Whitehot Magazine

Arthur Kwon Lee Picks a Fight With Modernity

Celestial Migration, 2020, Acrylic on Canvas, 96 in x 50 in.

By DONOVAN IRVEN, August 2020

Arthur Kwon Lee is certainly an artist for our times as demonstrated in Hermitage, his first solo show with Filo Sofi Arts. His paintings reclaim ancient figures and reshape them through contemporary sensibilities of color and collage. Greek and Roman statuary appear in over-saturated complementaries – bold blue and red, or a daring combination of orange and green that Lee pulls off in spades. But at the heart of his work lies a fundamental tension that continues to rear its head in the culture war recently resurrected across online platforms like Twitter and in the pages of print media from the New York Times to The Atlantic to The National Review.

Lee is concerned with degeneration. In spite of the cosmopolitan flavor of his cross-cultural juxtapositions, this anxiety about the loss of a family-centered culture represents a fundamentally conservative strain in his art that borders on reactionary. Perhaps most interesting is that this tension produces some remarkable art, thanks in large part to Lee’s skill as a draftsman.

Most blatantly conservative art is passé beyond redemption and so dominated by hyper niche talking points that it lapses into self-parody. The best example of this tendency is Jon McNaughton, who was catapulted into the public eye by his symbolic portraits of President Trump and other compositions in the style of John Trumbull that drip with a particular flavor of paleo-conservative Americana paired with a sentimentality that can never quite break free of its rage. Lamenting the loss of a Great America, McNaughton seems arrested in the anger stage of grief.

Lee’s art is not a throwback to this relatively recent artistic style. His brushwork, color palette, compositional choices, and process are all wildly contemporary and new. His international vision of universal symbolism is not locked into the specific nostalgia for a lost America that dooms someone like McNaughton to pastiche. Lee is an infinitely more talented artist with a much grander vision who deserves our attention.

Despite this aesthetic superiority, Lee still laments something lost. There is less anger in Lee’s work, though we are confronted with a warrior’s ferocity in the form of Japanese Niō guardians and Hercules in “Celestial Migration,” and figurative renderings of William Wallace, Genghis Khan, Sunzi, an unnamed samurai, and other notable warriors surrounding an explosively rendered Siberian tiger in “Apex.” All of this is part of Lee’s investment in Jungian archetypes, which he offers as an antidote to modern decadence and degeneration.

Apex 2019, Acrylic on Canvas, 30 in x 40 in.

On the one hand we have a progressive cosmopolitanism seeking the universal forms that unite us across time and culture. In this, I suspect Lee would claim the universalism of “classical” liberalism like the public figures who typically think that modern progressives have gone too far in their deconstruction of gender norms. I imagine Lee would find common cause among the acolytes of Jordan Peterson or the culprits behind the Sokal Squared Hoax, all of whom imagine themselves in combat against the excesses of Left-wing identity politics and so on. 

But, with these figures, Lee swings perhaps too heavily in the other direction, which is what makes “tension” such a commanding theme in his work. It is not just that Lee has picked a fight with modernity, but that his warrior archetype is at odds with itself and struggles to attain a kind of harmony.

Lee says as much in his discussion of the samurai Miyamoto Musashi, author of the Book of Five Rings which expresses the Bushido Code and serves up equal parts combat manual, philosophy, and the masculine self-help that young men today are finding so attractive. We all have different roles to play in society, roles that are sometimes at odds with one another and that pull us in different directions. We tend to compartmentalize these things, which leads to feelings of incompleteness, fracture, and an unsatisfying sense that we aren’t performing our best in any one of these roles. The key is to harmonize them, to get them all singing beautifully together so that we achieve a feeling of wholeness that leads to tranquility within the self.

All of that is not bad advice, as far as it goes. I agree that we are faced with a self that must perform different social functions and that we often feel very fragmented as different demands create tension between our various obligations. It is where Lee turns to antiquity that I begin to have grave philosophical reservations about the prescribed therapy, even if Lee is inspired to create some truly dynamic compositions in the process.

For Lee, the solution to this fragmentation lies in a return to archetypical forms. On this score, he is very much of the Jordan Peterson school. 

The feminine form represents chaos, materiality, temptation, while the masculine is reason, order, protection, and so on. This is where I begin to lose the thread and the possibly neutral defense of “the family” begins to take on somewhat sinister undertones. What families are we talking about here? Can they be mixed? Queer? Chosen? Or, are we really talking about heteronormative requirements of mom, dad, and 2.5 babies? Given the types of imagery and the symbolism behind them, I strongly suspect the latter to be the case.

Take, for instance, “Melancholic Paradise.” The painting stands out among Lee’s most recent work. The composition makes smart use of space to provide real depth to the figures arranged around a landscape suggestive of desertification. Palm trees and pyramids generate dividing lines that allow fore-, middle-, and backgrounds to be subtly distinguished as Lee’s figures seem to float surreally around the central pairing – Perseus holding aloft the severed head of Medusa while a bust of Christ stares down the slain Gorgon.

Of course, Medusa is symbolic of materialism and its temptations. Jesus Christ is the ultimate victor against these tendencies, again, the symbolic spiritual warrior beating back the feminine chaos in an ultimate victory. After all, Lee depicts Christ as looking Medusa in the eyes, something that would turn lesser men to stone.

But Medusa, let’s not forget, is a victim. Medusa was a beautiful maiden renowned for her luxurious hair. The god Poseidon, typical of the all too human character of the Greek gods, came upon Medusa in Athena’s temple and raped her. Athena hid her eyes from the outrage committed in her temple, but instead of punishing Poseidon for committing rape, Athena punishes Medusa by turning her into the monster we all know today. Her hair, once a source of beauty, is transformed into snakes, and she is cursed so that no man can look at her without turning to stone. 

