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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.