Ian Lee

Ian Lee: Abstract Calligraphy, Written without a Brush

Korean painter Ian Lee makes his abstract calligraphic works with his hands alone, forsaking the brush for a more direct contact with his materials. Drawing the from the centuries-long tradition of classical calligraphy in his country, Lee builds a new language—one based on an awareness not only of his own tradition, but also the recent legacy of abstract painting, most evident in the efforts of the New York school. But this art exists as more than a simple hybrid or forced joining of very different culture. First of all, there are places in historical Asian art and recent generations of American gestural abstraction in which the expression of both are stylistically similar. Additionally, in contemporary art communications, the stylistic barriers have broken down, so that it is easier to borrow a style, even if it occurs in a tradition geographically far away. Of course, hybrids of this sort are scrutinized for their originality, in large part because such meldings of imagery are relatively recent. But Lee establishes a new precedent for an art whose expressiveness, while rooted in the history of Korean art, moves forward toward an expression that is at least in part indebted to Western painting of the past few generations.

One cans see this combination in an untitled painting from 2015, in which calligraphic strokes, black and white, construct a horizontally aligned rectangle with an open center. The buildup of brush marks thickens the areas in which they have been made, with the slightly unusual effect of making the surface look like a collection of long grass. A large work of art, 124 by 42.9 inches, the piece asserts itself within a mostly modernist tradition. The insider border of the white center holds stray marks, which relate formally to the frame surrounding them. The overall gestalt of the composition could be compared to a minimalist construction, giving the work an air of historically based contemporaneity. It is interesting to speculate just how much borrowing in an imaginative and stylistic sense has occurred in Lee’s art; the internationalization of methods makes it difficult to pin down where Korean influence ends and Western art begins. But that is likely evident of what has nearly become a painting cliché, namely, that styles are mixed and matched with geographical and cultural abandon.

In another untitled piece from 2015,, Lee has built a long, horizontal image of the dense strokes that characterize almost all of his art. The topmost part of the mountainous image is darker than what lies beneath, with individual strokes rising like tall grass into the air. Again, one thinks of a mixture of influences, with the overall form of the image being suggestive of classical Asian landscape. The image’s interest results from the dense particularities of the brush marks and the way that they build a general picture reminiscent of a painting tradition established a long time ago. I don’t think it is possible for any artist to forego the influence of what preceded him in the tradition in which he was educated, and Lee is no exception. A final work, also untitled and from 2015, consists of a horizontal line with long marks that are both wide and thin, moving upward and downward from the middle, mediating a massed line that extends across the paper. Lee’s handling of this medium—it is to be remembered that he works only with his hands—shows extreme skill and subtlety in his treatment of texture and form. As an artist working now, he is exploring continuities and differences and combining them into remarkable art.

Jonathan Goodman