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Lee Bul at Lehmann Maupin

Lee Bul, now in her middle fifties, has become one of the most prominent names in Korean art. Educated at Hong-Ik University, her country’s best art school, the artist made a name for herself by addressing social and gender issues pushing ahead the need of Korean women to assert themselves in a deeply Confucian, patriarchal society. Later on, in her construction of cyborg sculptures, she seems to have taken on a wildly technological imagery, in which half human, half mechanical bodies acted out the physiological existence of a life encompassed by automatic machineries and highly synthetic materials. These figures can be seen, perhaps, as problematic in that their fragmented emotional reserve isolates them from Lee Bul’s audience; they seem so materially marginal as to lose the presence the artist was likely looking for.  At the same time, these works are a genuine attempt to fuse the present with the future, in ways that indirectly promote something of a feminist utopia, in which the female body stands out as independent and sensually direct. Whether this can be done when the figure in question is composed of artificial materials easily capable of distancing us from the form is up to the individual viewer.


Lee Bul is known as a sculptor, but this show consists of paintings made of mother of pearl and acrylic paint on a lacquered wooden base panel. The paintings are of fragmented forms, ostensibly an attempt on the artist’s part to, once again, merge biomorphic and cybertronic shapes into a gestalt notable for its double attachment--to the human figure and to a technological compositional arrangement. Looked at in the moment, the paintings seem to represent abstract forms, of an organic nature, and truncated human bodies, existing somewhere in a no man’s land, in which form and visionary emotion equally determine the work of art. Lee Bul is nothing if not a professional; the work can be easily seen as existing within a spectrum of progressive abstraction. At the same time, there is something new, namely, the demonstration of a scenario that uses implications of the figure to create visual structures distant from the bodies that seem to have originated them. The attempt to merge human and technological characteristics in forms that commit fully to neither makes sense as an attempt to create a utopian future, something that Lee Bul appeared to do with her cyborg sculptures. It looks like the paintings are more successful, in the sense that they present as imageries of mostly abstract distinction, in which the human element is relatively distant. This results in an esthetic that hints at the body without being beholden to it. Maybe this leaning toward abstraction, based as it is on cybertronic forms, makes the work more contemporary and less historical.


International painterly abstraction continues to occur at a high level; by its very nature, it is more than difficult to associate a nonobjective style with a particular culture. In the case of Lee Bul, the work participates in a language that cannot be characterized either generally, as Western or Asian, or in particular, as belonging to a national style. What we bring to the viewing is the general history of abstract painting, free of cultural specificity. This would make sense since a major characteristic of nonobjective art is its freedom from identifiable attributes beyond the very broad terms “organic” and “hard-edged.” In the case of Lee Bul’s art, it is clear that the work embraces biomorphism but does not exemplify a style attributable to her native Korea. Instead, she works with a slightly suggested figuration and, likely more important, an abstract imagery that appears to be self-generated. In the painting Perdu XXV (2019), a series of red organic shapes, embellished by curving and overlapping lines, drive across a large triptych with a yellow background. The white lines, exquisitely curved and often overlapping to the point where they nearly become knots, take place mostly in the midst, but sometimes on the edges, of the red ovals that make up the body of the image. This is an excellent painting purely for formal reasons; there is no need to inject social commentary into its achievement. But press notes indicate that the conflation of abstract and cyborgian imagery looks ahead to a time when humanity and technology may fuse--a visionary treatment that might also suggest, given what we know of Lee Bul’s impulses, a closer social equality as might exist between men and women.

In Perdu XXVII (2019), the image seems more closely oriented to the human body, in which pink limbs, without a head, generate outward from the center of the composition, given a yellow background. These extended forms are composed of close-to-overlapping areas, bounded by lines, that are filled primarily with pink but also with reddish, yellow, and green color patches. The body is intimately rendered; it feels transparently naked, but also artificial in its many small divisions. This is a body that remains a body, relatively free from cybernetic additions. At the same time, it can hardly be called a realist study, so exaggerated the forms are in shape and color. Somehow, Lee Bul is seeking a language that would extend the body into a state that takes notice of the artificiality often directed toward bodies today--one thinks of orthopedic surgeries with artificial materials or limbs. Whether this constitutes a utopian revisionism of biological potential is both ambiguous and controversial--just how far away can we get from the physical fact of ourselves? Lee Bul is trying to establish a brave new world, but we can only go so far with the outlook. In the diptych Perdu XXVIII (2019), the artist gives us a particularly successful image: a dark maroon reddish form, built up on the lower left, with an extended leaf-like shape with a bulbous end crossing the line separating the two panels. On the right panel is something that looks vaguely like the head and the chest of a figure, with a slight build-up of color next to it on the bottom right. Within the forms, there exists the white curvilinear lines we have seen before, along with small patches, jaggedly edged in yellow. It is hard to see this as anything but nonobjective in its formal energies, which are considerably original and manage to stand in independence from other contemporary abstraction.


The title of Lee Bul’s exhibition is “Interlude: Perdu.” perdu, the French word for lost, we know most immediately from the title of Marcel Proust’s multivolume novel, in which he refers to “lost time.” This would direct the meaning of the show toward melancholy, although “interlude” can refer to a short musical piece played during a longer musical performance. Is Lee Bul suggesting that this moment of grace in art is now lost in time? We cannot be sure the interpretation is accurate, but the very idea of merging technology with the human suggests that something more than human is needed to ameliorate our condition. Somewhere in this show, we can find, indeed we are expected to find, a way of seeing that would repair our humanity; the specifics of the changes required are not available, although the history of Lee Bul’s quiet but persistently orientation toward the feminine should be remembered. The artist speaks to an unknown, but more hopeful future in these paintings very well. There is no literalization of material or pointing toward easy scapegoats. Instead, we have a real sense of what abstract art might be, informed by automatic systems that might help us merge categories of existence previously thought to be separate. I am not so sure that this is a good thing--doing so would be an attempt to change biology, which is the absolute condition of humanity. It is better to see Lee Bul’s show first in formal terms and then as a wish to take us, bodily, somewhere else, into more egalitarian circumstances. She is not the first to try, but she is one of the best.


Jonathan Goodman

Images courtesy of Lehman Maupin Gallery

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