Woolim Lee

Shadows of This World Cast on Three Layers of Stage

Woolim Lee

Woolim Lee’s works evoke the gorgeous designs of traditional blue-and-white porcelain, lavishly painted with cobalt blue pigment. After first being imported from China’s Ming Dynasty in the early fourteenth century, blue-and-white porcelain became very popular in the Joseon Dynasty. Starting in the mid-fifteenth century, under the reign of King Sejo, an abundance of outstanding blue-and-white porcelains were produced in Suncheon, Jeolla Province, and blue-and-white porcelain remained one of the representative types of Korean ceramics until the late Joseon Dynasty. Around the seventeenth century, however, the cobalt pigment became very expensive and difficult to acquire, and was thus banned in Korea and replaced by cheaper alternatives. But by the late Joseon period, a stable supply of high-quality cobalt pigments had been restored, leading to the wide production of Joseon blue-and-white porcelain with unique aesthetics characterized by the balance of painted designs and blank space, which were revered even beyond their counterparts from China or Japan. Within this historical context, Woolim Lee’s efforts to integrate the lyrical designs of Korean blue-and-white porcelain with the media of painting are particularly noteworthy. Interestingly, Lee typically expresses these elaborate designs on the bodies of animals, representing an intriguing progression from the clothing with resplendent, natural patterns worn by people in many of his earlier works.

The pictorial plane of Lee’s works often has three distinct layers or stages. The first is the frontal space where most of the objects are placed, like still-life paintings. Usually painted in gray and separated from the background by a blurred border, this space functions as a stage or runway on which the animals and plants pose. At the same time, it also tends to hold shadows from light sources in the upper part of the painting, conveying a reflective ambience. The second layer is the background, which might be occupied by the shadows of tree branches, like projections on the backdrop of a stage (Landscape with a Chicken, 2021), or by a distant landscape that is out of focus (A Walk, 2018). Finally, at the very bottom, the third layer contains the shadows of objects or people that are not visible, but which seem to be found just outside the frame of the painting. In A Walk, for example, the shadow of a woman riding a bicycle behind a running dog is cast across the bottom of the painting, while Landscape with a Tiger (2021) includes the shadows of a seated man casting a fishing pole and a woman standing behind him and reading.

Lee’s method of dividing the plane into three distinct spaces recalls the methods of stage directors like Robert Wilson, who has been known to divide the stage in order to juxtapose actions occurring in different times and spaces. In productions of The Lady from the Sea and Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, for example, Wilson used this technique to simultaneously show scenes from the past, present, and future. Similarly, Woolim Lee’s works seem to be divided into three separate times: the time of mythical narratives, inhabited by animals wearing symbolic patterns of blue or red; the time of memory or reenactment, where images of people embracing (Landscape with a Chicken) or relaxing on the beach (A Walk) flicker in the distance; and the real space-time of the present, which is implied by the foreground shadows. Strikingly, this space exists just beyond the edge of the work, in (or perhaps behind) the position of the viewer.

As such, the animals in Lee’s paintings seem to signify the idealized natural landscape represented in the designs from blue-and-white porcelain. The other-worldly atmosphere of this realm is accentuated by flowering cacti and tropical plants sprouting here and there, tropical birds in brilliant colors, and even an old gramophone, evoking the auditory sense. The simultaneous affinity and disparity between the animals adorned in designs and Lee’s earlier figures wearing flower patterns could represent the relationship between the subject and the objectified. At the same time, through the use of shadows, the artist emphasizes the flow of light from a time and space beyond the pictorial plane, whether from an indoor room or from a walk in nature. The integration of this worldview serves as the starting point for appreciating Woolim Lee’s art.

As such, the animals in Lee’s paintings seem to signify the idealized natural landscape represented in the designs from blue-and-white porcelain. The other-worldly atmosphere of this realm is accentuated by flowering cacti and tropical plants sprouting here and there, tropical birds in brilliant colors, and even an old gramophone, evoking the auditory sense. The simultaneous affinity and disparity between the animals adorned in designs and Lee’s earlier figures wearing flower patterns could represent the relationship between the subject and the objectified. At the same time, through the use of shadows, the artist emphasizes the flow of light from a time and space beyond the pictorial plane, whether from an indoor room or from a walk in nature. The integration of this worldview serves as the starting point for appreciating Woolim Lee’s art.

