Korean native Jinju Lee paints existential narratives of making do and coming-to-terms in arduously solitary indoor and outdoor conditions. Lee’s stories have allegorical implications as the situations and environment she depicts with so much precision and clarity seem to have as to do with the mental as well as the territorial landscape in which the subject (or is it victim?) finds herself.
The set-like scenarios Lee depicts are hideous and bleak, as if the isolated, evacuated worlds we see have undergone a persistent state of depredation. Jinju Lee’s paintings are poignant in that we really feel for her character or characters. The artist resists easy clichés and sensationalized visual punch lines. Her complex vision takes on undertones of distress and undertones without signaling that what is at hand are the results of wartime conditions or after effects of a polluted, post-apocalyptic world. Instead the world Lee creates and the narratives she constructs hover over the real as if in a state of suspension. The artist’s distilled worlds are parallel yet separate universes from our own.
Lee storytelling capacity is strong and enthralling as her technical painting, coloristic and rendering skills are astonishing. Her unusually refined skill set is at the service of description. Yet the well-realized balancing act here is the judicious selection of which details to select and how to depict them so that an emotional truth, an essence beyond virtuosity, permeates the vision. Lee’s compositional mastery and her painterly touch grounds the magic-realist and pop-surrealist sensations she evokes, steering the work clear from hyperbole and disallowing the work from settling into the too-fanciful or the too-gritty. Her skills in creating pellucid, delicately and naturalistically detailed compositions that hauntingly and exhaustingly detail the earth, its terrain and detritus as well as the human figure, invokes a contemporary version of the clarity of Flemish Northern Renaissance painters whose works radiate with auratic devotion that permeates the precise mark-making while removing any traces of preciosity. The artist uses boonchae, a Korean traditional watercolor, and tiny brushes to create the feel of miniature worlds but on a much larger scale. What is more the artist fastidiously depict scenes that have an unnerving harrowing quality that are tinged with Beckettian despair. Yet again Lee doesn’t push this aspect too much; she suffuses her scenes, somehow, with enough poetic grace that lifts the work from becoming either too twee or too gratuitously grotesque. There is a hermetic, closed-in aspect to Lee’s vision that intensifies the overall feeling of intrigue and aloneness that keeps its psychological hold on the viewer. Her main character is a shorthaired, bare chested adult female with an equivocal expression with delicately broad facial features and a non-athletic physique. This female character’s uniform is control-top panty hose over bikini underwear; she wears this ungainly combination in all situations, in all climatic conditions including rain and snow. Sometimes the artist includes what appears to be the same character several times in the same painting in different areas and in different positions. This hallucinatory or dream-like set-up is reminiscent of the pictorial device used by the Chinese-born artist Suen Wong of painting multiplying versions of herself in her pop-inflected paintings. Lee's scenes are minutely observed, her rendering fresh and tremulously convulsive. The artist’s obsessive attention to realistic detail, her Surrealistic juxtapositions and the Expressionist distortions recall in spirit the work of Gregory Gillespie at his acidulous best.
For example Jinju Lee’s enigmatic painting Restraint - Boundaries (2012) depicts a seated, self-inflicted, bare-breasted, hospital-masked female with a pump attached to her right breast seated over a table and performing what could mildly be called experiments or ceremonial gestures. An open book of reproductions of Magritte paintings is held open on the table with one hand (holding a freshly-cut fish head) while the subject’s other hand holds aloft a small seedpod for inspection. The setting is a laboratory-studio in which all substances or objects or forms pertaining to art, science, nature and religion are charged with auratic presence. Fetish energy permeates every gesture, every object or form in this circumscribed world where signifiers of colliding worlds of appearances, essences and beliefs, of significances and insignificances, of the planned and the aleatory, are bound as one. The whole area in the room is charged with meaning, while the exact meaning of the painting itself remains more-or-less guessable. The closest female American artist that Jinju Lee’s work reminds me of in terms of pictorial eccentricity and twisted storytelling acumen is Amy Cutler. Yet the differences outweigh the similarities. The absurdities and contradictions of family relations, social mores and environmental concerns that Cutler traffics in have a fairly innocent fairy tale- like aura that mystifies and charms while Lee’s scenes are more pathologically oriented, more terrorized, more driven and disfigured by David Lynch-ian sensibilities than by Brothers Grimm recalibrated to suit post-feminist and post-colonial ruminations, however dark. Lee’s image -- making, Like Cutler’s works fine on a small scale. Yet Lee works as effectively on intimately sized work as well as on much larger public scale. Lee also has a singular way of using (and magnificently exploiting) perspectival space that Cutler, to my knowledge, does not.
A Way to Remember (2010), for example, is a 48" x 96" box-shaped canvas, indicative of Lee’s tendency to compositionally depict three-dimensionalized territorial “extracts” or “slices” of banal everyday activities in which the settings for her storytelling seem to be encased in geometricized dioramas which artificializes the natural. Lee depicts her worlds using a variety of perspectives including isometric and axonometric projection, as well as cross-sectioning, elevation views, and site-planning views as if she is dissecting the space and place in which character or characters act out their inner and outer lives. In A Way to Remember Lee’s character is trying to survive in a secluded encampment and crime-scene of some that contains evidentiary signs of emotional if not physical torment and servitude. The character is lying down in the snow clutching an infant to her chest, two alert and howling dogs protecting her. In a nest in the tree above is another child sleeping, while various birds roost or fly overhead in an airspace populated by two hovering beach balls with an illegible sign dangling from them. Similarly, Lee is invested in depicting the world as a body with layers of skin and her role as an artist is one of analysis, detection, dissection and description. Her rendering of the earth includes what is on it, what floats above it and what lingers below it. Her below-ground imagery has the feel of subcutaneous spaces reminiscent of arteries and veins of a body as well as subterranean places such as tunnels, nests or burrows. These subterranean areas are depicted with enormous specular verve in which there is much information revealed in the earth’s hidden recesses. Lee pictorializes such burrow-space effectively. The familiar becomes defamiliarized. Such underground space and its conditions might be considered allegorically as latent space or territory of the earth’s unconscious. So too Lee's underworld reflects the unconscious stirrings of the earth’s remaining human inhabitants. The above-world depictions of Lee’s suggest, perhaps, a plane of reality unveiled to us as if residing behind a curtain of manifest literalness, a field of understanding or causality pertaining to consciousness. Typically, the artist combines voyeuristic sensations with revelatory, even rapturous ones.
Jinju Lee’s exhibition at Doosan Gallery is her first in this country. Her vision blends the mundane and the supra-mundane at the service of unsettling storytelling. This is a winning combination. It provides the lucky visitor with a captivating viewing experience that is not to be missed. - Dominique Nahas
Mr. Nahas teaches critical studies at Pratt Institute and is a critique faculty member of the New York Studio Residency Program. A member, and former board member, of AICA-USA (Association Internationale des Critiques d'Art), Nahas has curated many museum and gallery shows and has written extensively on the visual arts in print and online culture and art magazines.