The story is victim-blaming misogyny in the trappings of a tragedy. It’s the same song and dance we hear today. If Medusa had been more modest, if she’d have covered her hair, then she wouldn’t have tempted Poseidon and he wouldn’t have raped her. So much for the discipline and rational order represented by the masculine form. Poseidon is so out of control he cannot resist his own urges and is driven to rape. It is not Medusa’s fault, though it is clear from Ovid’s retelling of the myth that many Romans judged Medusa’s punishment to be just.

That is not a culture to which I want to return, and it is one that has been justly fought and denied for centuries. 

The philosopher Kate Manne has made a distinction between sexism and misogyny. Sexism provides the rationalization for the subjugation of women along the lines of sex, gender, or both. Misogyny is the policing mechanism that enforces the sexist order. One could make the argument that Lee’s work harbors sexist undertones. That, through the deployment of these archetypes, he is justifying the subjugation of women so that they can play their appropriate roles as mothers and the feminine chaos can be properly reined in by the masculine rational order.

But, again, there is an undeniable tension in Lee’s work that makes it less easy to slap these labels on it. Truly, the artist is locked in a struggle with himself. 

Antonius (2020), Acrylic on Canvas, 24 in x 30 in.

Consider another of Lee’s paintings based on classical Roman statuary. In radiant oranges and seafoam greens, the bust of “Antinous” hovers enigmatically amid a flourish of butterflies. The butterflies themselves are expertly rendered with subtle geometric folds giving them motion and depth. This painting stands outside the stark traditionalism we might read in “Melancholic Paradise,” or the hyper-masculine warrior spirit of “Apex.” Antinous has, since at least the 19th century, been a renowned LGBTQ icon. 

In life, Antinous was the lover of the Emperor Hadrian and met a mysterious and untimely end when he drowned in the Nile river. Hadrian was so crushed by the death of his beloved that he had Antinous deified and a cult sprang up around this beautiful youth. Ancient statues of Antinous emphasize his youthful beauty, which is decidedly masculine and where we see some foreshadows of Michelangelo’s “David” and other Renaissance art that celebrates the male form as a model of certain beauty.

This is the logical opposition on which Lee’s work deconstructs. It is also why, perhaps more than any other artist I’ve yet had the privilege of working with, Lee is a painter of our times.

One of the most striking confessions Lee has made is that he was so taken by the beauty of Antinous’ statue that he felt compelled to paint it. Lee has a strong aesthetic eye, one of the reasons why his composition is often so compelling, even when he is crowding a canvas with figures. He recognized the aesthetic significance of Antinous upon sight, before he even knew what symbolic significance the statue might have. 

Here is what I find so fascinating about Lee as an artist. He has an amazing talent to produce work that speaks to an astonishing breadth striving for and often achieving philosophical depth. But Lee himself is sometimes unconscious of the depths he is plumbing. He lets his instincts guide him, indulging in a bit of that chaos about which he is so concerned, and then brings order onto that initial up-surging of unconscious inspiration.

But that very movement of the unconscious mind away from the traditionalist masculine archetype undercuts the claims about these determinative forms. If they are truly embedded in our subconscious, driven into our very being by years of evolutionary development and cultivation, then they should always be producing at least the sketch of that form. The degeneration comes in only when the form is distorted. But in Antinous, the form is escaped. It is not a degeneration from the form, but a form of masculine beauty unto itself – one that was celebrated in antiquity as god-like and which had to be forcibly suppressed by Christian moralists who were forcing the heteronormative family structure.

That structure was not natural, or set in stone, or coded in our DNA, or formed in a Platonic heaven to model our material reality. It had to be enforced through the same material social conditions that gave birth to the variety of human behaviors we see today.

This is what drives the protector figures in Lee’s work. This is what sets the stakes of the culture wars. That these archetypes are not determinative and are not stable. That means that they cannot be transcendental laws of the universe, baked into reality like gravity or entropy. If they were, we would be compelled to obey just as a rock rolls downhill. But we are not.

It is only through a sleight of hand that we convince ourselves of the immutability of these archetypes, which are creations of the human mind and cultivated by the arts and social practices just like anything else. And like anything else they are fallible, have their faults, and are subject to change, revision, and abandonment if they happen to turn oppressive or otherwise unconducive to human flourishing and happiness.

Many women and LGBTQ people have found these archetypes wanting. So be rid of them, I say. Create your own role, find your Antinous, but do not shackle yourself to motherhood for the sake of some mythology that would punish you for being raped.

My biggest philosophical disagreement with Lee’s work is that it looks backwards. If it looked to the past for inspiration, for something to make truly new, we would see more eye to eye. It is the normative aspect of the work that I find lacking. Aesthetically, the old is made new in bold and creative ways. On the side of ethics, the work falls short in its reactionary tendency to applaud tradition for tradition’s sake without attending to the real-world consequences of those hierarchies and the misery they have caused for anyone not reserved a spot at the top.

Lee is an artist for our times. He gives us through arresting visuals, the real conflicts of our era. A conflict where masculinity is no longer the center of the moral universe. And Lee is correct that the consumer culture of late-stage capitalism is not serving the emotional needs of the many. That is yet another element of his work in tension with itself. He recognizes, even as he strives for commercial success, that capitalism is failing us somehow. That insight is to be lauded. But this return to the past, this nostalgia for a lost greatness – that is really the mythology of our times, captured by Lee in all the vibrant colors of modernity - transforming ancient figures to express our own fantasies. WM

Donovan Irven

Donovan Irven is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction. He currently serves as the Director of Philosophical Praxis for Filo Sofi Arts, a New York based art gallery and progressive educational space. The author of two novels and a collection of philosophical essays, his work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Erraticus, Emerge, and Queen Mob's Tea House.

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