Hayoon Jay Lee: A Life in Art

by Jonathan Goodman

6 Bursting Performance 2013

Hayoon Jay Lee. Bursting! 2013. Performance in Long Island City.  Photo courtesy of the Artist.

Hayoon Jay Lee came to America from Korea in 1989. She was not trained in art in Korea, where she studied accounting. Settling in Maryland, Lee went to the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), earning a BFA in 2007 and an MFA in 2009. While at MICA, she studied a broad range of mediums: painting, sculpture, performance, and video. Now based in New York, Lee has done a major performance in Long Island City, shown her work at Sculpture Space in Utica, and has participated in residencies in China and Korea. One would think that her artistic identity would be a complicated issue, but she states in a written interview (completed in New York in January 2016): “No, I see myself simply as an artist, but I am sure people don’t think that way about me because of how I look.” It is nonetheless true that, like many Asian artists in America, Lee makes use of Asian-influenced ideas and materials—we can see this in her 45-minute-long performance in Queens, where rice was the major medium used in her presentation.

So Lee’s sense of self is layered; she hesitates to simply identify as an American. She writes: “I am first and foremost a Korean-American. I do value the culture and history of my motherland, Korea. At the same time, I value the opportunities presented by the American educational system and the freedom afforded to all groups in society, particularly women.” Korea has changed, now being governed by a woman president, but it remains hard for a female artist there to fulfill an ambitious career.

9 High and Low Installation 2011

Hayoon Jay Lee. High & Low. 2011. Cooked Rice, Wood, Gel Medium.Sculpture and performance at Sculpture Space in Utica, NY.  Photo courtesy of the Artist.

In New York the opportunities are greater. In Long Island City, for example, Lee was able to participate in the closing of the exhibition “How Much Do I Owe You,” organized by curator Manon Slome and held in the Clock Tower Building (the iconic former Bank of New York building). During the performance, “Shifting Landscape,” Lee made use of some 1,000 pounds of Korean rice, LED Lights, and dollar bills. Wearing traditional Korean clothing, Lee danced outside in the park triangle in front of the bank, then moved into the exhibitions space inside the former bank and interacted with the viewers. In the end, she entered the “Shifting Landscape” exhibition of paintings and in a dramatic tour de force had bags of rice opened over her, with their contents falling at startling speed over her head and shoulders.

7 Bursting Performance 2013

Hayoon Jay Lee. Bursting! 2013. Performance in Long Island City.  Photo courtesy of the Artist.

One hesitates to validate the performance on ethnic or national grounds, knowing that Lee wants recognition simply as an artist and not within a nationally specific framework. Yet it cannot be denied that the staging involved traditional Korean dress; rice, the staple of Asian cuisine; and the accompanying sound of Korean drums and strings lent a strikingly festive, specifically Korean air to the presentation. Additionally, the humble ingredients used are described by Lee as “authentic.” She writes: “These materials are some of the basic blocks of life, or they sustain existence, and in that sense are ‘sacred’ (yet still remain ‘common’) types of substances.” All in all, it was truly a remarkable event, powerful and striking in its ebullient recognition of Korea’s past, offered in highly contemporary terms. As such, it demonstrates Lee’s determination to be both modern and historical, combining both in a playful yet meaningful manner. The spectacular here is mixed with a sense of classical tradition, resulting in a powerful, dramatic experience.

Lee makes sculptures as well. In April 2011, she was invited to Sculpture Space in Utica. The city is as Lee describes it: “quirky, eerie, historic, and creative.” Exploring Utica by foot and on a bicycle, she discovered that the town now has more than three thousand abandoned buildings, the result of corruption by the Democratic machine that governed it for so long, as well as the devastation brought about by deindustrialization. In response to the city’s trials and tribulations, Lee decided to make artworks that would honor its citizens. During her residency, she fashioned three thousand small bowls, constructed from rice. Together, they formed one large installation representing the abandoned buildings. But as Lee comments, the bowls were “also seeds for future growth.” According to the artist, “In the end, the project proved to be a meaningful one for the people in Utica and myself.”

Hayoon Jay Lee. Abysm. 2014. 30 x 40″. Acrylic, Gel Medium. Photo courtesy of the Artist.

In addition to the above activities, Lee also paints. Two of her sisters are artists, and she learned a lot from them while in Korea, even though she received no formal training there. Lee comments: “On an unconscious level. I cannot divorce myself from my Korean heritage. Still, in certain respects, I exist between worlds and cultures—East and West.” This sounds accurate and true in regard to Lee’s particular circumstances. Perhaps these issues can never be fully solved, instead riding on the waves of constant change.

In a recent painting entitled “Abysm,” (2014) the viewer sees a hole, constructed out of small white stones, which rises above a ground of tightly formed, mostly ribbon-like shapes (they could be the waves of the sea). Other stones litter the landscape, including part of another structure like the one we see. The background, a cloudless blue sky, takes up most of the painting. “Abysm,” is an eerie picture, albeit a beautiful one. It owes something to surrealism, but the handling of the paint, the flowing forms especially, look like Asian work. Even so, the sense of being between cultures may well not be the driving influence in this painting, or in Lee’s sensibility for that matter.

“Abysm,” may point out an internationalization of form that has already established itself quite well. The painting’s mysterious aura seems personal and psychological rather than cultural. In the long run, as we know, what matters most is that the work should communicate both a technical competence and a thematic vibrancy. “Abysm,” like much of Lee’s art, occupies a zone in which the public and the private, dreams and reality merge, offering the artist’s particular view of insistent yet subtle dualities.

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