During a trip to Busan last year, I had to complete a “Museum Walk” for my ‘Art after 1945’ class at KAIST (great class, highly recommend)! We were to go to at least one gallery, write about a piece of art and show the ticket stub to prove that we actually went there! I obviously went to more than one gallery while I was in South Korea so I had to pick just one to write about.
South Korean Lee Ufan (이우환) is one of my favourite artists and I thought I would share the essay I wrote about the Busan space and the specific painting I chose to write about. For the first time on Jo So Ko, I will be using images from other sources (OMG what!?). All image sources and references will be at the end of the essay! Enjoy! Please don’t sue me, I don’t have the resources. (I have since learned how to properly cite an in-text reference so please forgive me, I will endeavour to fix it soon!)
Space Lee Ufan – Busan
Wandering through the light, airy rooms of the Space Lee Ufan in Busan was a highly transcendental, meditative experience. All of the works of Lee Ufan work collectively to tell a greater story of time and space, however, ‘From Line’ is one that was particularly captivating. ‘From Line’, painted in 1976, consists of delicately painted vertical blue strokes that take its viewer on a captivating journey. This has a similar effect to the colour field paintings of Mark Rothko from almost two decades before this work was painted. The Space Lee Ufan itself is also what I imagine the effect the Rothko Chapel (pictured below) might have on its audience, a similar spiritual engagement between the artist and the viewer. Lee’s paintings invite his audience to travel within themselves and reveal thoughts and emotions that may otherwise remain hidden – at least that is how I have experienced his work in the past.
Lee was a key figure in the Mono-ha movement in Japan in the late 1960’s. During the context of post-war Japan, Lee and the other members of the Mono-ha movement challenged the idea of representation previously portrayed in Western art. The relationship between space and matter was explored by using materials from the natural world with little manipulation. On the other side of the world, the Minimalist movement was taking off in the United States and had similar principles to those of the Mono-ha and Gutai groups in the East. The influence of Lee Ufan’s work during this period in history is still easy to appreciate in our modern world as the ideas explored transcend the notion of time.
Interestingly, Lee Ufan paints his works from directly above the canvas. He places the canvas on the ground beneath a wooden bench upon which he lies. Supposedly, Lee has preferred this technique since he was a child as he feels like he fully emerges within the work. This technique is similar to the painting process of American artists from the 1940’s abstract expressionist movement and later, the 1980’s postmodernism movement. Jackson Pollock, for example, was famous for his action paintings where his canvas lay flat on the ground as he painted standing up, often walking over the strokes he paints. Similarly, Jean-Michel Basquiat adopted a similar working style by placing his large canvases on the floor of his New York Studio in the 1980’s.
This process of painting is vastly different when comparing the likes of Jackson Pollock (pictured below), with his layered webs of dripped paint, to Ufan (pictured below) whose paint strokes are placed ever so delicately. It seems as if Ufan were to make one slight mistake, he would have to start from scratch all over again. Whereas, Pollock was probably not privy to this concept of “starting over”, based on the nature of his work. While Pollock expressed the inner turmoil from his psychiatric state to apply paint, Lee Ufan explored the art of calligraphy and understanding the relationship between the “mark making and the medium of paint itself”. It would be interesting to have the two painting side by side to see how their understanding of their medium and their mental state influences the marks they make on their canvases despite working in similar ways.
Jackson Pollock (below)
Lee Ufan (above) (very hard to find an image of Ufan painting while suspended above his canvases, actually, finding any image of Lee Ufan is VERY difficult).
Having experienced Lee Ufan’s collections at both the Lee Ufan Museum in Naoshima (Japan) and Space Lee Ufan in Busan (South Korea), it is important to describe ‘From Line’ in relation to the works as a collection, from the viewer’s perspective. Walking through the adjoining rooms within both museums, it becomes clear that these pieces belong within the same art institution. It is almost a meditative experience, the increasing simplicity of each piece clarifies the viewer’s mind.
I am incredibly honoured that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience Ufan’s work in this capacity and only wish I could further explain the way the works in his museums make me feel. I truly feel at peace in the presence of Ufan’s work and I hope to experience and be once again captivated by his careful brush strokes and sculptures. On this visit to Busan, I had to take time to think about exactly why I love his work. I had to ponder this for a long time and I eventually decided that it is because his work is not so much about the work, or the technique, it is instead about the viewer. About all of the people who often need a pre-fabricated ground from which to build an understanding of their inner thoughts and the world around them. In some ways, Ufan has the very complicated task of simplifying these ideas for a universal audience. I don’t think of it solely as a piece of art but also a form of self-reflection and a chance to feel gratitude for all of those you love in your life. So, beyond the precise blue faded strokes and generous usage of the canvas, I believe that ‘From Line’ exceeds my simple understanding of artistic principles like composition and tonal value. These principles are overpowered by my desire to contemplate and reflect.
Written by Johanna Quinn 2017
Gayford, M. (2017). Solitary Soul: Interview with Lee Ufan | Apollo Magazine. [online] Apollo Magazine. Available at: https://www.apollo-magazine.com/solitary-soul-interview-with-lee-ufan/ [Accessed 22 Nov. 2017].
Ocula. (2017). Lee Ufan – Artist Profile, Recent Exhibitions & Artworks. [online] Available at: https://ocula.com/artists/lee-ufan/ [Accessed 26 Nov. 2017].
Ocula.com. (2017). Lee Ufan at Kukje Gallery | Ocula. [online] Available at: https://ocula.com/art-galleries/kukje-gallery/artists/lee-ufan/ [Accessed 26 Nov. 2017].
The Museum of Modern Art. (2017). Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde | MoMA. [online] Available at: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1225?locale=en [Accessed 26 Nov. 2017].
Space Lee Ufan – Busan Museum of Art (2017). From Line, 1976. [image] Available at: http://art.busan.go.kr/spaceleeufan/eng/index.jsp [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].
ROTHKO CHAPEL, BY MARK ROTHKO. (2017). [image] Available at: http://www.markrothko.org/rothko-chapel/ [Accessed 29 Nov. 2017].
IEMA (2016). Forgery scandal surrounding Lee Ufan’s work grows in Korea with three arrests. [image] Available at: http://iema.in/blog/forgery-scandal-surrounding-lee-ufans-work-grows-in-korea-with-three-arrests/ [Accessed 27 Nov. 2017].
Phadion (2017). Pollock signature misspelled in the Knoedler case. [image] Available at: http://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2014/june/12/pollock-signature-misspelled-in-the-knoedler-case/ [Accessed 27 Nov. 2017].
Read more about my visit to Busan last year
Train to Busan | Gamcheon Culture Village
And read more about Naoshima, Japan, where Ufan’s other art site is located (on my other blog about Japan called Jopan!)