Wind and Stone: Seung-taek Lee at Levy Gorvy Gallery

Seung-taek Lee, Installation view at Levy Gorvy Gallery

An exhibition at uptown gallery Levy Gorvy surveys the career of Korean proto-conceptual artist Seung-taek Lee, whose inventive careers argues for a reconsideration of the development of Korean modernism as well as some outright swooning over the sensuousness of works that embody both materiality and ephemerality at once. The epynomous solo exhibition features some 40 works by Lee, including a 1960 Non-Sculpture and several Wind paintings from the 1960s through the present. It is the artist’s first solo show in the Unites States, and well worth a visit.

Seung-taek Lee, Wind (1972/82), Rope on canvas

The works on view felt immediately accessible to me, although they arise from a particular context. Born in North Korea in 1932, Lee has been living and working in Seoul since the Korean War. In the 1950s, when Korean artists began to explore ideas of Modernism, Lee early on embraced the idea of an experimental art practice that was uninterested in abstract painting. Working largely independently, he developed a diverse practice, often influenced by Korean traditions, materials, and folk culture. He has worked in mediums ranging from sculpture to performance to land art, using materials that consciously speak to Korean identity even as his formal vocabulary easily slips into the simplified forms of a broader international Modernist paradigm.

Seung-taek Lee, Godret Stone (1958), Stones, rope, wood

Lee’s work with stones that curve inward as if they had waists, known as godret stones, are among his best known. Godret stones are traditionally used for braiding mats in a particular region of Korea. The artist was originally attracted to the stones because they were not art materials but the common tools of artisans. Through suspension and binding with ropes or wires, Lee plays with the potential for transformation–from soft to solid, floating to weighty–that these works inhabit at once.

Seung-taek Lee, detail, Untitled (1959/81)

Just as Lee can make a rock appear soft and pliant, so in his hands a rough rope can become a sinuous line for drawing on canvas. The undulating lines become mesmerizing and suggest subtle movement and depth, yet the effect is created solely through their material nature. At the same time, their placement is indexical, suggesting the trace of the gesture as much as emphasizing a particular form. In this case, rather than the artist’s hand, the curving lengths of rope are meant to give shape to the ephemeral movements of air. This interest in the elements would lead Lee to other works that traced wind or smoke through the air, such as the Wind-Folk Amusement (1971) performance, photographs of which are on view in this exhibition.

Seung-taek Lee, Installation view

Lee’s work is often talked about in terms of “non-sculpture,” an idea that the artist himself has encouraged. Just as he moved outside of traditional art materials, he has described seeking anti-concept or anti-art in his practice. Lee sees his works as creating ruptures in the discourse around art in a very direct way, and in fact considers them as a clear rejections of the traditional notion of art. At the same time, the artist very much views this experimental practice as an art practice (in contrast, say, to the portrait commissions in realist style that he has taken over the years to support himself.)

Seung-taek Lee, Tied Knife (1962) and Tied Knife (1962)

In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in Flash Art in 2013, Lee said: “I would like to advise young artists to learn social science and philosophy as much as possible, because I think art is a game of high intellect; the more you understand the better the work comes out. Skills to make something perfect don’t have meaning anymore.” Lee suggests that art is the conceptual gesture rather than the final product, an approach that has shaped his long career of experimenting outside the bounds of the Korean art scene, for which he only came into recognition later in life.

Seung-taek Lee” is on view at Levy Gorvy Gallery through April 22.

Indirect and Unsettling: “False Narratives” at Pierogi Gallery

Nadja Bournonville, A Collection of Small Grey Stones 2012, Analog C-Print, Edition #3/3 + 2 A.P., 29 x 23.25 inches

Nadja Bournonville, A Collection of Small Grey Stones, 2012. Analog C-Print, Edition #3/3 + 2 A.P., 29 x 23.25 inches.

A lady in a dress the color of a Madonnas, its rich folds of blue against the crumbling texture of a pale wall. Her hands clasped in a lady-like manner in her lap. Her tissue thin grey medical mask awkwardly covers the front of the face, where there should be sight. This photograph by Nadja Bournonville and its blinded subject opens the excellently strange group show “False Narratives” at Pierogi‘s new Lower East Side location, appropriately enough as it thematizes the potential for brokenness, puncture, and error beneath a deceptively smooth surface. Bournonville’s body of work takes the invention of hysteria as its subject matter, asserting that Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot largely created the disease with the technological aid of photography in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Bournonville represents the spectacle of this endeavor in poetic images of the anonymous female restrained by science and studies of playful pseudo-medical machines that recall the work of Eva Kotatkova.

