Lee Inhyeon

Gaain Gallery

An integral member of Seoul 80, the flagship avant-gardist collective of the Korean contemporary-art scene circa 1980, Lee Inhyeon is the embodiment of the artist as intellectual. Lee’s first solo show in three years featured a dozen new works from the ongoing series he’s been working on since 1993, all with the Foucauldian title L’épistémè of Painting.

A prototypical work by Lee is a color-field painting that sets dark Prussian blue against the natural beige of unprimed canvas. The brown/ blue monochrome tradition in Korea has been the emblem of serious and respected scholar-painters since the era of ink paintings. Artists of the prior generation, such as Lee Ufan and Yun Hyong-Keun, often indulged in the subtlety of tonal variations within a single hue; their works were regarded as spiritual and noble owing to their solemn outlook. While Lee’s paintings are at the edge of such conventions of sublimity, they abound in devices showing him to be critical of any strictly modernist construction.

Characteristically, all of Lee’s works are mounted on thick stretchers, about four inches in depth; thus, the paintings stand out against the wall, taking on the forceful presence of Minimalist objects. Just as Frank Stella made reference to the thickness of stretcher bars in his paintings and Jo Baer saw creative potential on the sides of her canvases, Lee is extremely sensitive to this depth of painting that completes its three-dimensionality. While coloring the front of the canvas in uniform Prussian blue, he creates gradations on its sides from deep to light blue, by letting the thinned paint gradually seep into the raw canvas. The view from the sides of Lee’s paintings simulates the visualization of the cross section of a painting, alluding to the accumulated layers of painting’s episteme. This pictorial emphasis on the volumetric axis of canvas calls attention to the painting’s status as an object.

Critical of the enlarged role of brushstrokes in expressionistic paintings as well as their role in imagemaking and thus illusion, Lee minimizes the use of the brush in executing his paintings. Instead he uses paint-soaked cloth to wet the unprimed stretched canvas, letting the paint seep through the surface. To take this method further, he has used one painting to make another: tilting an edge of a still-drying painting like a squeegee, he presses it against the surface of an unprimed canvas and drags it along, leaving a streak of pigment on the new surface. The concept of making one painting with another approaches pure, self-referential metapainting.

Theoretically, Lee’s canvases inhabit the territory between where Morris Louis left off and Donald Judd picked up: between the completely immaterial coloring of the raw canvas and the persistency of wall-hanging structures. While Louis adhered to the legacy of flat surface and Judd broke free from just that tradition by moving into actual space, Lee pushes the envelope of painting as inherently flat structure, simultaneously retaining the luscious beauty of the painterly surface. The result is a rare hybrid of visually pleasing critical object with exacting craftsmanship.

Shinyoung Chung