Lee U-Fan

Shirota Gallery; Tokyo Gallery

Lee U-Fan was trained in calligraphy, that art of the encounter between the rhythmic (respiration, gesture) and the static (paper, canvas). The greater part of his work is concerned with points and lines. He says that to exist is a point, to live, a line.

If this sounds like a mix of Asian and Western ideas, it is no accident. Lee is a Korean who has lived most of his life in Japan. He studied philosophy, and his early writings concern Rainer Maria Rilke and Friedrich Nietzsche. His work might evoke the great traditions of Asian landscape and Zen painting, but it is equally aligned with the Minimalists or Conceptualists of the ’70s and the great formalists of the Modern period. Lee seems to approach painting with as much of the calligrapher’s as the deconstructionist’s attitude.

Though he may use calligraphy’s techniques, Lee does not write or compose characters, letters, or texts. These signatures are not to be “read.” In a larger sense his work might be called a writing—an end of writing especially, or an impossibility of writing (and of reading) like the runes at the end of Poe’s “Pym”—but it is not exemplary of that calligraphy where the writerly and the readerly happily coincide. One should also steer clear of applying Roland Barthes’ notion of the Twomblyan gesture to Lee.

Most of Lee’s work is of a kind. In the point work, the point of the (calligrapher’s) brush touches the canvas, is lifted, and the action is repeated until the brush runs out of paint. In the line work the brush is not removed until running out—at one time, in one stroke. In recent years the strokes have become more willingly disordered but the notion of the visible disappearance of the point or line (of the ink or paint) remains the same.

One sees (senses) the paint as it leaves the brush—in strokes that contain appearance and disappearance—and then reflects on the brush that had been full and is now empty, on that once-blank canvas, now occupied. An implied absence has been made explicit, present. Someone—now gone—has “taken” a canvas that the world had ignored, a canvas now marked and remarked (observed). The once-blank prospect is now all retrospect in the calligraphic/perceptual whirlpool of the double dialectic of the presence/absence and visible/invisible, the single running theme of all Lee’s work.

In the portfolio of drypoints at the Shirota Gallery, Lee first rubbed sand into and across (point and line) a plate and printed the results in a light orange, producing a delicate, disturbing, and wholly arbitrary background. The drawn black lines are mainly schizzy, both in the word’s meaning and in its graphic quality, that double zee. The show’s ominous title, “To the Ruins,” might be accounted for by that look and by the flared, wispy edges—like the fuzzy edges of a torn sheet of paper—produced in this most calligraphic of engraving methods. The pen sails across to create a pure singular line, or it is laid in thickly, carries on for a moment, and then suddenly leaps forward (no ink) to carry on elsewhere (one has to fill in the gap—of an absent but continued line, the same line—left by the movement); or it skips in a staccato of dots, the makings of a line that the eye fills in. Occasionally the lines change suddenly from thick to thin and wiry. Often they are drawn in great long series (like some great sentence) that is delicate, self-assured, and exploratory. What ruins they portend cease to matter: there is only the journey, unlike any other.

In the works titled “From Winds,” at Tokyo Gallery, one finds a freshness and fertility where before there was austerity and the near sterile. Black strokes against a flesh-tinted background, these paintings are astonishing things. Amazing jumbles of crisscrossing strokes, of order and chaos, they look like symbolic forests or a vision of some last judgment (all those hurtling, tumbling bodies), or even a Tokyo train at rush hour. But what ties these associations together is the rush and flow of the erotic. These strokes may resemble strangers in a crowd (just like Poe again, his modern man zigzagging anonymously in the night) or a distraught landscape, but more than these, this is the sexual swirl itself. Significantly, Lee has not used his usual blue, which he says is the “color of nothingness,” “impregnated with life and death.” By choosing black pigment he has heightened the tension between the analytic and the sensual (between spirit and flesh), and made the flesh both more tender and explicit.

Each stroke is its own narrative: one sees where the brush encounters the canvas, senses its vigor as it slides across until it reaches the point where Lee either changes direction or twists and lifts the brush from the canvas, leaving the traces of one last swirl of hairs. Their relative shortness lends each stroke in turn a greater élan. And finally, like the calligraphic complex of hand, brush, and canvas—the distance between which, says Lee, is like “the distance between stars”—all these points of contact may meet, may form a continuum, but they are only related, not united.

The site of the erotic, then, of life and death, is almost a paean to life, love, and their union. Joy, exaltation perhaps, in plenitude and mastery, yet desperation too: Lee’s canvases will always bear an absence, no single stroke will ever fill both brush and canvas, ever unite canvas, hand, and brush. Here then is “the house of life within death” he says artists are compelled to build.

Like the title of his first book, Towards Encounter (1971), Lee’s work seems like a perpetual meeting that never takes place, an anticipation never fulfilled or known only in retrospect in the chance encounter of an enraptured viewer and a silent canvas. Lee’s work is profound, as much for its beauty as for its loneliness. Caught between two (or three) cultures, obsessed with irreconcilables, and shuttling between the winds and the ruins, whatever force, serenity, or wonder Lee finally achieves is left only for us—lonely viewers all—to feel and ponder.

Arturo Silva