By Jonathan Goodman, July 1, 2022
Seung Lee moved with his family to America at the age of 15. Since then he became a successful painter of works that fit very well into the space between Asian and Western esthetics, with a predilection as well for a mixed style using both abstraction and realism. Most recently he has been working on the heightened treatment of bamboo; Lee lives in eastern Long Island, within walking distance of a bay, and has planted a small forest of bamboo behind his house. Bamboo, a traditional theme in Asian painting, is often seen as a symbol of persistence and resiliency. His earlier art tends toward abstraction, but always there is the suggestion of Eastern influence in Lee’s art, whose life may have taken him away from Korea, but whose memories subtly appear in the manner of his art. This is a time, generally, of extreme eclecticism and appropriation, as well as an internationalism that erases any easy identification of current work, abstraction especially, with a specific national style or geography. Yet Lee’s circumstances are more complex, in the sense that his most recent work relies on bamboo, whose historical meaningfulness deepens his work. At the same time, his handling of paint is not easily seen as exampling Asian style; the force and directness of his work, as well as his regular use of Western materials such as acrylic paint and canvas, leads him toward a culturally ambiguous space, in which it is very hard to assign a bias toward one culture or the other.
Lee takes a chance with his decision to paint bamboo. This visual theme is so deeply established within traditional Asian painting that any current use of such subject matter is bound to seem slightly suspect. This is because, increasingly, there has been a major break between past and present practice for at least a century, when modernism began. Because Lee is living in the New York area, his audience is inevitably more Western than Korean, and his audience may not understand the significance of painting bamboo in an American context. So, Lee has a choice; he can either follow closely the dictates of traditional Korean painting, or he can work out a technique and theme that conveys his current experience. His most recent show, at the Garage Art Center in Bayside, Queens, presented a three-piece mural, in which the elements of the imagery can hardly be described as an exercise in traditional art. Instead, bold verticals and near abstraction take over the triptych, which in the small showing space nearly overwhelm the audience. Here Seung presents a highly visionary reading of nature. It is nearly half a century after Lee left Korea, so it would make sense that that his art would be oriented more toward Western expressionism than Korean restraint. At the same time, it is clear that Lee’s choice of bamboo as a subject, located deep in Asian painting’s legacy, indicates that he has not lost his penchant for visual origins many years and many miles away.
The question of a recognizable style, one that we can confidently tie to a specific culture, has become almost fully academic. There is simply no milieu tied to a tradition that we can borrow or use as a platform easily identifiable in the audience’s eye. There is both a strength and an advantage to the situation: the artist is free to quote as he wants from the past, but the quotation can easily look artificial, given the great gap between imageries then and now. Thus, the use of a older style can seem distant and impartial, being outside the concerns of the contemporary artist. Lee is in a particularly complex situation, having come from Korea. There classical tradition of course has not been influenced by Western art practices. Lee’s choice to stay in the New York City area, whose current art affiliations have led him to practice a mixed esthetic. Because of his position—Lee arrived in America as a teenager—he cannot return to Seoul, imaginatively speaking, anymore than he can fully internalize the innovations of recent New York City painting. While there may be points of contact between abstract expressionist art and some stylistic traits of Korean painting in the past, the American movement’s vehement emotionalism stands out in contrast to the Asian style suggested in his work. Lee must balance his allegiances in a way that does justice to two highly evolved, but profoundly different, painting traditions.
So the three-painting mural in gallerist and painter Stephanie S. Lee’s space, The Garage Art Center, in Bayside, Queens, demonstrates the complex exchange between variants in vision and style. In fact, in this mural, Lee does exactly that. His theme, the vertical treatment of poles of bamboo, is intensified by the Western style he uses. This style is forceful, visionary, and energetic in its portrayal of the individual stakes, often painted in gray, that rise upward. Luminous, glowing background colors filter the bamboo, and the paintings’ size alone—the mural is a large triptych—distances them from usual dimensions in classical Asian art. Yet, at the same time, we cannot turn away from Lee’s obvious choice of subject matter, connecting him to a long Eastern painting tradition. The moral attributes bamboo represents—its tacit conveyance of persistence and flexibility in times of (often political) trouble—are not necessarily left out of these pictures.
In the triptych, somehow the various implications of the paintings cohere. One senses a forceful, masculine energy, which emphasizes independence and visionary insight. The bamboo, its background and general ambience, seem magically alive. But the real accomplishment in the mural has to do with Lee’s refusal to commit to one vision or the other, preferring instead not a shallow eclecticism bur a much stronger merger of painting systems. How could Lee work otherwise, given his personal history? But. by now, eclecticism, based on the artist’s experience, is something we are used to. Bringing together different traditions, both regarding culture and time, is fully accepted. Indeed, the idea of a merger makes sense, given the great number of foreign-born artists in New York. Yet idiosyncrasy remains in these attempts, not because it hasn’t happened before but because the contrast between Eastern and Western traditions are so pronounced as to deny any easy mixture of styles. There is not much stylistic contact between classical Korean ink painting and the expressionist, Western manner of abstraction.