Tavares Strachan, Dislocated remnants from simultaneous events, Providence, RI, (Broken windows diptych), 2010, Plexi-glass, glass, plastic, wood, metal, 34.5 x 39 x 6 inches each panel

Tavares Strachan, Dislocated remnants from simultaneous events, Providence, RI, (Broken windows diptych), 2010. Plexi-glass, glass, plastic, wood, metal, 34.5 x 39 x 6 inches each panel.

The detailed backstory, rooted in the imagined violence of another time and place, that underlies Bournonville’s photographs resembles the approach taken by Tavares Strachen in his pair of matching windows set into the gallery wall. Strachen’s duplicate white-framed windows were created with precise breaks and the gallery floor is littered with broken glass below. He modeled them on a specific window in a disused industrial building in Rhode Island. There, the artist actually replaced existing windows with matching broken ones. This discreet gesture for noone becomes immediately visible in the gallery space. Paradoxically, while the work becomes more clear, it also becomes less pertinent to the viewer, far removed from the original context. Yet the work takes on new meaning in the gallery space, accentuated by the title that refers to it as a diptych. Painting has long been credited with providing a view onto an imagined vista; here, the cracked glass presents only the gallery wall and the dim reflection of the peering viewer’s face.

Brian Conley, Decipherment of Linear X (X-Ca-Bc-006), 2004, Archival digital print, Edition 2 of 5, 20 x 13.5 inches

Brian Conley, Decipherment of Linear X (X-Ca-Bc-006), 2004. Archival digital print, Edition 2 of 5, 20 x 13.5 inches.

One can more easily draw a formal similarity between Bournanville’s photographs and the “Linear X” body of work by Brian Conley. Both present strong photographs in delicate palettes emphasizing texture and nuance. Both track down obscure paths with rigour: Bournanville, a historic medical and cultural phenomenon, while Conley applies his investigation of Linear X markings as if he were a scientist studying remnants of an ancient language rather than the stray markings of a beetle that he found on a stick in the woods. Conley’s work expands across the room with a glass vitrine featuring loose pages and a display of the artist’s book on the subject (which mimics a scientific volume), a corner of huddled sticks, and photographs and plaster molds along the walls. Conley’s premise, rooted in a known lie, is on one hand futile as a way of knowing the world and on the other creates an intriguing parallel universe.

Installation view of Brian Conley's work

Installation view of Brian Conley’s work

Roxy Paine, Meeting, 2016. Birch, maple, epoxy, apoxie, LED lights, acrylic light diffusers, enamel, lacquer, oil paint, damar varnish, paper, steel, aluminium, stainless steel; 130.25 x 97.5 x 58.5 inches

Roxy Paine, Meeting, 2016. Birch, maple, epoxy, apoxie, LED lights, acrylic light diffusers, enamel, lacquer, oil paint, damar varnish, paper, steel, aluminium, stainless steel; 130.25 x 97.5 x 58.5 inches.

Unlike these other works, rich in backstory, Roxy Paine’s diorama offers you no such guidance. Instead this fabulously constructed miniature beckons you from the far wall as you walk in, brightly lit as if by fluorescent light and featuring a prototypical American conference room. It brightness and skewed perspective to create the convincing illusion of scale hurt my eyes up close as I tried to mine its details to learn more. The scene is resolutely banal and rejects any narrative. Empty spaces maintain a psychological resonance when presented to a viewer looking in, or at least an air of expectancy. It highlights the dourness of industrial grade carpet, overpowering fluorescent lighting, stained ceiling tiles, the cold metal of folding chairs, and middling hot Folgers coffee, but to unclear purpose. By similarly indirect means as the other artists in the show, Paine tells a story, only his is seemingly without a plot or characters.

Nadja Bournonville, Medical Machines #5, 2012, Analog C-print, Ed. of 3, A.P. #1/2, 8.75 x 11 inches

Nadja Bournonville, Medical Machines #5, 2012. Analog C-print, Ed. of 3, A.P. #1/2, 8.75 x 11 inches.

Enigmas and ruptures smoothed over by a cool perfection make for a surprisingly cohesive summer show from the disparate group of artists. Catch it while you can. Pierogi has regular gallery hours through the end of July and then by appointment through August 12.

