Hayoon Jay Lee: Eternal Mother
November 13 - December 13, 2019
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, December 2019
Hayoon Jay Lee at Gallery 456/CAAC
Founded forty-five years ago, Gallery 456/CAAC began in 1989 to emphasize current Chinese art and art from other Asian cultures. As part of this larger outlook, Hayoon Jay Lee, born in Korea but a citizen of America for many years, presented sculptures, paintings, and a performance whose materials often included rice, in Lee’s hands not only a staple food, but a metaphor for the Asian condition. There is a problem now in current Asian art in New York, which has become slightly generalized, so that the specificities of East Asian culture tend to merge into a pan-Asian esthetic. But the truth is that the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultures are profoundly different from each other. In Lee’s case, we must negotiate not only the implicit particularities of Korean art in her work, we also need to recognize her American art education at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, where she studied and practiced an esthetic at a far remove from her origins. The resulting hybrid has been commented on in regard to other artists by art writers--to the point where it is something of a cliché, but the truism of a mixed culture proves more and more accurate in New York’s art world, where so many different backgrounds prove fertile ground for a melded creativity.
The paintings in the exhibition consistently use rice as both medium and theme. Most of the time, the rice is laid down as a relatively flat layer, but there is a powerful piece consisting of rows of bowls made from rice, arranged in a shelved vitrine. Rice is all important in the eating culture of Asia, so it makes sense that Lee would use it as an art material. But in the artist’s hands, it is also more than that--we sense that rice’s longevity as a food in Asian history, as well as its ability to serve as a symbol for an entire ethnology, present her with the chance to make a large statement out of a material not usually associated with art. In the low relief Dreamland 4 (2019), a small mountainous form, composed of smaller hillocks of rice that mass upward toward the center of the image, takes place on the cobalt blue background. Cracks occur in the mounds, while rice tendrils extend from the mass. The image is at once abstract and, if we deem so, a recollection of Asian landscape painting. Portrait (2019) in entirely composed of rice, with hollows for eyes and a ridge for the nose. The rice exists in patterns that fill the contours of the face. And My Moon-II (2016) is a simple but powerful mixed-media image consisting of a dark full moon, beneath which is a golden, squared arch, with a bright red background.
Hollow Mercy-II (2016) is an enigmatic painting of small fish tied by rope in their middle in the midst of a light-blue sea. The composition, though, is dominated by a horseshoe-shaped form turned sideways; located on the right side of the painting, it is composed of scores of small, boundaried shapes filled with wavy lines. They maintain contact and overlap each other, but we don’t know what the image truly is. Like many of Lee’s paintings, the picture suggests a surrealism made international by an Asian hand. In another painting, Hollow Mercy-I (2016) the fish hang by ropes from the top of the work, while in the middle, Lee’s bright-blue sea holds sway. At the bottom is a collection of shapes filled with lines, much like the first work described but massed upward in the center, with lower rises on each side of the central mound. Hair-like lines cover the surface of these forms, somehow tying the shapes to the human figure. Like many surrealist imageries, these paintings refer to a world just beyond our recognition, so that what we see pushes us toward what we might conceivably imagine.
On opening night, in the midst of the crowded gallery, Lee presented her interactive performance called “Gifts.” It consisted of nine dishes, including rice cake, kimbob, and rice dessert, as well as seven envelopes set on a table. The envelopes contained specific instructions, which directed readers to kiss the artist on both cheeks, to feed each other, and to give free hugs, among other actions, thus generating an atmosphere of intimacy and good will. One scenario had a participant exclaiming “No!” while the artist replied with a moderating “Yes!” This exchange continued at an escalating pitch, until the characters and principles of negation and affirmation resolved their differences and also relieved the rising anxiety within the audience.
The last directive had three people sit down in a circle made of blue paper and receive a ritual pouring of rice over their heads and bodies. Performances of this kind are central to Lee’s practice, which is intended to engage the audience as completely as possible. They are meant to bridge cultural and racial divides in an era of heightened misunderstandings and tensions, using the Korean ethical conception of nunchi-- the ability to listen to others, to perceive their state of mind--even if they do not know what to say or do in fraught circumstances. Whatever the actions mean, they seem bent on resolving conflicts from the past and the present. Lee’s approach is not often seen in the New York artworld. As such, the show represents more than one person’s work; it is a claim to a heritage we must come to understand. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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