhibition, generally reflects the meaning of the above-mentioned three factors. Everything in life goes around and around, but at the end it all comes to the original starting place. Someday art work and artists will return to the nature at the end of their cycle. Although he creates his artworks with discarded human objects or nature’s wasted stuff, and everything he recycles becomes a precious art object, the physical artwork is not the final purpose. He lives in Brooklyn now, but Brooklyn cannot be eternal. Why does Seung Lee call on his birthplace again and why does he ruin and revive his own artworks? He probably knows all this is only the process of circulation. While knowing the facts, he will continue following the process, which is a provision of nature and an irresistible destiny.
Seung Lee: “CIRCULATION”, written by Art Historian Dr. Rachel Baum, Harvard University
Seung Lee’s work is defined best by the concept of postproduction, the contemporary historical and cultural condition explored by art critic Nicolas Bourriaud in his influential book of the same title. The term postproduction refers to the replacement of the industrial era of commodity culture with a society of total consumption.
A self-described artistic cannibal, parasite and scavenger, Lee’s process is based on the reuse of discarded and leftover materials, both readymade and of his own creation. Lee’s practice is based upon a constant circulation back and forth between the found object and the crafted artwork. Using both street debris and his own past artworks, recovered after periods of neglect or dormancy from the edges of his studio, Lee disassembles and recombines the mass-produced found object together with his own existing work, collaging history and the present, personal and anonymous forms. Composite, collected, broken and rearranged constructions and pictures hold the remnants of the artist’s other selves and the selves of others as imprinted on the abandoned things Lee salvages.
His medium is the debris of whatever location he inhabits at the time, which for Lee corresponds to an ongoing migration between continents and identities, none of which are fixed or complete – citizen and immigrant; Korea, Italy, America; New York City taxi driver and tenured academic; dissolute punk and suburban father; artist and mentor.
Perhaps the most critical transmutation in today’s global culture of disposability is aesthetic reinvestment in the used leavings of mass consumption. The artwork is the ultimate reinvestment, an extreme revaluation of the obsolete and abandoned common object into a unique form. Art history traces the origin of this gesture to Duchamp. Bourriaud explains,
He asserts that the act of choosing is enough to establish the artistic process, just as the act of fabricating, painting, or sculpting does: to give a new idea to an object is already production. Duchamp thereby completes the definition of the term creation: to create is to insert an object into a new scenario.1
Now that choosing among commodities seems to be our sole vehicle of subjectivity, Duchamp’s model of production as selection no longer subverts the values of our culture. What the notion of postproduction asks us to consider is how artists can interrupt this system by taking objects out of the flow of wastage from package to garbage and reinserting them in critical positions that are out of place in the cycle of consumption.
Lee has described this circular process of reintegration based on decay, destruction and reuse in terms Buddhism’s cycles of knowledge. Certainly the values of originality, unity and self-reference – the sui generis of the Western creative ideal – don’t work for Lee, who relies on exploiting his dislocation and fractured, conditional identity.
Charles Baudelaire suggested that the poet of the nineteenth century was like the rag picker, the marginal citizen that subsisted on the refuse of the city, trading the worthless scraps of one class for the sustaining necessities of another. He connected this activity with artistic creation and identified himself with the figure of the scavenger: “In one of his preferred self-images as rag-picker, hunting out his rhymes in the debris of city life, Baudelaire positions himself as a poet firmly at the end of the cycle of the production, consumption, disposal and recuperation of material objects.” 2
This figure has persisted as an artistic anti-hero since Baudelaire’s time, but is now more relevant than ever given the expansion of mass-market commerce to every corner of the world. To forage, gather, collect and reassemble is to briefly turn back the flow of money into trash. The words refuse (the unwillingness to comply or accept) and refuse (the worthless or useless part of something) are true doubles. In our age of marketed identities and culture as consumption, to question the value of the new commodity is also to question authority.
1 Opsit, 25
2 Brian Rigby, “Popular Culture in Modern France: A Study of Cultural Discourse.”
Social History, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan., 1993), 88
Review of "Bottled Memories" by Phyllis Braff
Seung Lee’s Solo Exhibition
June 30th to July 6th, 2004
Reception Date: Wednesday, June 30th, 2004, 6pm.
Gallery Woo Lim, 1st Floor
30-27 Kwan Hoon Dong, Jong Ro Gu, Seoul, Korea
Telephone #: 02-733-3738
Seung Lee’s consistent interweaving of message and material is one quality that makes his career stand apart. By basing his art on found objects that immediately declare their previous existence, he introduces a wealth of ambiguous historical associations that invite a broad range of interpretations. The pieces have an underlying seriousness that inevitably stimulates philosophical questions about the layering of time and meaning, physicality, and the transcending value of using reality. Socio-scientific attitudes come into play too: saving versus discarding; the role of the past; consciously determined recycling, and nature’s own laws governing the changing character of all organic matter.
