A fully-illustrated brochure with an essay by Erik Bakke accompanies our current exhibition IL LEE: The 90s. Below is the essay:
Il Lee’s 1990s
By Erik Bakke
The 2018 exhibition at Art Projects International Il Lee: The 90s brings forward recollections of Il Lee’s first solo exhibition in the gallery just over twenty years ago. The 1997 exhibition showcased the culmination of decades of experimentation that began even before Lee came to New York from Seoul, Korea in 1977. Energized by this exhibition’s aesthetic and critical success, Lee immediately embarked on the much praised 978 series of large ballpoint ink on paper works. Featured in the current exhibition are three excellent, vibrant examples of this series of 1997-98.
In the 1990s, when discussing Il Lee’s bold ballpoint pen works of that decade, a writer may have first focused on technique and formal considerations—on the confident use of the ballpoint pen as a fine art tool, on the manipulation of line, on the creation of form.
Twenty years later, the works have a different authority. They are, for younger viewers, part of a living art history, extant before these viewers’ own interests in visual culture were formed. For a viewer who remembers seeing the works soon after the ink had dried—the arresting drawings have not only become part of the landscape of the viewer’s consciousness but may have shaped its terrain.
Lee’s non-objective work can easily be understood as having ties to 20th century visual culture practices, and like a favorite museum-housed, modernist creation, Il Lee’s work can be returned to again and again as a person measures and re-measures her consciousness against the implacable shapes before her. Further, like iconic work of any era, Lee’s well known and much loved works of art are present in prominent museums and collections and can be returned to by generation after generation, a succession one imagines will continue.
Like the other 978 works in Il Lee: The 90s, the ballpoint ink on paper work Untitled 978 I is impressively large, approaching seven feet in height. The three black vertical forms dominating the work, each with their explosions of line work and their one hard-edged side, could be taken as just non-objective shapes, created and/or viewed without reference to the surrounding physical world (which would have been in tune with many discussions of the 90s looking back at the 70s), but today it is difficult to remain focused on the soft communication of minimalism. The disruptive tenor of our times agitates our sensibilities, and Lee’s work morphs before us—the forms in 978 I now appear as sand columns being rapidly eroded in a violent wind or, at another nervous moment, furiously rippling black banners.
Conversely, Lee’s works can also have an anchoring effect. In an age when, and even forgetting philosophical ruminations and just considering daily conversation, the very concept of “truth” is questioned, a non-objective artwork (particularly an image making no obvious truth claims outside of itself—unlike a photograph used as evidence for the number of people at an event, for example) can take on an authority eluding language aligned with ideology. It can also have voice when figurative imagery, regardless of its sophistication, or other more overt symbolic imagery might quickly be associated with sloganeering. This is more than an advantage carried by all non-objective work; to Lee’s works’ particular advantage, they lean away from narrative and, more importantly, carry forward with them a core aesthetic sensibility, a sense of mystery, through which viewers seem to feel a connection to some fundamental physics of being (whether anthropocentric or post-humanist).
Of the motifs Lee has continued to explore through the decades to the present—one is the monolithic monochromatic form. It is created from vigorous overlapping line work not possible for the viewer to individuate. The form’s lines then become a swirling, permeable boundary, or deconstructed edge, or energy field announcing the transition from solidly layered ink to untouched paper. A form of this type is realized in Untitled 967; a rectangle is solid black to the right edge of the paper but devolves on the other three sides into rather civilized yet energetically looping line work bordered by clean white paper. Untitled 9627 features a more unruly rectangular mass with lines blasting out of the form and seemingly past the edges of the paper. A second prevalent motif presents an array of densely inked somewhat circular forms, like in Untitled 978 N. The dark forms emit lines, ever so slightly suggestive of Hawking radiation, which create an aether of laced networks swooping around and yet somehow cradling or orienting the forms.
Some of Lee’s works from the 90s, when not described in purely formal terms, have also in the past been compared to celestial bodies. Untitled 292 (activity on a star’s surface) or Untitled 978 F (a nebula) seem today to take on less the image and more the weight of a cosmic event we know has happened but are as of yet unable to fully understand. These works, whether large or small, whether consciously or unconsciously on Lee’s part, impart an association with the fundamental processes giving rise to the birth or death of stars or universes. But, like an augmented Hubble image of a stellar nursery, they are, one suspects, just residue of processes much too complex and vast for the human viewer’s senses to process. To bring the conversation back to earth, it is not Lee’s work itself that transcends quotidian experience, but it is Lee’s transcendence in the studio to which his work is a witness. The viewer of the work understands the inherent and obvious but undefined veracity of the resulting visual record has resulted from devotion to an ongoing aesthetic, or perhaps spiritual, investigation of great complexity and duration.
Decades ago, an artist who would not have come immediately to mind in thinking about Il Lee’s work, but now does, is Agnes Martin. One senses her work could have continued for many more decades without doubling back on itself—the production untethered from banality by an artist willing to consistently engage in the labor of pointing past the information-dump of the present to the unspooling mystery-logic of spacetime.
Erik Bakke is a writer and artist living and working in California.
© 2018 Art Projects International