Woolim Lee
b. 1972
Solo Exhibitions
2021 Walking on the Edge, ATELIER AKI, Seoul
2019 Sleeping in the Forest, J+Gallery, New York
2018 Sleeping in the Forest, Gallery Calaxy, New York
2017 Sleeping in the Forest, PYO Gallery, Seoul
Selected Group Exhibitions
2021 KAMS, SHOUT Art Hub & Gallery, Hong Kong
2019 KUMHO YOUNG ARTIST: THE 69 TIMES OF SUNRISE, Seoul
KIAF, COEX, Seoul
2018 Media, Person, Scenery, Daegu Art Factory, Daegu
ACC ASIAPLEX Studio, Gwangiu
Taipei Art Fair, Taipei
2017 ASIA WEEK, KANG CONTEMPORARY, New York
KOREAN- NOW AND THEN, KANG CONTEMPORARY, New York
ART MIAMI, Miami
ART JAKARTA, Indonesia
Awards
2006 Kumho Young Artist, Kumho Museum
Residencies
2018 ACC Asian Plex Studio, Gwangju
Daegu Art Factory, Daegu
Collections
Seoul Museum of Art
Kumho Museum
Hana Bank
MMCA Art Bank
Seoul Municipal Boramae Hospital
Seoul National University Hospital
Severance Hospital
Korean YAKULT
Kiturami Boiler Co.
93 Museum
Catholic University Hospital
Moms Hospital
White Block Art Center
Daegu Art Museum

 

Decorative Value of Figure Paintings with Qualities of Still Life Paintings
Ejung Ban

A man crouching down with his hands on his knees, a woman showing her back with her open arms wrapping herself, people exposing only their heads, wrists, and ankles in dense green woods, a man standing beside a Dalmatian in front of an open door, and body parts of subjects like the man covered with uniform patterns: Woolim Lee has repeatedly used such representative identical symbols in advanced forms, thereby imprinting his own brand as an artist. He attached three to four fixed titles to his representative symbols, which consequently generates an imprinting effect.

A woman with an hourglass-shaped body and wearing a traditional style hair ribbon, a man wearing a butch haircut, and an expressionless slate-grey face have established themselves as signature characters in Lee’s painting. These iconic figures have been presented under fixed titles such as “A Walk,” “Mong (Dream),” and “In the Woods.” Even so, particular icons are not exclusively linked to specific titles. For example, a figure of a man with a butch haircut, crouching down in front of the door, was entitled in 2002 as “Mong (Dream),”  whereas the same figure was given a title “In the Woods” in 2020. The man with black floral patterns standing side by side with a Dalmatian was named “A Walk” in 2009, whereas the same figure was given the title “In the Woods” in 2021.

Signature icons that have become that artist’s unique brand, fixed work titles, and characters appearing alone in the image, and a variety of objects appearing in the artist’s paintings since the mid-2000s all seem to exist with no regard to their interconnections; a singular icon continues to appear in different works under different titles: considering the general context, it can be assumed that Lee’s oeuvre primarily focuses on the first impressions and decorative values of subjects rather than particular themes or narratives, which can be assumed as a refelection of a changing trend in painting.

Woolim Lee’s figure paintings mostly place single–sometimes two–impressive character in a manner of still life paintings. His figure painting of a woman, whose body is shaped like an hourglass covered with floral and other diverse patterns, shows only the woman’s back and not her face. The characters with slate-grey skin with emotionless faces are viewed as unanimated still objects. Looking into the chronology of his work, it is revealed the crouching man figure painting, regarded as one of his representative works in his earlier career, is perceived like a ceramic still life object due to the posture of his hands and feet gathering; the tightly closed mouth and eyes turn a complicated narrative into a succinct and condensed one.

The appearance of almost identical figures in works with different titles also seem to be reminiscent of the original form of art or the beginning of highly favored artworks that value the visual impact of first impressions and decorative values beyond the restrictions of work titles and the emphasis of content and themes indicated by the titles.

Painters today carry out projects, defying the boundaries of genre in which they experiment with flat surfaces as well as two-dimensional planes and three-dimensional figures. Furthermore, they are not bound to a single medium. This is also true for Woolim Lee. He once created a figure of a woman figure wearing a dress that looked like a burka covering the entire body from top to toe into a flat surface sculpture, which he frequently featured in a number of his paintings. The fact that contemporary art is now witnessing the emergence of a new painting in abstract form is an evidence that generations of painters who are exposed to new media and the Internet have a different aesthetic sense than artists from the previous generations. This is a part of the process in which a changing trend of painting will arrive.

The term “decorative art” is often defined as objects with functional applications as well as attractive appearances. Interior design, architecture, and craft are categorized as decorative art, setting them apart from fine art. Although separating decorative art from fine art seems reasonable at first, it is hard to draw a clear line between the two art forms. That is because works of art with a long history, including ancient Chinese art, early medieval art, and Islamic art, belong to decorative art. More than anything, among the artworks that are revered for all times and places, many received attention due to their decorative values. The Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 19th century is viewed as a collective attempt to introduce original decorative value to mass produced goods rather than art; since the mid-1970s, a group of painters influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement carried out art projects stressing decorative value, inspired by fabric mosaic embroidery wallpaper produced in the Islam, Byzantine, and Celtic regions. 

