Ufan Lee: Artist Who Renders a Place of Dialogues

Dialogue (2018 by Lee Ufan

Dialogue (2018) is one of Ufan Lee’s paintings in a series of the same title, in which a largely blank canvas is marked only by two swathes of color: red in the top left corner, and blue on the bottom right. The vertical grooves of the upper form gradate from dark red to white while the lower does so horizontally, from dark blue to white. The irregular fillings and rigid-looking surfaces of the interweaving colors rest on the contrasting background of pure white, and together they render energy. By leaving the unpainted space as it is, the 84-year-old sculptor and painter Lee creates rhythmic gestures, emphasizing the roles of each component — the colors, the physicality created by those colors, and the work of the brushes against the fiber of the canvas. Lee allows his viewers to contemplate the rudimentary physicalities of the materials. He unveils what lays beneath the aura created by superficial expressions or hyper-beautified images, which is only a “unique phenomenon of a distance,” to borrow the words of Walter Benjamin. His painting is a platform where viewers are invited to unwind within their own imaginations, deriving insight from the rawest form of his art.

Ufan Lee is a leading figure of the Japanese Mono-ha (School of Things) movement, which developed in the mid-1960s in the midst of rising rage and protests against authoritarianism and colonialism. It was the beginning of modernity in Japan. Lee was born in South Korea in 1936. In 1956, only two months after enrolling at Seoul National University, where he had been studying Fine Arts, he dropped out and emigrated to Japan where the quality of life was safer, freer, and more prosperous. He has spent most of his life there, working as a sculptor, assembling materials that represent either industrialization or nature — such as steel boards and large rocks — exploring each of their physical properties. He places these objects in carefully thought-out arrangements so that they encounter each other as the unique qualities that “they are’’. They create a space of new harmony as their qualities act in complementary to or in contrast to each other (Mono-ha). He also considers the environment they are placed in, indoors or outdoors, which also creates resonance between them.

Lee’s insight and the philosophy he developed by experimenting with sculptural materials extend to his paintings, which in turn shaped one of the major Korean painting movements: dansaekhwa. Born under similar political and historical circumstances as the Mono-ha movement, Dansaekhwa is characterized by artists’ repetitive practices or gestures as a “bodily record of time’s perpetual passage.” Dansaekhwa emerged in the 1970s, when Korea was filled with both hope and despair. The 1960s and the 1970s were complex times of repressive military dictatorship following the Pacific War, the Korean War, and ultimately, the division of Korea after the Japanese occupation. After the Korean War, there was potential for the nation’s economic growth, but human rights oppressions lurked beneath the surface of this development. During that time, tools for art making were rare, and freedom of expression was limited due to poverty and military politics. Art schools were annihilated during the wars. Artists who remained in Korea at this time would wait till the end of school in search of scraps of leftover pencils to draw with. Any form of political expression would result in imprisonment. Under these circumstances, dansaekhwa emerged as “the vestige of expressing resistance by not expressing.” Along with Chang-sup Chung, Sang-hwa Chung, Chong-hyun Ha, Whan-ki Kim,Young-woo Kwon and Seo-bo Park, Lee stands as a pivotal figure in this movement. The key idea in dansaekhwa is that although all these artists share the act of repetition and monochromic aspect, each artist has their own methods of approaching them. Therefore, in dansaekhwa paintings, the restrained energy of accumulated perseverance and endurance are often reflected differently by every artist, just as traumatic events affect everyone differently.

In the process of painting his Dialogue series, Lee contemplates deeply to find a perfect harmony between the large dots and the surrounding space by constantly experimenting with their position on the canvas, and with various colors. He considers his tools vital for placing marks “where the eyes will move around providing the painting with dynamism.” He persistently studies the substances of his paints, styles of brushes, and weaving of the canvas to bring out the distinct qualities inherent to each. Lee’s works are painted on specially designed canvases made of Belgian hemp fiber and painted four times with white pigment. He develops his own paint by mixing different elements such as ground stones and liquid glue. Lee orders his brushes to be made in specific ways and sizes to suit his needs for best expressing what he tries to convey through his paintings. He has various manufacturing agencies with which he is partnered around the world. He regularly visits them to give them ideas and directions on how the materials must be designed, sized or what they should be made with. The two marks in Dialogue (2018) are made with brushes that Lee had specifically designed with the purpose of making these marks with a single, powerful stroke.

