artcriticalJune 1, 2010
For some 30 years Il Lee has exclusively used, and abused, ballpoint pens, surely by now many tens of thousands of them, to make extraordinary drawings. A satisfying survey of his works on paper from the past 10 years (he also draws on canvas) is currently on view at Art Projects International. Lee is a virtuoso of the ballpoint, that emblematic widget of mass-production. With inflections of speed, spin, and angle, he can come at us with everything from feathery soft stuff to tubular loops of line. And by masochistic repetition he can amalgamate massive color fields of absolute, inky nothingness.
These melted darks are particularly characteristic of Lee’s work, so dense that all directional trace is obliterated. One or two razor-cut contours typically define these shapes, contradicting the Dada abandon of their making, and Lee combines these hard edges with spiky, curly, bleary, or furry edges against the luminous white ground to reach for contrapuntal infinitudes of space and light.
Lee’s training in a Western-oriented art school in Korea, then at Pratt in Brooklyn, belies the quick associations one is apt to make between Lee’s discursive scribblings and the more esoteric traditions within Asian calligraphy. The acute, brute-force solipsisms of 1960’s reductive art, Lee’s educational substrate, were pointed squarely at the inflationary rhetoric of expressionism. Lee thus comes to a literati ideal of rarified gesture by way of a practice that aimed to puncture calligraphy.
At A.P.I., a wall of small works clustered salon-style serves as a compendium of Lee’s purposeful motifs. The typology of absolute black mass mentioned above creates in SW-047 an illusion of hovering metamorphic rocks emerging from fog. As in granite, the fractured geometry within is revealed along minerally nuanced lines of cleavage. But how is this clean break possible? Energy let loose in a system should disperse evenly (see Pollock and the second law of thermodynamics). Lee’s hand, like Maxwell’s Demon, seems to violate entropy by stopping on a dime in mid-careen, again and again, to make edges of maximum speed. The more wild the force Lee unleashes, the more organized it gets. In the family of hard-edged works (also on view are BL-092, and MBL-017) it’s as if Twombley’s primitive flow were channeled into Serra’s weighty constipation by Lewitt’s strategy and tactics.
SBK-089, SBK-0810, and SBK-0811 are varieties of a different motif. Here, Lee peels back continuous glows of absence within crosshatched, sometimes tri-colored fields (ballpoint blue, black and red, of course), evoking galaxies viewed through a lens of olive oil, or else a blinding light screened through the holes of a sponge. By tweaking initial conditions such as curliness, density, and continuity of line, and by varying the rhythms of larger conglomerations, Lee evokes a wide range of imagery, often surprisingly specific.
One of Lee’s motifs is an inverse rendering that rends the picture plane like Lucio Fontana let loose on a Naugahyde couch. Of the examples on view, SBK-095 and SMC-087 seem like well-behaved welts of jazzy graffiti. But of late Lee has been tempting us with fruit more forbidden than the “merely decorative”: numerous drawings now unmistakably invoke mountains, water, fog and forest. Consider two beautiful works, MBL-017, a misty ridge, and MMC-081, a grove overtaken by a snarl of vines. They mount no overt challenge to polite good taste or commodification, and only Lee’s committed Sisyphean deadpan insulates them from being misconstrued as traditionalist Asian pastiche.
If Lee’s recent embrace of tasteful landscape is meant as humor, it may be too subtle by half by frantic art world standards. As a thought experiment, imagine Lee adopting a more obvious curatorial approach to his illusionistic bag of tricks; some impish figurations, for instance, along the lines of Carol Dunham’s pubic comedy, or Takeshi Murakami’s antique kitsch screens. On the other hand, filling refrigerator boxes with empty ballpoint carcasses in a tough, pre-gentrified Greenpoint basement manifests a humor beyond narcissistic, adolescent pranks. Blackest nothingness made from endless nonsense, light arising from its opposite, yin eating yang eating yin – these are hilarities for adults.
– David Brody