I have already mentioned that Lee’s figure paintings are close to still life paintings in terms of their qualities. Let’s take examples from his key works: the figure of a man with a butch haircut, crouching in front of a door, looks like a ceramic still object, exists as a well-developed ornament—regardless of the meaning suggested by the title, whether it is titled “Mong (Dream)” or “In the Woods.” In general, the main characters in Lee’s paintings have been represented in forms that resemble ceramics, among other various still objects. Let us look at the women who is wrapping her own body with her two hands. This work has been interpreted in two ways: the hands embracing the woman belong to herself; or somebody else’s hands are popping up out of the forest. Whatever the case, the hourglass-shaped body of the woman wearing a one-piece dress seems to overlap with a pottery still object.

In addition, floral patterns that previously had covered the body of a character were replaced with blue and white porcelain patterns around the year 2019, which further highlights the still life characteristics in Lee’s paintings. Among his recent artworks, “A Walk” (2021) shows flower patterns on a dress worn by a woman were replaced by blue and white porcelain patterns. As a result, the character’s streamlined body shape synchronizes with the curved body of the porcelain, making the character more look like a still life. In the genealogy of Lee’s artworks, many pieces deserve attention. Among his representative characters, a woman’s streamlined body shape seen from behind naturally reminds viewers of a still life of pottery, adding decorative value to the painting. The effect of “being pottery” possessed by the appearance of a subject to be reproduced has been further enhanced through the discovery of a new material around the year 2020. The newly found material was resin which added to the aesthetic effect of pottery on the flat painting surface.

Shadows, which had played a peripheral role in his early works, seem to have come forward around 2019. Throughout his career, Lee has never used shadows to generate perspective to paintings. Just as the character appearing on canvas exists as its own being, shadows are also seen as an element with identity.

After all, in “A Walk”(2019) the shadow of a running horse was cast in front of an owl, which assumes the role of the main character, decorated with blue and white porcelain patterns; in “The Landscape along with a Tiger” (2021), the shadow of a man sitting on a chair is cast in front of a tiger covered with red and white porcelain patterns. In both paintings, the “running horse” and “man sitting on a chair” that cast shadows are not seen on the canvas. The shadows in Lee’s paintings exist as their own beings, not ancillary to the main subject.  

As in “A Walk,” “Mong (Dream),” and “In the Woods,” there are some noteworthy elements: works loosely classified under fixed titles; expressionless faces; the rear and side view of characters being stressed for depiction in figure painting; figure characters keeping silent in response to loud storytelling; figure paintings with qualities of still life paintings; independent presence of every element appearing in the same screen being emphasized instead of their interconvertibility; decorative bodies of characters; objects adorned with patterns from flowers to blue and white porcelain. All of them are the signs of a changing trend in painting that is emerging in the era of art where art with too much storytelling is drawing to an end.

Decorative Value of Figure Paintings with Qualities of Still Life Paintings
Ejung Ban

A man crouching down with his hands on his knees, a woman showing her back with her open arms wrapping herself, people exposing only their heads, wrists, and ankles in dense green woods, a man standing beside a Dalmatian in front of an open door, and body parts of subjects like the man covered with uniform patterns: Woolim Lee has repeatedly used such representative identical symbols in advanced forms, thereby imprinting his own brand as an artist. He attached three to four fixed titles to his representative symbols, which consequently generates an imprinting effect.

A woman with an hourglass-shaped body and wearing a traditional style hair ribbon, a man wearing a butch haircut, and an expressionless slate-grey face have established themselves as signature characters in Lee’s painting. These iconic figures have been presented under fixed titles such as “A Walk,” “Mong (Dream),” and “In the Woods.” Even so, particular icons are not exclusively linked to specific titles. For example, a figure of a man with a butch haircut, crouching down in front of the door, was entitled in 2002 as “Mong (Dream),”  whereas the same figure was given a title “In the Woods” in 2020. The man with black floral patterns standing side by side with a Dalmatian was named “A Walk” in 2009, whereas the same figure was given the title “In the Woods” in 2021.

Signature icons that have become that artist’s unique brand, fixed work titles, and characters appearing alone in the image, and a variety of objects appearing in the artist’s paintings since the mid-2000s all seem to exist with no regard to their interconnections; a singular icon continues to appear in different works under different titles: considering the general context, it can be assumed that Lee’s oeuvre primarily focuses on the first impressions and decorative values of subjects rather than particular themes or narratives, which can be assumed as a refelection of a changing trend in painting.

