Sang Nam Lee

When Roy Lichtenstein appeared on the scene in 1961, he was importing signs from an entirely different level of culture into the artistic arena; the culture was pulp comics, the signs benday dots and CMYK colors. What he did was to take a found image and, streamlining the visual information, transfer it onto white canvas. Sang Nam Lee’s approach is similar. He takes digitized graphic images from the computer screen and manually copies them onto canvas panels. Looking at Lee’s newest works, one imagines what Leo Castelli must have seen in Lichtenstein’s first Mickey Mouse—familiar icons with clearly delineated outlines and popular colors in pleasing combinations that invoke a strangely up-to-date sensitivity.

PKM Trinity Gallery, a third branch of PKM (following PKM Beijing) in the Chungdam area, opened with forty-seven works and a wall installation by this Seoul-born, New York–based painter; this marks the artist’s first hometown solo show since 1997, a major comeback to the Korean scene. With eighteen pieces from the late 1990s along with recent works created between 2006 and 2008, the show traces the artist’s dramatic yet reasoned shift in style in the past decade. Before 2005, he had been known for his repetitious, mechanical-looking units with circles and lines that hovered on monochrome canvases. Scaled up, with lurid colors and an expanded pool of icons drawn from computerized design, the show suggested the possibility of a system upgrade for the pictorial surface.

A prototypical work, Arcus+Spheroid XL 002, 2008, is studded with rows of division signs from bottom to top, decreasing in size as they near the upper frame and imitating the perspectival illusion of landscape. Although the familiar mathematical symbol is invoked, the algorithm is not easily solved. Lee’s immaculate surface allows no penetration to systems other than its own. Inside this indecipherable artificial landscape, clusters of Celtic knot–like forms float in the upper half of the canvas; below the work’s center is an acute ellipse, a reoccurring motif throughout the show. In some of the works on display, images are laboriously inlaid with the traditional lacquer varnish used to coat wooden furniture and utensils; the inscribed elements shine in the deep black typical of this varnish.

Arcus+Spheroid XS 002, 2007, stands out from the dense hanging of fifty small paintings on board and seventeen framed drawings that serves as the show’s centerpiece; against a navy blue background, complex conglomerates of knitted lines and concentric ellipses are overlapped in copper and black layers to create a paradoxical union of the rational and the baroque. The work’s colors deliver a sense of solemn majesty whose force is unexpected given the painting’s small size. Its composition evokes a portrait with the double ellipses on top echoing the halo above the head of a saint.

In Lee’s strongest works, the tension on the painting’s surface is so intense that the inscribed signs overcome their original context. In Arcus+Spheroid S 003, 2007, the heavily layered graphic elements resist semiotic legibility and situate themselves anew in a pictorial space dictated by purely visual systems. Lee’s new series stand on the tightrope between pure abstraction and legible sign, balancing on the taut line between fertile sensuality and structural rationality.

Shinyoung Chung