Chicago

Li Lin Lee

Walsh Gallery

Li Lin Lee’s recent paintings are certainly formulaic—each of the sixty-eight paintings shown here is made of oil, wax, and alkyd on plaster-coated burlap mounted onto canvas; each is sixteen by twelve inches and is presented edge-to-edge in a horizontal group of four, creating seventeen works in all; and each is structured around some overt geometric shape or hard-edged pattern that Lee paints onto a richly scumbled and muted monochromatic field. They are like glyphs or pictographs, integers in some personal language impossible to decode fully. Lee’s work invites visual and formal delectation and, as with indecipherable hieroglyphics, holds the optical shape and structure of language while keeping its content a mystery; it allows the activities of looking and reading to slide into one another. In other words, Lee’s paintings imply rather than deliver transparent communication.

Many of Lee’s titles—Domestic Tranquility, Guardians of Truth, Rural Forms, The Joyful Oracle—hint that the premise of these mysterious rebuses is spiritual or cosmological. Indeed, the project has a ruminative, Zen-like aura. But the subtly emotive, even narrative, intimations these titles offer must be taken on faith; what Lee seemingly perceives in these pieces remains locked in his own engagement with them. Each individual canvas isolates a geometric shape or a grid fragment, or shows a confluence of a few lines and rectangles, arcs, triangles, chevrons, diamonds, or rays—an assortment akin to the hard-edged shapes inventoried on Kandinsky’s late paintings, but here rendered singly, one per canvas, and then grouped with three brethren. The sense of these as, ultimately, four separate thoughts or ideas that are arbitrarily harnessed together, and that could just as well be shuffled into other combinations or sequences, is never far away. This gives the entire project a hermetic and solipsistic quality, the viewer more a witness to than a participant in Lee’s meditations. The four canvases are usually linked chromatically; there are purplish tones, for example, to the four parts of Keeping the Faith (all works 2008), while those of Secret Meeting are rendered in umber shades.

Lee’s surfaces consistently appear battered and scraped. He offers each canvas as a kind of survivor, a vaguely suggestive remnant of some personal iconography we cannot sufficiently parse. His predilection for geometric logolike elements recurring in multiple works with only subtle variations (usually in the background color or the paint handling) adds to our sense of these as somewhat random and personal playlets with stock characters and motifs that regularly and interchangeably resurface. While meditation may be an excellent activity to pursue, it is not always a fulfilling thing to watch, and the push-and-pull this project offers between structure and freedom, between taut procedure and poetic intimation, seems to be equally evocative and diversionary.

James Yood