Interview with Jihyun Lee, March 2013
By Jinmyung Lee
JM(Jinmyung Lee): Jihyun, as an artist, has been consistently focusing on landscape since 2000. It appears that you were trying to achieve something by adhering to landscape. I’d like to hear what drove you towards this direction.
JH(Jihyun Lee): The overlapping landscapes I have been painting describe my journey in search of my own space. With my desire for spaces that I do not own, the memories of spaces I have seen or believed to have seen are accumulated and I craft each work by unraveling the interconnections and mixing them onto the canvas. I wanted to draw something to which the viewers’ memories would be overlaid, and consequently vary the resultant viewing experience for different people.
I also want to point out that this was possible because I was painting. Paintings are cutting-edge mediums that can be initiated in a state where there is no preexisting matter. Therefore, something that doesn’t originate from a given object can open up multi-dimensional worlds on a flat plane.
It is said that human memory is forgotten or consciously distorted, and people come to believe these manipulated memories as genuine. While tracing the origins of fragmented and edited memories from my daily life, wading through reveries, I conjure up endless trains of associated images. My work is to visualize and study the interrelationship between these images, using the medium of painting.
The images I draw on the canvas often consist of complex physical interrelations, causing confusion to the viewers, but to me, this confusion accurately reflects the process of seeing out spaces that are vaguely familiar, spaces that reside in my consciousness.
My works such as Threshold-Mirror (2012), Threshold_Sand Castle (2012), Knitting sandy beach (2012), and Beehive (2012) omit the physical architectural structure that had been often presented on the canvases, focusing on the phenomena of blending instead of expressing the thought process springing from mixed memories in the form of overlays. Structures such as webs, beehives, footprints on irregular yet connective sand beaches, one-line network structures seen in kitting patterns are overlapped with other images. These images represent how I habitually engage in trains of associative thoughts, where the origin of thoughts cannot be identified. This attempt began with National G.+Sandcastle (2009), and Threshold-Sandy Beach_1 (2011). More recently, I have been packing the structures back into the frame, and focusing more on personal histories that reside within the canvas. The main stem of my work keeps branching out as I repeat new attempts and confirm past endeavors.
JM: In the beginning of the 2000s, it appears that you had concentrated your energy and technique on the study of drawing, arriving at a clear notion of theme and form in the mid 2000s. However, it looks like you have re-launched drawings of building exteriors or waves under the title of “study.” These pieces were refreshing and exiting, as they portend new future attempts. I would like to hear more about your thoughts on drawing.
JH: In a scene from the film <Shine>, the camera closes up on a practice room at a conservatory from afar, moving along. As melodies that flow out of the practice rooms blend and the camera zooms in and out, the volume of the music wavers, but the overlapping sounds basically lead the intriguing special movement.
Drawings were records of images that pursued the phenomenon of crisscrossing memories in a floating fashion; this approach made it easier to build meaning, as scenes could be crafted out more quickly than with paintings. The Fantasma series, introduced in this exhibition, are somewhat different from my drawings from a decade ago.
In order to differentiate the groups of small paintings that encapsulate my thought processes and concerns from drawings on paper, I named them thus.
As these express the motif of works I had created as parts of a painting too vividly, I must have refrained from presenting them in public. Indeed, these pieces are image essays, paintings like esquisses I draw as if taking notes, kept on an easel while I work on, reclining on the wall, big paintings with sizes of 89x72 inch or bigger that take longer to work on.
JM: I would like to ask about your thoughts on the genre of art. For instance, some people are dubbed artists simply because they work on art, and few others cannot live without working on art: namely, natural born artists. They say the latter group is becoming rarer and rarer around the world. Why do you think this might be?
JH: Visual art, unlike other fields of art, is open to anyone. Especially contemporary art is even more. But we still categorize artists into two groups; perhaps this is because people’s perspectives have changed over time? Meaning, it might be due to the changing tides of the society.
If I were born as a contemporary of Leonardo Da Vinci, I wouldn’t have let him produce all that he had alone.
JM: In the same context, there’s another important question. Let’s assume that a pharmaceutical company developed an amazing diet drug. And A, the product R&D team chief and B, the sales team chief, are in serious disagreement. A suggest that the company correctly indicate the drug’s effect and side effects on the packaging, whereas B not only obscured the side effects by printing them in very small font and abridged in content, but also gained an enormous profit by designing an appealing container and exaggerating the effects. The company’s owner wouldn’t be able to make a viable judgment. My question is what is one to do when one’s conscience and profit run parallel.
JH: That would be the question of conscience. It is a business matter, but I would react differently.
Let me ask you in return. Say, an artist exhibits a work he/she had produced 3-4 years ago as if it is new. Maybe the content of the painting would coincide with the social milieu of that particular point of time, even more so than the atmosphere of the period when the work was actually produced; but it would be hard for him/her to expect anything from fellow artists who see through this con, or even one’s own conscience.
JM: As in the case of the pharmaceutical company’s example, artists are often faced with such parallels. There are artists who meticulously analyze aesthetic precedents, and endlessly seek out new forms to be realized. I believe that almost 90% of the artists belong to this category. Their strategy would be similar to that of the sales team chief in the pharmaceutical company. On the other hand, there are artists who sincerely concern themselves with the times they live in, and their own existence. You are entering a stage of life in which you’d be expected to, to a certain degree, resolve this dilemma.
JH: Creating art is precisely the very resolution. A study of what path one is to take, the process, and the result.
JM: So you currently work in New York. What is your impression about the art circle there? Is it productive and vibrant, or is it more of a final consumption pint full of giant galleries and art museums, less productive in terms of artistic creation? I would like to hear your thoughts.