The brushstroke that constitutes each colored form is repeated over the same place on the canvas, and is done with “intense concentration guided by an ethics of restraint,” at first saturated with pigment but eventually thinning, leaving only gestures indicating the passing of time. The remnants of his past that embed deep within him — the training of the suffering mind of the war and estrangement in Japan — are subliminally delivered through his brushstrokes and meticulous choice in placement of his marks, as well as their colors. In Lee’s artwork, the past is something that “cannot be dismissed as a mere memory.” It doesn’t have any effect on him consciously, but “it is still active in the distance.” His soul is now soaked into the canvas. For some, this resonates tranquility.

In the Korean text, Tansaekhwa Mihak ŭl Mal Hada, art critic Jin Sup Yoon points to another feature of dansaekhwa which is apparent in Lee’s work: the “awareness of planarity as the existentialist condition of painting.” Lee lets the unpainted area of the canvas be appreciated as the thing it is to be. The experience of his art becomes something that incorporates bodily and sensorial presence of everything that transforms the painting into art. The art viewing becomes something that, thus, emphasizes a sense of place as an embracement of physical formations. Lee’s full incorporation of planes is what vibrates such powerful magnetism because they are, again as Yoon’s states, the “mechanisms that are fundamental to paintings. Planes are in fact what makes paintings what they are.” A mere vacant flatness metamorphosed into an “elevated realm that is opened by the encounter of self and other” — a lingering moment, or a platform for viewers to engage in or transcend beyond what their ocular ability allows.

There is a question of belonging, which Lee has encountered both as a Korean living in Japan and also traveling around the world. His limits and limitlessness as a Korean artist are something he has continually contemplated, especially after having been disinvited to display his work at the Fifth Japan Art Festival in 1970. Edward Fry, an associate curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where the festival was held, selected Lee. But Fry’s Japanese co-organizers, the Japan Art Festival Association, rejected him because of his Korean heritage. Because of this, he feels “compelled to rise above his Koreanness in order to successfully engage…” As an artist, he constantly searches for a place where he belongs but also doesn’t belong. He looks at the placement of his body in the external world, Japanese culture and lifestyle against the conformity of his mind (deeply rooted with Korean way of functions) and the title that identifies his status written in his passport. He says,“I do not exist in Japan, and if I go to Korea I cannot confirm [for myself] a definite reality.”

In Dialogue (2018), with minimal expression, he speaks deeper meaning more loudly of his subject. The viewer’s presence is part of the notion of place that Lee attempts to transform. He instills upon them an atmosphere in which to belong or not belong as their natural selves. This is because in this realm of his creation, artificiality, flattery, decoration is meaningless. His artistic and spiritual approach is a contemporary process in which everything starts from embracing all the matters as they are, thus giving enough room for inspiration, various thoughts and opinions. Everything that surrounds the painting, becomes part of his art — the properties of the marks, the margins in between, the white walls of the gallery, the lighting in the room, the air that surrounds, the sound of the scene, and even the state where the viewers are in emit energies as disparate things. Together they render a vibe that interfere in the whole art viewing experience. He blows a breath of life into them cause[ing] the canvas to vibrate, activating the surrounding space and the audience.” Lee’s painting is large in scale which induces the viewers to consider the relationship between physicality of the space they are in. Eventually the thought guides them “to think of the boundaries between spaces, and in turn, of the formation of place.” The mark, the paint, the gallery wall, everything that surrounds his art melds to become a single overtone. The art is turned into a space where all of the constituents of the painting work in response to or with the viewer’s presence. It is a space of interactive play in which each properties speak themselves. As the title of his painting, Dialogue suggests, he builds a new platform that “acts as a new kind of expression in discourse.” Dialogue becomes fathomless in the context of the subject (painting).

When Lee lets the mark made by the brushstroke sit until the paint is thinned and dried, this ephemeral moment reflects both of his tenacity and nostalgia for his past life. His persistent play with space, the undefined blankness is left open for self-assurance and self-recognition for his nostalgia also in parallel with uncertainty of longing for the sense of belonging to a place of sanctuary from war, colonization, and foreignness. And the space becomes a new dimension of stability. Lee is a believer of perception and the phenomena of seeing as “something intangible, something elusive, a strange and liberating truth.” Viewers yield into that phantasmagoric instance rendered by his painting — entranced by their own connection to his work. There is an immediacy of the bodily moment as they insert themselves within this skeletal space. All of those faculties are the effect of Lee’s masterpiece.

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Anne Bae

[Restart] Writing about things that inspire me in life. For anyone who enjoys exploring different topics and open to discovering new perspectives and ideas.