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The Plowed-up Land of Painting


 Lee Sun-young, Art Critic 

Although there was a modernist announcement that painting is just a plane covered with paint, a pure plane intimating the end of painting at the apex of pictorial logic has been plowed over innumerable times. Artist Lee Jung-eun wrote down her poetic fragmentary thoughts in her spare time. One reads as follows: “The artist is a prisoner tightly tied by the invisible string of his destiny that dictates that he brings life by plowing over the desolate land possessed by the landowner of an artwork.” As this statement indicates, Lee begins her painting with rough, plowed up, and uneven land and tries to enrich the land of painting by sowing the seeds of symbols. To Lee, painting is the forum to which she brings diverse things that have been ousted to make a pure plane. Even so, her painting does not retrogress to the time before modernist accomplishments. Lee’s paintings are deep but the depth comprises a myriad of layers. It includes content and narratives that have no conclusion. As the artist herself evaluates, her paintings feel “thin yet hard,” seem to be in a “three-dimensional space, not in a two-dimensional plane,” and “flat but seem to have all that it should.”


This unique sense of space goes beyond the dichotomy of subject and object. Her large work in particular enables a deep immersion, blurring all boundaries. Music, her intimate friend, perhaps helped her maintain her immersion even while relaxing. Small works as well as large pieces seems as though they are floating on a vast surface. As modern feminism and psychology present new and alternative models of the body and mind whose insides and outsides are indistinguishable like a Möbius strip (Elizabeth Grosz, Jacques Lacan), the universe can be seen as one surface. In philosophy, there is a flow to deconstruct Platonic dualism based on the original and replica into monism (pluralism). Typical to this flow are Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In the collection of Deleuze’s dissertations entitled Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy, Manuel Delanda points out that the conception that a surface can be a space was more minutely researched by Georg Friedrich Riemann, following Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss who presented a completely new assertion that a surface in itself is a space. 


Riemann, a German mathematician who influenced modern physics, studied n-dimension surfaces or spaces. These n-dimensions are curved structures and are defined by their own characteristics. For Delanda, “multiplicity,” a term Deleuze used in lieu of “essence”, refers to such structures. According to Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy, a species in Delueze’s ontology is defined not by its elemental qualities but by its morphologic process. This means species are beings formed historically (temporally) rather than representing any category excluding time. While an essentialist takes a static account of a species, a morphologic account is dynamic. Multiplicity differs from the nature of abstract, general beings. It forms a continuous space different from the reservoir of original eternal forms, collapsing their identity through the creation of an indiscernible area. 


The concept of essence is unified and connotes a time-transcendental identity while multiplicity lacks unity and connotes an identity that is only gradually defined. Multiplicities formed by differences are not confounded with eternal, original forms. Multiplicities imply realizations, referring to a monistic process of folding and unfolding. For Deranda, Deleuze’s concept of multiplicity similar to a “mathematical manifold” is a way of conceptualizing potential deriving from reality. Deranda defines multiplicity as a “space for potential.” Lee Jung-eun’s painting that looks like an aggregate of planes of consistency composed of multiplicities conjures up a continuum of multiplicities. There are many centers in her painting, not one. Each center forms a self-sufficient cosmos and a macrocosm is formed at the gathering of each center. Unknown individuals are scattered between creation and extinction in her painting. 


Lee intimates that the process remains and traces of previous things conglomerate and form a new individual. Dots are covered with lines, lines with surfaces and surfaces with surfaces. Linear elements between spots are like symbols. Some landscape-like images are sensed through the relation between the ground and symbol. Complete symbols, save for circles, are not found: fragmented symbols are scattered like puzzle pieces that will be put together harmoniously. The sentences God wrote on the universe become blurred with time. A link of sacred beings has snapped. String and beads wander in the universe creating a new story. Black circles hovering here and there look like the periods of endless stories and also like black holes consuming space and time. 


There is a game here moving beyond not only two but also three dimensions. The crescent moons found in other works hint at the ever-changing axis of space and time. Spots grow into circles and circles are also deconstructed into spots. Remains are scattered into dust or become the material for another creation. In her painting, there are cosmic images derived from dust. Each work displays potential movements. Form and form, color and color pull and push in an infinite number of layers. Blue and red colors, the primary hues of works on display at the exhibition, depict comprehensive maps of the universe through the complementary relations of water and fire, coldness and hotness, yin and yang, daybreak and twilight, sea and earth, reason and sensibility, reflection and immersion, order and disorder, modernity and primitiveness, construction and deconstruction, the universe drawing near and receding, the stars forming and extinguishing and a static and dynamic strength. 


There is only pulling and pushing of complementary elements: there is no reduction to one or harmony between such factors. Ample scenes to embrace everything emphasize tension and vitality rather than transcendence and conciliation. Elements float and hover but interact with one another. A plane meets another plane, which gives rise to an event. Unlike any real event, this event is delightful and encouraging. All the artist has to do is adjust the process of a painting completing itself. Her painting thus becomes the process of waiting and meeting. It is also an endless conversation. It is not useless even if it has no conclusion. It is even so considering how numerous stories have been helpful to make the world more beautiful. 