JH: New York’s benefit lies in that I have higher accessibility to works, exhibitions and resources I’d like to explore. The conditions for my working environment don’t necessarily differ from that of Seoul. To me, location doesn’t really impact the process of my work.
Wherever I am, the moment I close the door of my studio, my own space comes to life, as if a vacuum devoid of reality.
Turning my back to the sound of a baby crying and my husband’s frantic movements, I hold a richly creamed cup of coffee, step into the coldest, small room in the house behind the fire place, and close the frost-covered and wood-paneled window. The familiar, comforting smell of oil paint blends into the coffee aroma.
From Jihyun Lee’s Diary, November 2011
JM: I asked this question because I am fervently interested in your future as an artist. Look at the Asian artists in New York has taken in so far. There’s Nalini Malini, Ài Wèiwèi, Murakami Takashi, Aida Makoto and so on. The art scene seems to be more open to those who deal with the bizarre or grotesque, gender discrimination involving Muslim women, or socialist oppression in politics. Moreover, except for an engraving artist named Munakata Shiko, there are no other formalist painters. I’m just concerned about your position as an artist in New York. Can you be indifferent to these external conditions?
JH: First of all, thank you for your concern. This is indeed a real and important problem, but one can get numb about this in the process of being confined in oneself as the creative process unfolds. Paralysis is more problematic than anxiety. I might say what I’m doing is a challenge, even, since there are no precedents. What we see as astoundingly great paintings in contemporary art are no longer exciting enough to generate social issues, nor are they noticeable because their representation of any given surficial image is surprisingly impressive. On the contrary, I think art moves very slowly. There are many things happening around us, but once the artist reaches a quick conclusion, these things also fade away pretty quickly.
I want to paint something one has to spend a considerable time looking and thinking to figure out. Western and Eastern philosophy are clearly different. Rather than becoming famous by creating something that could be instantly understandable, works that take longer to pull out an answer – those who seek the answer would be, in the end, the audience rather than the artist. I in fact lost the impulse to seek the world’s response since I moved to New York. As I mentioned before, I’m just a beginner in New York, where all sorts of things are going on. I’m still seeking an answer, I’ll faithfully adhere to my studies, and perhaps through this process, I’d be able to get myself known, show myself.
JM: Let us return to a more fundamental question. What drove you to become an artist? Do you still have that initial motivation?
JH: I couldn’t say there was a special turning point. I just grew familiar with a technique, and as my skills grew, I came to communicate what I have to say to the world through these very techniques. Painting is a way of communication.
JM: I would like to know more about you as an artist. Are you a rationalist, upholding reason as the dominant world view, or are you more spiritual, believing in the mysteries of the universe? Some believe that the world progresses while others think the essence of the world remains unchanged, and still others are skeptical about everything. How do you see the world, the universe, and humanity?
JH: Why don’t we leave out this question? I don’t really think our audience would be interested in hearing the answer, since any kind of response would sound like fancy rhetoric.
JM: Do you have any favorite writers or thinkers? I think our readers would love to know, in order to understand your art world.
JH: Michelangelo, who was so immersed in his work he didn’t even know how he spent his own time. No fancy description would be able to capture the traces of his life.
This mad artist, who never gave into any obstacle, worked until the moment of death, ignorant even of live. Not that I want to contest such madness, but if we take a step away from his obsession and think of work ethics, that artists should be able to build an environment in which one could accept any kind of condition and plow forward, I think this kind of attitude would be a sustainable truth in our own time, or largely, in any period in human history.
Sartre’s nauseating writings are complex, but I still like his thoughts, and I love Kafka’s novels. I also frequently read Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories while I work. I enjoy Gaston Bachelard’s praise of reverie, and Carl Gustav Jung’s theories are closer to my own conception of the unconscious than that of Freud’s.
But do people really want to know what kinds of books artists read? Wouldn’t they, rather, want to know more about the very people who create the pieces they see?
JM: What are your future plans? Or, if this sounds too grand, perhaps you could tell us some of your thoughts about how you’d carry on as an individual rather than a public figure.
JH: I would like to operate remote-controllable studios in various cities. One in Brooklyn, New York, another in Seoul, Korea, and another in some city in Northern or Eastern Europe. Wherever I am, my work process would remain the same and I can picture my family living a happy life within it.
JM: Wittgenstein said “just improve yourself, that’s the only thing you can do to improve your world.” Art in Korea formulated an ideology of its own, benefiting from the minimalist movements in the ‘70s. Then, the art scene was swept up in people’s art in the ‘80s, and the post-modernist boom in the ‘90s. With the advent of the new millennium, individual existence and personal interests were finally respected as viable topics. The society finally came to harbor infinite affection for the individual, instead of obsessing over social revolution or change. In fact, we could say you are the very star of this new era. It’s been over 10 years since your debut, and now, it might be the time for you to underscore responsibility instead of the public’s affection. What do you think your responsibility is?
JH: True, I think I was lucky to have been born at the right times, having received the support and affection of people who resonated with my concerns. In terms of taste, I don’t even understand why an artist has to deal with social issues. But this doesn’t mean I don’t think about the very times in which we live.
I’m not a hopeless optimist, but I would like to say that no social prejudice towards any individual could affect an artist’s work. One’s surroundings or environment could have some form of impact, but these circumstances could in fact add depth to one’s work, and a sense of desperation that etches meaning into the art works. If I’m to say anything to artists who’d like to hear my thoughts; I think keeping an eye on my own self as I continue my endeavors is more of a calling I assigned myself, than a heavy-weight responsibility.
JM: Thank you for your candid interview.
JH: Thank you.