Because of the complexities facing him Lee must work hard to find a balance. In the group of works I looked at; the stylistic treatment is Western in an inventive manner. In the sense that he is portraying bamboo, his allegiance is clearly as much Korean as it is American.. At the same time, we cannot forget that there is a highly personal involvement in the artist’s choice of theme; for years now, Lee has looked after a small grove of bamboo in his backyard. The originality, we might even say eccentricity, of doing so enables the artist to address concerns we would not normally associate with the geography of his present home. Yet this is America in the start of the 21st century, a time when changing places to live is becoming completely accepted, especially here, where immigrants worldwide come to establish new lives. The phenomenon of immigration often results in psychic and, in art, technical complexities, in which creativity needs to look looking ahead and behind, geographically, and chronologically. Lee, an artist of unusual independence, manages an approach that pays homage to a past he no longer fully belongs to, and to a present he may not fully be comfortable with.
Lee’s reliance on abstraction is as marked as his realist renderings. Both approaches often occur within the same painting. Of course, mixing influences in art has gone on for about as long as art has been made. Abstraction is good at presenting non-realist markings drawn from a variety of backgrounds. But we cannot forget the fact that non-objective art is a European invention established a bit more than a century ago. Many of Lee’s recent works, both drawings and paintings, lead us into nature, but the latter is broken apart to reveal abstract effects that complicate the composition, forcing the viewer to consider his work as a style that departs from realism. Lee’s work must keep up with contemporary developments in art. Abstraction can be closely allied to nature; look at the late work of Arshile Gorky. But Lee’s goal may be a bit more complex, in the sense that he is establishing a style poised between objectives truly difficult to merge.
The earlier works painted by Lee are often combinations of imagery found in nature, abstract design, and surreal passages that cannot be easily recognized. The artist’s wide interests are evident, proving him a gifted student of the way differing visual languages might merge. The Asian-Western connection is not so evident, as happens in the art we have just been describing. Instead, we enter an inventive realm, sometimes nearly forest-like in its dense complexity. A relationship to nature is often observed, but usually the nature we see is distorted by an atmosphere in which realism loses its ability to describe recognizable things. One could not easily establish a tie with an Asian background; instead, we are closer to the experience of a surrealism originating in nature, in which the exterior world is described using strange and eccentric effects. One wonders why Lee has turned to bamboo relatively late in his career. Is it an attempt to re-establish a past that he has not been close to in a long time? We can only speculate on the artist’s motives. But we can comment on the implications of a contemporary semi-surrealist style using in part an innovative treatment of Asian art.
In many ways, Lee is poised between worlds. His long stay in America has made him American to a large degree, but he was fifteen when left Korea—old enough to have made a Korean outlook and its esthetic an important part of his point of view. But he had to find his own voice. The realism of the earlier work is idiosyncratic in its portrayal of unknown forms, roughly natural in shape, which fill the artist’s compositions. As a formally independent artist, Lee is determined to reveal a world of his own devising, dependent on his own vision of what he imagines and sees. In painting, surrealism has been around since the earlier part of the last century, yet its accommodation of different stylistic effects is boundless. Lee looks to surrealism often as a guide. Its freedom enables Lee to develop a path of unusual self-authority; existing styles are exchanged for an unconventional regard to things that might belong to forests and gardens, mountains and streams, but are more likely the result of his imagination. Thus, Lee’s impulse takes charge over a body of work that corresponds most closely to the artist’s own intelligence. His style is very much his own..
As time goes on, we lose more and more of the landscape that has been the source and inspiration of so much art, across cultures, across time. Lee now lives in a semi-rural area, in which not too much damage to nature has taken place. Asian painting of nature has been extraordinarily accurate, and poetic, in its view of forms that we can admire in their own right. But this is not to say that Lee is a landscape artist—far from it. His vision is unusually eccentric an attribute that makes him a painter of originality. In contemporary art, we value originality more than anything, so Lee’s point of view is a way of announcing his imaginative freedom. How is such freedom achieved? By the presence of a style that, even when indicative of an earlier culture, Asian or Western or both, issues from Lee’s own interior, with influences both accessible and hidden. Lee’s independence is notable. His eccentricity can be seen as a pretext for a self-government not so easily found today.
In the long run, tracing the background(s) of an artist’s inventions is not as important as being able to understand the direct impulse of the artist himself. Lee, by virtue of the complexity of his influences, as well as the originality of his sensibility and the achievement of his hand, has been able to occupy a clearing, in which the natural world becomes the consequence of his imagination. We can appreciate his independent insight in doing so. Lee’s most recent art may well attempt a connection with Asian art, but even with the bamboo mural, his self-governance is as important as his oblique quotation of Asian nature. It makes most sense to see Lee very much as an artist highly individual in his work. He strives to make his way through a thicket of tangled references, influences, and points of view. If we regard his art without the analyzing its origins, it becomes even stronger, more self-determined than we might imagine. His background is important, but itis not as important as his ability to merge influences not easily joined. Some art really does stand on its own, not needing the excessive analysis intended to pin the artist down. Perhaps Lee is best at the creation of a self-sufficient world. Even if we manage to articulate Lee’s recognition of convention, his work stands apar as original thinking, if it is true that he is works among cultures, and this does seem to be the case, then his paintings will evade convention in favor of an art belonging most particularly to the artist alone.