Seoul

Lee Woosung, Four of Us Gathered by Chance, and We Had Drinks, 2017, acrylic gouache and gesso on fabric, 86 5/8 x 86 5/8".

Lee Woosung, Four of Us Gathered by Chance, and We Had Drinks, 2017, acrylic gouache and gesso on fabric, 86 5/8 x 86 5/8".

Lee Woosung

Hakgojae Gallery

Lee Woosung, Four of Us Gathered by Chance, and We Had Drinks, 2017, acrylic gouache and gesso on fabric, 86 5/8 x 86 5/8".

Many of Lee Woosung’s works are what he calls “cloth paintings,” unstretched works in acrylic gouache on large sheets of lightweight cotton or canvas. They recall the geolgae geurim, literally “hung paintings,” made by artist-activist collectives during the tumultuous period of nationwide student demonstrations in South Korea in the 1980s—massively scaled propaganda images on fabric. The social-realistic style of geolgae geurim and their political context derive from the minjung misul (people’s art) movement of that time, which protested South Korea’s dictatorial government. Taking a cue from the portability and the anti-establishment associations of geolgae geurim, Lee sheds the historical weight and formal demands conventionally stretched canvas carries with it, reconfiguring the banner-like format as a ground for more private and contemporary concerns.

As the exhibition’s title, “My Dear,” suggested, these works can be taken as addressed to someone. Lee explores the meaning of “you,” the second-person pronoun, and the various levels of intimacy it can connote. Always on My Mind, 2017, features the Korean word (you) in flames on a distant mountain landscape. The flames’ bright yellow-orange-red gradations stand out against the blue-washed nocturnal background of sky, hill, and water; as result, the glowing reads less as a passionate appeal to another person than as a state of mind within Lee.

Lee also examines the relationship between “you” and the larger social context. Three women sit side by side in perspectival recession against a pink background in Four of Us Gathered by Chance, and We Had Drinks, 2017, all smoking or holding cigarettes. Three ribbons of white smoke rising vertically accentuate the tension and the discomfort felt by the subjects in this unexpectedly awkward scene, and perhaps by its viewers, too. As though asserting their right to smoke in a country where it was a social taboo for young women until quite recently, they brandish their cigarettes like medals won in a crusade. Lee is conscious of how being part of a group gives them a sort of invisible shield, protecting them from the critical gaze of others. Splash Splash, 2017, depicts five young women holding hands as they walk into shallow water toward an intensely artificial blue background; the image comes from a snapshot taken on an excursion with some classmates during Lee’s undergraduate days. Marching into the flat, garish blueness, they psychologically distance themselves from the viewer (and the artist).

The idea of “you” extends to the masses in the diptych Floating Lights on the Street, 2016, a panoramic scene of the weekly candlelight vigils calling for the impeachment of then-president Park Geun-hye, held throughout the latter half of 2016. Lee recognized the need to record the unfolding events while feeling ambivalent about how active political participation had become routine. The piece has the strongest tie to the geolgae geurim, in terms of its political statement as well as its earnest grisaille, yet the true brilliance of Lee’s reinvention of the medium is found in his “Outdoor Paintings,” 2014–, performative works filmed outside on the streets of Seoul; New York; or Christchurch, New Zealand. In the video Pulling from the front, pushing from behind, 2016, we saw Lee taking his cloth paintings outside and hanging them on buildings, fences, and bridges, and inside subway stations. The private contents of the works, as well as their material vulnerability, seem to contradict the idea of painting as a public intervention. In this very tension, “hung paintings” remain a usable platform for young artists. In Lee’s work, an old form has reemerged in a new way.

Shinyoung Chung