Seulgi Lee, Slow Water, 2021, paint, wood, 18 × 18".

Seulgi Lee, Slow Water, 2021, paint, wood, 18 × 18".

Seulgi Lee

Viewed from its entrance, the main space housing Seulgi Lee’s exhibition “Slow Water” appeared to be almost entirely empty. The only visible object was a disk made of a thin lattice of raw wood about thirty-six feet in diameter, hanging by wires from the high ceiling. It looked like a utilitarian object that had perhaps served as a canopy for an earlier installation. Lights threw shadowy grids onto the white walls and bare floor. As you moved under it, though, sides of the wood that had not initially been visible came into view, and these were painted in alluring colors, such as pale rose, mint, and royal blue. A radiant abstract painting revealed itself step by step. You could take in the whole work from above, via a second-floor walkway that runs around the former warehouse. The piece had a fainter but no less beguiling glow at that remove.

This was the 2021 work from which the show (curated by Hyunjin Kim and Oh Hyemi) took its title, and it served as an ideal introduction to Lee’s methods. The Seoul-born, Paris-based artist conjures incredible sumptuousness (visual and symbolic) via astonishing restraint—producing a free-ranging post-Minimalism born of collaborations with traditional Korean artisans and spiked with mischievous enigmas. Slow Water involved a specialist in moonsal (the latticework on traditional Korean houses) and one in dancheong, the ornate painting that adorns Korean temples and artifacts, alighting here just as blocks of color. Lee’s art is richly allusive, and a curatorial text cited as inspirations for her grid the aqueous frescoes of the ancient Roman Villa of Livia and the history of the Incheon Art Platform area, which was underwater until a port was built more than a century ago. Landing on these references independently would be impossible, but Lee’s visions were so precisely realized that suspending disbelief and following her veiled language was a pleasure in itself.

On plinths lay five nubi blankets sewn by Sung-yeon Cho in 2020 in Tongyeong—ostensibly hard-edge geometric abstractions in blazing colors—signifying various idiomatic Korean proverbs. A bulbous blue shape, its title revealed, stood for Drunk like a whale = Too inebriated, while the curving triangles perched atop a circle represented the Cat washing its face = To rush job. The atmosphere became especially topsy-turvy when a short recording of swirling high-pitched voices accompanied by spare percussion emanated from a hallway alongside the main gallery. The singer was Park Minhee, a venturesome specialist in the rarefied gagok form, offering a contemporary interpretation of a ribald folk song once sung by Incheon laborers amid repetitious activities such as netting fish or rowing a boat. That song plays on the word gong-al (loosely “ball” and slang for “clitoris”) as it lists cherries, green onions, and other kinds of gong-al. Its presence brought a certain erotic undercurrent—a charged fecundity—to the (notably labor-intensive) craftwork on view.

Five small holes were cut low in the drywall of that hallway (Hole, 2021) so that one could spy on that luminous wood grid, listening to a lewd work song while viewing the abstracted water. Amid the greenery in a nearby courtyard, five steel circles, each a different color and size, leaned against a sizable pole, comprising an arrangement that Lee likens to vulvic sheela-na-gig fertility symbols. Window vitrines on the street contained still more colorful lattices, these dyed onto white sochang, a textile long produced by women in the region, the patterning apparently determined by Lee’s observation of shadows in the space.

Using materials with deep histories and made with a multitude of women’s hands (she listed more than a dozen collaborators in an accompanying pamphlet), “Slow Water” seemed to be both a compendium of cultural knowledge and an expansive portrait of Incheon. Still, mysteries lurked. A slab of marble was affixed to a wall , near the floor, in the main gallery, engraved with Peter’s question to the risen Jesus: QVO VADIS (“Where are you marching?”). Lee invites her audience to go to places that are fleeting or are already vanished, but that she is working to keep alive.