A Body Without Organs: Javier Téllez at Koenig & Clinton

Installation view of Javier Téllez: To Have Done with the Judgment of God, 2016

Installation view of Javier Téllez: To Have Done with the Judgment of God, 2016

God and organs, screams and silent landscape, ritual and the medical gaze fill the current exhibition “To Have Done with the Judgement of God” at Koenig & Clinton. As evidenced by its title, which is borrowed from a play by Antonin Artaud, Javier Téllez is exploring the life and work of the French writer. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a film of the same name. Téllez’s film keys off of Artaud’s 1936 visit to northern Mexico. There Artaud sought out and lived with the indigenous Rarámuri people. For the film, Téllez creates another encounter between local residents and Artaud. He has Artaud’s 1947 censored radio play To Have Done with the Judgement of God translated into the Rarámuri language and then radio broadcast across the area. His film documents local reactions to this broadcast as residents go about their daily lives.


Artaud is best known for theorizing the Theater of Cruelty, and his radio play To Have Done With the Judgment of God was originally censored not just because of his expression of emotion as guttural sound, bestial cries, and alarming screams, but also for its scatological and anti-religious references. Téllez’s translation retains the alarming screams, which seem to echo off the bare, implacable rocks of northern Mexico in the beautiful footage of the film. Similarly, the people being filmed seem indifferent to the dissenting sentiments and non-linguistic noises interspersed with percussive elements.

Installation view of framed A. A. Postcards (2016), detail

Installation view of framed A. A. Postcards (2016), detail

Téllez also presents his collection of Artaud source material, such as personal postcards (pictured above) and a collection of first edition books and printed matter. The ephemera characterizes the writer’s engagement with the Rarámuri people, rooting it a 1930s traveler’s perspective. Artaud went to Mexico on a travel grant, but it almost functioned as a kind of pilgrimage. His writings about the experience highlight the supernatural, and his fascination with the local culture included participating in a peyote ceremony. The spirit of religious intensity echoes in unexpected ways throughout text and film. Caustic denouncements of religion from the play To Have Done With…. are overlaid with footage of the Rarámuri engaging in ceremonies that blend Catholic traditions with far older ritual.

“For you can tie me up if you wish

but there is nothing more useless than an organ.

When you will have made him a body without organs,

then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions

and restored him to his true freedom.”

–Final lines of To Have Done with the Judgment of God (1947)

Artaud’s lines about organs and the body (to be picked up and theorized by Deleuze and Guittari) echo with footage of animal sacrifice. Rarámuri male residents are showing binding an animal, circling him several times, piercing his neck to let the blood drain, and then throwing unwanted pieces on the ground for the dog. Stressing the material reality of the organs as in the film evokes the bodily reality that Artaud intended. Here the body without organs returns to its original intended emphasis that includes a refusal of metaphor in favor of lived experience.

Javier Téllez, Artaud Le Momo, mixed media, 71 x 20 x 17 in (180.3 x 50.8 x 43.2 cm), 2016

Javier Téllez, Artaud Le Momo, mixed media, 71 x 20 x 17 in, 2016

Téllez also displays a vintage mannequin in the gallery, suited in a straitjacket from Artaud’s era. This work highlights another aspect of the writer–his madness and addiction. Artaud had been treated with opiates by medical professionals from his youth onward for his instability and melancholy. He suffered from a horrific withdrawal as he journeyed to the land of the Rarámuri. He describes becoming “a giant, inflamed gum.” In the mannequin, we see the valuation of health and sanity undercut by the barbaric measures of restraint. Overall, Téllez presents the materials of Artaud’s life clinically, in orderly arrangements under glass. This treatment mimics the medical gaze which dehumanizes the writer-as-mannequin. It also places Artaud under the same distanced, clinical judgement with which he himself viewed the Rarámuri on his travels.

Installation view of Javier Téllez: To Have Done with the Judgment of God, 2016

Installation view of Javier Tellez, To Have Done With The Judgment Of God, 2016

In the film, a preoccupation with religion is expressed in two extremes: a current priesthood, and dated words declaring the end of such things in the modern world. These different valences suggest not so much some vast interpenetration of meanings, but rather a disconnect between cultures and meanings. The afterlife of Artaud’s play, the history of his own journey, and the contemporary lives of the Rarámuri people continue along parallel tracks. The viewer can pick up seeming commonalities only because the exhibition takes them out of time and preserves them in a perpetual mise en scène. These currents of cultural overlay without mutual understanding suggests an oblique criticism of Artaud’s original pilgrimage to explore the exotic. 

Javier Téllez: To Have Done with the Judgment of God is up at Koenig & Clinton through April 14, 2016.