During this year’s Seoul Art Week, painter Jinju Lee‘s work could be found impressing art observers just about everywhere. The prolific artist, who teaches at Hongik University College of Fine Art, was showing at the Frieze Art Fair and at three other galleries, while also preparing for an exhibit in the Netherlands. Two paintings from her mesmerizing Black Paintings series, “Gaze” and “Perception,” commanded attention at Arario Gallery’s Frieze booth at COEX. An installation representing her studio was set up on the top floor of the Arario Gallery itself. Her works were also a part of The Embodied Spirit group show at the newly opened White Cube Seoul. We met up with Lee, however, at her exhibit within the SongEun art space, designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron (their first-ever project in Korea). There, we learned more about her achingly beautiful Black Paintings, as well as glowing canvases layered with images of women, children and nature.
Talking about the subjects in her work, Lee says through a translator, “It is very symbolic. A metaphor of life. It is the stones that I see when I am walking along the street. Even when I face something ordinary that I see every day, it will remind me of a special memory or event. Everything has meaning.” She paints with materials used in very traditional Korean painting, which she describes as similar to water colors but with more depth. Lee depicts these memories in the form of photorealistic hands and faces glowing from the darkest black to evocative layered scenes of natural forms. Her work lives in the space between beauty and heartbreak.
In recent works, white walls and planes obscure the full story, a reference to our time inside during isolation. Clues to a deep maternal bond fill the images from female bodies, hands holding eggs and young children being comforted and nourished by a parent. Foliage appears to have been rendered by a botanist as well as images of the natural world with animals, soil and stones existing in relation to each other. It’s as if Lee has found a way to share not only her memories, but also her philosophy, dreams and desires, all with radiant and hypnotic clarity.
At SongEun, Lee’s paintings fill two galleries in the group exhibition Panorama, highlighting the works of sixteen contemporary Korean artists. One wall, with five of her Black Paintings, depicts photorealistic hands holding raw eggs whole, cracked and dripping down. Each hand glows out of a dark black paint, which she explains has been made by her husband, artist Lee Jeong-bae, by combining powdered pigment, “agyo” (a type of animal skin glue) and water. She calls this material “Leejeongbae black.” She believes hands can express human emotion (and even a quick glimpse at her work confirms this).
For the piece “(Im)possible,” Lee explains that she was interested in exploring the theme of seeing, and wanted to depict what lies beyond the peripheral vision that cannot be seen. “When there are two people and they face each other, then you cannot see,” she says. “You are too close to each other, so it is the relationship of the person who is there.” The painting, which is also a freestanding sculpture, is structured to give the viewer blinders like a horse would wear during a race, so that the viewer can only see the parts Lee wants to be revealed. The artwork incorporates a long stem of bamboo held upside down that Lee pulled out of the ground herself, a rock she saw in her neighborhood and a dragonfly that was caught by one of her children.
Lee paints glimpses into intimate moments of family life and visions of her memories, both beautiful and scary. As a young girl she was kidnapped and held with her hands and feet tied. Though her captivity did not last for very long and she kept it as a secret from her mother, the fraught emotions have stayed with her to this day. She talks about how she has tried to push these traumatic moments away, but they continue to stick to her. Painting helps her process these complicated feelings.
At The Embodied Spirit group show, curated by Susan May, Lee’s Black Paintings stand out from the gallery walls with an almost lifelike presence. In “Clearly Revealed,” a woman looks away from the viewer holding her face in her hands, appearing to possibly be the same person revealed twice, but with slightly varying marks on the skin. While in the next canvas two women face front with both sets of their hands hiding the woman in front. The viewer wonders if this is two reflections of a person or a relationship between two women standing so close to protect each other. For an exhibit exploring the theme of metaphysics and philosophy, these images evoke inquiry and offer multiple interpretations from such simple gestures.
During Seoul Art Week, the worldwide art community visited the sprawling metropolis to attend the fairs, gallery and museum shows, events and exhibitions installed throughout the city. As art from around the globe was celebrated, the breadth and depth of the Korean art community was on full display. While Lee was attending events in Seoul, she was also preparing for an exhibit at Marres, House for Contemporary Culture, in Maastricht where her paintings will be shown alongside works by artists Hyesoo Park and James Webb. The show, entitled Goodbye to Love (inspired by the bell hooks essay “All About Love”) shares the transformative power of love and its importance to the social and political fabric of society. Lee’s work offers so much to add to the thematic exploration.
Spending time with Lee leaves a lasting impression. She refers to her husband as her muse. Not only did he create the black paint that she uses to great effect in her work, he also constructs the shapes and forms of her paintings that exist beyond squares and rectangles. She speaks of her love and devotion to her children and how she prioritizes time with her family. For the Goodbye to Love exhibit, they have created a page for people to share their own stories about love. Lee depicts her own reflections on love in her incandescent work, which she shares with a growing following around the world.