In his newest work, Seung Lee introduces characteristics that seem both personal and profound He cuts and pierces his earlier paintings dating back several decades, then casts the reshaped fragments in irregular resin molds in an act that suggests an antidiaristic stance, a destruction of sentimentality, and perhaps an ultimate recycling step Yet his process also represents a courageous statement intended to rethink and flatten time. It challenges the sense of past as something behind us and implies that history is for use and direct engagement. Many resin castings in this recent series are inserted within antique, discarded and rediscovered glass containers that offer their own connotations of earlier times. Other castings are inserted within commonplace plastic food storage bags which are then incorporated into wall-hung constructions. Taking the concept of creative reuse and discovery further, the artist often treats the abstract configurations of resin-sealed fragments as a starting point for large-format, mixed-media drawings.
All three approaches have distinctive visual strengths in addition to their thoroughly charged conceptual messages. The containers provide a fascinating complexity of shapes inside non-related shapes, and their combinations of luminous resin and translucent or transparent glass provides an ever-changing and intriguing play of reflective light effects. Surface light and texture produces varied effects in the constructions too. Their resonance is enhanced when an arbitrarily determined background tint establishes a specific mood. Intuitively angled, overlapping and intertwined arrangements of canvas fragments energize both the central plastic bag elements in the constructions and the abstract drawings as well. To some extent there is a recycling of the color and gesture energy inherent in the original paintings, but the drawings build their own dynamic force with boldly shifting planes and swift ribbons of motion.
It is the antique glass containers that initially announce the socio-archaeological message. These often handsomely toned, cut, incised, embossed, stemmed, fluted and alternatively bulbous and concave bottles, decanters and vases are in the tradition of the storage containers that all cultures devise. Here they represent abandonment, followed by rediscovery for a new role. In the context of Seung Lee’s art, the found objects underscore how the past can influence the imagination.
Seung Lee’s Art, written by Jay Kwang Lim
The exhibition at the Project Room, Phoenix Gallery in Chelsea, New York, is
Seung Lee’s 16th Solo Show. All artwork in this exhibition were created in 2004-2005. He cut his old drawings and paintings from 1980 to 2004 using scissors. He then casts these fragmented pieces of artworks into transparent resin, and then draws these clods of resin again. This action, in which he destroys his past artwork, preserves them as new forms and incorporates these new sculptural shapes to illustrate the complex negative to positive, and his tenacity to overcome complications in his life.
Through the result of these complicated acts of destruction and preservation, Seung creates a new painting which represents his optimistic way of thinking about life, sending a message of hope. Consciously or unconsciously, this thought process has resulted from the transmigration of Buddhism in which he appears to be a monk in oriental religions who is confronted with his existence in constantly cultivating his mind. This reminds one of folk remedies that a sick patient eats his own excrement to get better.
Couple years ago, Seung relocated his studio to Brooklyn. He had to arrange and clean up old artworks which were saved for years. Unlike some artists, instead of burning his paintings, he chooses to “taxidermy” his old works. His clod-like sculptures appear as time capsules, a fossil of modern times, and a stuffed specimen. It is the concentrated sign of his history of art. By the act of drawing his newly created sculptural objects, he revives his old history and vestige. This act of drawing from the preserved object could be a lingering desire or mourning for the past. This is also connected with the act of recycling discarded materials, which has been Seung’s main concept for years.
From working as a taxi driver in New York City and spending his childhood on the street, Seung created his artworks by using found objects from the street. This might be the reason he cannot pass by abandoned objects on the street. Chang-Seung Jeong, a junk art artist who influenced a number of young Korean artists in New York before his death, also affected him. Many of the subjects and materials in his works are discovered on the street or in other surroundings: wood scraps, dishes, tree roots, broken TVs, VCRs, and other found materials. He assembles things for which he has strong feelings, enthusiasm and integrity. Some objects seem content to remain on the street, while others beg him to bring them to life. Those objects seem to have a history, which compels him. He has particular interest in these images because of their relationship to society and the environment. Discarded objects directly point out the wasteful and disposable nature of society.
Seung is very interested in his local environment where he resides and works. He supports his regional art scene through his diversified art exhibitions. His love for discarded materials is as deep as his love for his family, neighbor, society, and natural environment. His artwork is the only way to love his family, his neighbors, and himself.