16 Apr 2020 — 23 May 2020
Solo exhibition

'Charcoal artist' is an obvious description of Lee Bae. His oeuvre is bound to explanations of charcoal in terms of its physical and metaphysical connections. As a result, a recurring - or persistent - question is 'why use charcoal?' To which, Lee has provided many reasons, dozens of times, ranging from when he was in France and how he came to purchase charcoal, the relevance of charcoal and traditional Korean culture, the concept of creation and extinction of life embodied in how charcoal is produced, the significance of blackness, to state just a few. Yet these are interpretations of the material - not the art itself. The given reasons seem to discuss charcoal, but without exception end at something that is not charcoal.

A deeper appreciation of Lee’s works is in order, with a retrospection reaching back to 〈Issu du feu〉 which began in 1991. The canvas work was made by a process where the artist attached cut pieces of charcoal to the canvas and applied a layer Arabian gum rubber to the surface. The surface was then gently sanded down, the residue of soot and gum settling into the gaps between tiled charcoal. The noir sheen was brought forth, despite the uneven charcoal surface; a tonal evocation of the artist's chosen material. Then in 〈Landscape〉, Lee contrasted black charcoal against white space, reminiscent of geological strata of the great earth. The presentation was drawing parallels to the Earth’s thick sedimental layers, the wind-blown particles on the surface, and the invisible atmosphere.

〈Acrylic Medium〉 is created from a mixture of charcoal pigments and acrylic paint. The artist’s gesture is on canvas is laminated numerous times using clear acrylic with wax-like viscous consistency. Lee describes the process as feeding his motives into the layered depth of the canvas, emulating what happens in oriental paintings with India ink on mulberry paper. 〈Drawing〉, his most recent work is a brush-traced record of his gestures over the canvas. Lee points to Jeong Seon (1676-1759, quintessential Korean landscape painter, also known by his pen name Kyomjae) and Kim Whanki (1913-1974, pioneered abstract art and was a critical proponent of modern art in Korea) as inspiration for his latest work. Lee looks to their works with great fascination, pondering the source of their unique tonality, versatility, luminous treble, and wettability. Lee speculates that much of the characteristics associated with Jeong Seon and Kim Whanki were idiosyncratic to the rainy and humid atmosphere of monsoon-prone regions. When liquid, pigmented ink glides over dry paper, the moisture draws a path. Lee is in a way, expressing the idiosyncrasies of the place where he was born.

The space installation work of 〈Landscape〉 is three-dimensional expansion of the work sharing the name, depicting the great earth. 〈Issu du feu - suspens〉 consists of a pile of dirt on the floor and a large mass of charcoal floating above. Lee describes it as a spiritual presence transcending the burden of materiality, a state which heralds heaven and earth.

Some might say that charcoal is truly the end-all of Lee Bae, as the artist's grasp and utility of charcoal is clearly evident. "It is the presence of nature in its intractable immensity embodied by charcoal" that compels Lee to use it. Lee's given reason needs to be paraphrased, as it is based on a premise. "It is not my personal preference for charcoal per se; it can be quite insignificant, yet it the force of nature and the immense power within it, intractable by humanity, that I recognize in charcoal.” What of charcoal embodies the power of nature? Or does it? Perhaps it is in the eye of the mind, not the charcoal. After all, it is the observant gaze which recognizes and gives meaning. Those who will not see simply won’t, and it is the artist who recognizes how odd it is to be anything at all.

Things become meaningful through interaction with the observer capable of thought and utterance. That is to say, the compelling presence of charcoal emanates from the artist's choice of material and artistic interpretation. If there is any mystery in art, that is where it is. How obtuse it is to gaze upon art to ignore its form, color, and ideas only to comment upon what paint and canvas was used, and where their cultural significances lie. Somehow we gaze upon Lee's works with such a blind eye; too soon to attach our attention upon charcoal, overlooking form, color, and what it wishes to convey. So ask if there is greater satisfaction to be found unpacking the blackness of charcoal. Heaven forbid that answer find 'charcoal artist' appropriate.
Issu du feu, charcoal on canvas, 162x130cm, 2020