by Jonathan Goodman
Seung Lee. Tree of Soul. 2016. Mixed media. 52 x 41 inches. Image Courtesy of the Artist.
Korean-American artist Seung Lee’s excellent new show of mixed-media paintings makes it clear that his development continues. While he is Asian, his work really reflects the influence of the New York School—he has lived and taught in the New York City area for decades. There are of course points of stylistic contact between Asian painting and gestural abstraction, but they are almost always random rather than deliberate. His lyric art provides us with a further development of an approach that, while historically established, is still practiced with considerable verve and skill in New York. Lee works with tree imagery quite a bit—the tree is a symbol of stability and life. Yet his treatment of such an image is emphatically rendered in a manner that is both taut, in the sense of a finished drawing, and free, in the sense of his emotional method. There is lots of energy but very little dissonance in his paintings, which present an emblematic picture that goes a long way to establish the spiritual reality of art. This is highly interesting, as Lee’s efforts to promote an inner-oriented, intuitive vision of nature contrasts strongly with much contemporary art being done today.
There is a larger question that needs to be asked: Can such a style as Lee’s remain topical in an art world given to conceptual interests, performance, high-tech work, and deliberately de-skilled efforts. It is true that his paintings belong to a continuum that remains alive; however, its legacy—we must remember that the high point of lyric abstraction occurred in the middle of the last century—could well prove an obstacle in terms of current relevance. Lee, like other painters working in this manner, needs to be careful not to reiterate the stylistic flourishes of the past. In fact, though, this does not happen. First, he is including recognizable imagery in his art—his trees function as symbols that can be read figuratively. Second, his work is highly imaginative, enabling him to produce effects that genuinely differ from what has preceded him. As a result, we can say that the pictures truly belong to current life in art. Every few years, painting is declared to have made a comeback; there is something specious about the announcement—painting never really died in the first place. In truth, Lee’s position places him within a group of artists who have figured out how to maintain a practice full in keeping with the pictorial needs of today.
Seung Lee. Tree of Passion. 2016. Mixed media. 54 x 38 inches. Image Courtesy of the Artist.
Tree of Soul (2016) confirms the contemporaneity of Lee’s art. It presents a tree, defined mostly by open blue lines, that moves upward across the composition. Interestingly, on the right side of the painting, the thin blue stripes form a grid—perhaps this is a nod to late modernist abstraction. On the left, the background is mostly a vibrant red, while on the right, the background is red and a ghostly green. Clearly, the image is highly allusive; it is intended to convey the spiritual force of the natural form. As such, Tree of Soul imparts an ethereal reality that is outside normal experience. It is a telling example of what happens when we forego everyday life for a transcendent realm. Tree of Passion (2016) consists of an upright trunk rendered by a reddish-brown grid; it stands in front of green foliage—leaves that allow a bit of light to come through. Passion is one of our strongest feelings, and the force and form of the tree can only be described as phallic, while the greenery of the background is also a symbol of fecundity. Considered together, the imagery results in an emblematic, yet thoroughly understandable, presentation of erotic drive. The painting is remarkable for its energetic exuberance.
Finally, Tree of You n I (2016) puts forth an image that can be read as the description of a human relationship in the form of two standing trees. The one on the left is green, and the other on the right is dark red, both executed in this circular lines standing on top of each other. Behind them, Lee’s audience sees a kind of green drapery, outlined in black rectangles, that acts as a backdrop. In the lower part of the picture, the red tree extends a branch that touches the green one on an upward angle. The image could well be that of making love; we know that these pictures should be read suggestively, as proposals for human behavior and attributes. Lee is an artist who reads his mind as an allegory of the human condition. In this sense, he is advancing a reality based not only on the imagination, but also on a moral stance. I say this because his descriptions of the human condition, while mediated by both nature and abstraction, also suggest a vision from the very worldly one we are accustomed to. His production thus is visionary, intimating a new start, a new way of being and behaving.
Seung Lee, ‘Circulation III’ at SIA NY Gallery. February 10 – 23, 2016.