As most stories are only relevant to go those who speak of them, these monologue-type talks cannot avoid alienation and debate. A painting is not only an endless talk with others but a map where possible paths are tangled with paths already traveled. The map is filled with symbols referring to clear directions, floating over a mottled surface loaded with the history of innumerable spaces and times. The circle that remains intact solely on the ground scattered with dots and lines is reminiscent of a celestial body or a period. This monochrome circle is the last element rendered on a ground simmering in a chaos of seemingly condensing energy. This quiets the chatter and clamor. However, it does not seem suppressive. As the artist states, it is “a period but like a comma.” Such a stable circle is relative rather than absolute since it spatial status varies. 


This also looks like an islet floating in an elemental chaos. It informs us that order is nothing but a momentary equilibrium made in movement or disorder. Other symbols come from natural or artificial signs. The symbols convey messages that become obscure due to the distance between sender and receiver. All symbols that are born, changed and extinguished are destined to become obscure. Innumerable drawings in her sketchbook are seeds for paintings. Her thick sketchbook is full of potential and possibility. When will the fragments of symbols be completed as whole symbols to make known the secret of the universe and life through their harmonious assembly? 


Lee’s work prefigures that this process will last forever and the points of beginning and end will be eternally delayed. Her painting portrays the world in a process between a beginning and an end. Only God knows the points of beginning and end, whereas a human being who is alone in the world must share the process of life and the universe. The only difference is whether one ephemerally goes through this process or indirectly experiences the secret of creation through completion. An artist or scientist experiments with the world’s operation principle. They play a game with their own or common regulations. They make efforts to realize something potential through consistent experiments. Something potential is infinite while something realistic is finite. What’s important is the cross connection between the infinite and finite rather than any parallel movement from the infinite to the finite and vice versa. To claim constant transcendence or to force one to be faithful to a pending reality is oppressive. 


Art should be free from these two unreasonable demands. Art will have more potential when we can enjoy life within it rather than trying to achieve something. There is pressure to castrate and domesticate art everywhere and the art world is overflowing with those who are artists in name only. Lee’s work can be done by spreading hanji, traditional Korean paper, on the floor as in Oriental painting. She can enter her painting when doing a large-scale work and expands her painting through a combinational array when doing a small-scale work. A number of games and a process of deep immersion enables her to go beyond the boundary between the finite and infinite. She considers a gargantuan geolgae painting or hanging painting, citing that her painting may be executed in a circle, not surely in a square. 


A period like a comma ---- art as a microcosm that can be completed with a period is quite attractive because an artist is able to govern the process of putting a period in the proper moment like a god. Artists and scientists can emulate a god. Unlike scientists however, artists carry out their task alone, not relying on any division of labor. They try to create comprehensive images of the universe using idioms not shared by one another, taking pleasure from this process.


What’s left for modern artists who refuse idealism clinging to one image and its representation is “a game of repetition and difference.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze) What eternally recurs in this game of repetition and difference is inevitability, which is a problem that has yet to be solved. To Lee, art is a surface like papyrus on which the process is repetitively documented. As Lee majored in painting in Korea and studied murals in Japan, her scenes feel like ancient walls using diverse formal devices. 


Her works feel like Oriental painting and she uses Oriental painting brushes for some parts but she intends to embody the surface of an ancient thing with numerous accumulated traces. However, the traces are not thickly accumulated as in typical Western painting. Many of these traces just intersect, not fully covering her scenes. Like ideal works of art, Lee’s work may be differently seen and interpreted. Art does not insist on one sole truth but puts emphasis on numerous ways to access the truth. Her process of priming with hanji, lime and sand is more labor-intensive than the painting itself. Her scenes look like abstract paintings. Contemporary painting has moved from depth to surface. Many contemporary painters have become like craftsmen who hone the surface only. 


Painting inevitably must be tilled like the earth due to this limited situation. As Ernst Cassirer defines symbols, Lee’s work in which fragmented symbols are scattered over the earth is “not only a means to fix external objects by expression but also a medium to view the external world through this.” As if sowing seeds on the earth of painting, she sprays paints. The images of preparing a fertile land and scattering seeds appear feminine and masculine as well. When color and form settle, materials lending depth and texture to her scenes are reborn into meanings. This process is a formal apparatus to enhance chance to inevitability and make an insecure process stable even for a moment. The ground that looks hard like an old wall does not fix colors and forms passing over it. Solidness and fluidity are here together. Her scenes where images are scattered over innumerable layers including the ground have a profound depth.



These layers are fluid. The models of deep layers marking the previous ages – nature and phenomenon, unconsciousness and consciousness – are deconstructed into a surface layer. Her images are recreated and extinguished on this fluid surface. Temporality innate in Lee’s work heightens uncertainty in fossils, strata, and faults. This opaqueness stems from overlaps of innumerable transparency: it is not a blind process that begins from chaos and ends with chaos. The layer in which some time is spatialized coexists and resonates with the layer in which some space is temporalized. Things that are drawn close together or far apart are different every time like the music pieces she enjoys and sometimes plays herself. The sounds she visually plays verge more on improvisation than representation, polyphony than monophony. There may be innumerable variations of a melody. Lee’s paintings are solid like a mural and dynamic like an interface, depending on the principle of complementarity like the universe woven with blue weft and red warp thread. 

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