Woolim Lee’s figure paintings mostly place single–sometimes two–impressive character in a manner of still life paintings. His figure painting of a woman, whose body is shaped like an hourglass covered with floral and other diverse patterns, shows only the woman’s back and not her face. The characters with slate-grey skin with emotionless faces are viewed as unanimated still objects. Looking into the chronology of his work, it is revealed the crouching man figure painting, regarded as one of his representative works in his earlier career, is perceived like a ceramic still life object due to the posture of his hands and feet gathering; the tightly closed mouth and eyes turn a complicated narrative into a succinct and condensed one.

The appearance of almost identical figures in works with different titles also seem to be reminiscent of the original form of art or the beginning of highly favored artworks that value the visual impact of first impressions and decorative values beyond the restrictions of work titles and the emphasis of content and themes indicated by the titles.

Painters today carry out projects, defying the boundaries of genre in which they experiment with flat surfaces as well as two-dimensional planes and three-dimensional figures. Furthermore, they are not bound to a single medium. This is also true for Woolim Lee. He once created a figure of a woman figure wearing a dress that looked like a burka covering the entire body from top to toe into a flat surface sculpture, which he frequently featured in a number of his paintings. The fact that contemporary art is now witnessing the emergence of a new painting in abstract form is an evidence that generations of painters who are exposed to new media and the Internet have a different aesthetic sense than artists from the previous generations. This is a part of the process in which a changing trend of painting will arrive.

The term “decorative art” is often defined as objects with functional applications as well as attractive appearances. Interior design, architecture, and craft are categorized as decorative art, setting them apart from fine art. Although separating decorative art from fine art seems reasonable at first, it is hard to draw a clear line between the two art forms. That is because works of art with a long history, including ancient Chinese art, early medieval art, and Islamic art, belong to decorative art. More than anything, among the artworks that are revered for all times and places, many received attention due to their decorative values. The Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 19th century is viewed as a collective attempt to introduce original decorative value to mass produced goods rather than art; since the mid-1970s, a group of painters influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement carried out art projects stressing decorative value, inspired by fabric mosaic embroidery wallpaper produced in the Islam, Byzantine, and Celtic regions. 

I have already mentioned that Lee’s figure paintings are close to still life paintings in terms of their qualities. Let’s take examples from his key works: the figure of a man with a butch haircut, crouching in front of a door, looks like a ceramic still object, exists as a well-developed ornament—regardless of the meaning suggested by the title, whether it is titled “Mong (Dream)” or “In the Woods.” In general, the main characters in Lee’s paintings have been represented in forms that resemble ceramics, among other various still objects. Let us look at the women who is wrapping her own body with her two hands. This work has been interpreted in two ways: the hands embracing the woman belong to herself; or somebody else’s hands are popping up out of the forest. Whatever the case, the hourglass-shaped body of the woman wearing a one-piece dress seems to overlap with a pottery still object.

In addition, floral patterns that previously had covered the body of a character were replaced with blue and white porcelain patterns around the year 2019, which further highlights the still life characteristics in Lee’s paintings. Among his recent artworks, “A Walk” (2021) shows flower patterns on a dress worn by a woman were replaced by blue and white porcelain patterns. As a result, the character’s streamlined body shape synchronizes with the curved body of the porcelain, making the character more look like a still life. In the genealogy of Lee’s artworks, many pieces deserve attention. Among his representative characters, a woman’s streamlined body shape seen from behind naturally reminds viewers of a still life of pottery, adding decorative value to the painting. The effect of “being pottery” possessed by the appearance of a subject to be reproduced has been further enhanced through the discovery of a new material around the year 2020. The newly found material was resin which added to the aesthetic effect of pottery on the flat painting surface.

Shadows, which had played a peripheral role in his early works, seem to have come forward around 2019. Throughout his career, Lee has never used shadows to generate perspective to paintings. Just as the character appearing on canvas exists as its own being, shadows are also seen as an element with identity.

After all, in “A Walk”(2019) the shadow of a running horse was cast in front of an owl, which assumes the role of the main character, decorated with blue and white porcelain patterns; in “The Landscape along with a Tiger” (2021), the shadow of a man sitting on a chair is cast in front of a tiger covered with red and white porcelain patterns. In both paintings, the “running horse” and “man sitting on a chair” that cast shadows are not seen on the canvas. The shadows in Lee’s paintings exist as their own beings, not ancillary to the main subject.  

As in “A Walk,” “Mong (Dream),” and “In the Woods,” there are some noteworthy elements: works loosely classified under fixed titles; expressionless faces; the rear and side view of characters being stressed for depiction in figure painting; figure characters keeping silent in response to loud storytelling; figure paintings with qualities of still life paintings; independent presence of every element appearing in the same screen being emphasized instead of their interconvertibility; decorative bodies of characters; objects adorned with patterns from flowers to blue and white porcelain. All of them are the signs of a changing trend in painting that is emerging in the era of art where art with too much storytelling is drawing to an end.