Painting Against the Tyranny of Flatness

SEOUL — On March 7, 2020, I reviewed the posthumous New York debut exhibition Lee Seung Jio: Nucleus at Tina Kim Gallery (February 20–April 4, 2022). Two weeks later, on March 22, 2020,  Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered all non-essential businesses in New York City to close because of COVID-19. I thought about the fact that Lee’s show was closed down when I saw Lee Seung Jio at Kukje Gallery (September 1–October 30, 2022). Lee, who died in 1990 at the age of 50, is often considered a major figure in the Dansaekhwa (monochrome painting) movement that was central to Korean art between the late 1960s and late 1970s and comprises at least two generations of artists. While the first generation of Dansaekhwa artists, such as Park Seo-Bo, Ha Chong-Hyun, and Kim Tschang-Yeul, have gained an international reputation, Lee, who was a decade younger, remains one of the movement’s lesser-known artists. 

What artists grouped under the term Dansaekhwa have in common is that they lived through Japan’s occupation of Korea (1910-45), during which time Japan attempted to erase Korean culture, language, and history, as well as Korea’s 1948 division into two separate countries by the United States and Soviet Union, the Korean War (1950-53), and the authoritarian rule of Presidents Syngman Rhee (1948-60) and Park Chung-Hee (1963-79). In contrast to their American counterparts, working in Minimalism, Color Field painting, and Pop Art, the Dansaekhwa artists eschewed the idea of art-about-art and commodity culture in favor of an abstract art imbued with traces of the struggle for liberation and cultural identity.  

Lee Seung Jio, “Nucleus 85-21” (1985), oil on canvas

In 1962, Lee co-founded the artist group Origin with Suh Seung-Won and Choi Myoung-Yoi, who were also students at Hongik University. What distinguishes Lee’s work from the older generation and from his contemporaries is his synthesis of geometric abstraction and optical illusion. Essentially, he rejected the monochromatic painting of the earlier generation and went his own way. His independence and all that it signifies has yet to be fully recognized in the global art world.

The Kukje exhibition consists of 30 paintings dated between 1968 and 1990. Known as the “pipe artist” in Korea, all of Lee’s paintings contain a number of conduits moving across the surface; he considered all of his pipe paintings to be part of his Nucleus series. His pipes or conduits can be read as machines, arteries, and roots. That they evoke machines, human organs, and nature underscores the interconnectedness of all three, and the need to maintain a proper balance.  

Lee’s tubular forms precede Peter Halley’s conduits by at least a decade. In contrast to Halley and Euro-American artists involved with Op Art, Lee rejected the tyranny of flatness that dominated Western abstraction by importing gradient tones into his tubular forms. He used these gradated forms to create a stark, airless tension between two- and three dimensionality. As Korea became an industrialized nation and advanced technologically, Lee seems to have had misgivings but he utterly lacked a sense of nostalgia. He recognized that time could not be turned back or slowed down when it came to the accelerated modernization of Korea. 

Lee Seung Jio, “Nucleus” (1968), oil on canvas

In paintings such as “Nucleus 78 – 23,” “Nucleus 78 – 24,” and “Nucleus 78 – 25” (all dated 1978), and “Nucleus 80 – 10” (1980), Lee limited his palette to gray-to-black gradients. In the works dated 1978, the pipes are set at a slight left-to-right downward diagonal, while in the one dated 1980, the pipes rise from the bottom edge at a slight diagonal to the right. The colors evoke coal dust, soot, and pollution, while the diagonal tilt suggests that something is askew. A grim feeling runs through these paintings. And yet, they are visually mesmerizing, and in this way reflect the promise of technology and modern conveniences to change material life. That is the strength of Lee’s work. For all of their severity, repetition, and evocation of sameness, his pulsing, optical forms hold the viewer’s attention and never become dull. They become about something more than their visual effects, which he attains through his painstaking application of paint in the service of perfect gradations.  

Lee’s desire for perfection adds another level of meaning to the work. He must have experienced a feeling of satisfaction and joy in being able to control such large surfaces. This sense of pleasure infuses the paintings with contradictions. They are visual paradoxes, at once strict and (in the black paintings) velvety and sensuous. 

Are Lee’s strict repetitions meant to convey the dehumanizing effects of industrialization? Or is his attention to the application of paint and masterful control of tonality meant to suggest humankind’s stubborn resistance to being directed by external forces determined to achieve efficiency and flatten difference. For all of the artist’s repetition and use of a signature form, each painting has a distinctive configuration, in tandem with a sense of deliberation. He is not just filling in a pre-established grid or set vocabulary of forms with different colors — something more crucial than a color choice is going on in these works, and the hypnotic spell they cast on us is addressed to something more crucial than optical effects. That, I would argue, is what makes these paintings philosophical mediations on what a society means when it claims to be committed to progress. 

Lee Seung Jio, “Nucleus 89-20” (1989), oil on canvas

Lee Seung Jio continues at Kukje Gallery (54, Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Republic of Korea) through October 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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