Art Projects International

San Francisco ChronicleJuly 7, 2007

“IL LEE: Ballpoint Abstractions at San Jose Museum of Art” by Kenneth Baker

Ballpoint abstractions in San Jose: I wish I had seen sooner the stirring show of abstractions by Korean-born New York artist Il Lee at the San Jose Museum of Art. It ends Sunday.

More than 20 years ago Lee, now in his mid 50s, began working with one of the few marking tools underrepresented in contemporary art: the ballpoint pen. He moves it at a speed that leaves in the dust its function as a writing tool or even a drawing tool.

“BL-060” (2005) looks like a mountain landscape, a subject deeply rooted in the Asian arts. But in a close view, imagery dissolves and process comes forward.

We can see that the solid form thins toward the bottom edge of the piece into a thicket of ink whorls and hatchings. They thicken to a blue black monochrome, bounded above by a sort of horizon line.

We might read in Lee’s piece an echo of the ancient divisions of reality into heaven and earth, or light and darkness. But the seemingly automatic action of his hand, tempered by the hard boundary above and the thinning of marks below, asserts itself everywhere as something that outraces any intellectual agenda.

A broad program seems to have guided the making of this piece, and most of the others on view. Consciousness of the working surface — how to divide it, how to apportion the weight of marking — appears uppermost. He leaves us to decide whether the apparent effects of light, mood and atmosphere arise more from his process or from our desire to see meaning in it.

– Kenneth Baker

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