Yoon Lee and the Meticulous Diligence of Art
In this fast paced, digitally based world we live in today, how do you capture the infinite nature of motion in a painting? Artistic giants like Pollock and Julie Mehretu tackled the challenge in decades past, but who in this light-speed internet age can accomplish it today? That’s where Yoon Lee comes in.
Lee, a SoCal native, has been mixing the digital and the physical with her art since the 2000s. Her work, which combines digital images with layers and layers of pastes, paints and other translucent concoctions, is meticulously made until the paintings have an almost three dimensional effect to them. Milk Made’s Jordan Mack got to dissect her artistic process for her newest show at the Pierogi Gallery. From her adventures rock climbing to finding her passion for art, Lee gives us a look at the process behind her intensive process.
So the first question I have for you is, how would you describe your process creatively and artistically? I know that the process you go through to make this pieces is pretty intense. There’s a digital aspect, and you also paint over it.
Well, I guess one of the things I try to do is move the process forward. The process for creating an image/painting means you have to move around a lot of materials that are liquid. It starts from visual compositions to the physical paintings, but in the process of doing that you encounter a few challenges as to how to interpret or translate something that’s pretty easy to do on a computer into a more physical medium. There’s gravity involved, light involved. There’s a three dimensionality involved. I try to change up just a little something, at least one thing. It can be something very simple. I would eliminate a way to render an image, or I would add with every body of work. With this body of work, one thing that I tried is having the printmaking process and the painting process go hand in hand as far as layering is concerned. You do a first, then second then third. Some people take away something, but I never take away anything. Well, ‘take away’ in that I don’t wipe off anything, I cover it. I’ll add a translucent layer so the texture be there and will come alive, but the color and graphic information will be lost.
Wow that’s very intense.
Yeah, but this is just what I do. I have two particular paintings, that I think are mentioned on the press release, one called Bloom, which was a different painting at one point. Well ‘different painting’ meaning that usually the process that I employ would come to a finishing point. It was a finished a year ago, but I just wasn’t satisfied with it. It was very different from how I felt about previous paintings. So I just had it hanging up, and then I came up with a whole new composition. I decided to put both layers on top of the existing painting. There’s another piece called Retribution (Bud). With that piece, all of the layers that I used in Bloom are employed but in the opposite order. There was this painting and I painted over it with a translucent layer so you can kind of see it, but most of it is obscured. If I reverse the order, and use the layers at the top of Bloom as texture buried underneath layers and then pushed the painting that was underneath Bloom to the forefront, what would happen? You know, you think up a lot of things, but the best way to know what happens is to just do it. So that’s what I did.
Yeah, you mentioned a lot of the pieces up right now. I noticed a lot of it is very inspired by nature. Did you draw a lot of inspiration from nature for this series?
I ended up picking up rock climbing a few years ago. I think I’ve been climbing for a total of three years or so. That was a new development in my paintings because I can’t digest information from nature so well. So when I did a residency, I was just surrounded by nature for an entire year. I was still working with a lot of man-made structures, highways, buildings, a lot of architectural elements while I was there. So when I left, I started thinking a lot about nature I guess? You know you can’t really ignore what you see [laughs]. It started to come about around that time, when I started rock climbing, surrounded by nature all the time. When you’re camping there are a lot of experiences that you have and you start seeing what you hadn’t seen before. Whatever I see comes out in my paintings. All the paintings are based on nature.
Yeah. I was looking at some of the older shows you’ve done, and it seems that as time goes on, the colors you use get more muted. Is that intentional?
It’s an intentional choice. You’ll see that it’s been happening gradually. Very early pieces have a flourish and a punch to each color. As a painter, you have so many beautiful colors at your fingertips. There’s a whole arsenal. I really felt the need to use these beautiful colors and rely on their beauty to create something. It’s almost like reaching the low hanging fruit on the branch. Now I mute down the colors, and have to work with more subtly, what else would I have to bring to the practice in order for it to be viable or interesting or beautiful or complex? Color in its own right, and not just used because it’s a color in the tube, is beautiful.
I see a lot of Pollock in your work. Are there any other artists that you draw inspiration from?
As more time goes by, I look more at older paintings. I guess the most contemporary, though he’s dead now, would be Al Held, with the geometric organization and abstraction. For more subtle layering and translucency, I’ve been looking at Italian painters. Like the mannerist paintings. Not the subject matter so much, but the way that they use paint. The way they bring drama into the composition. As far as composition, like the organization of the elements within a composition, I started looking towards cubism. That’s always been kind of underneath what I’ve been doing. It’s what inspires all of my different angles. Also definitely the futurists.
Totally. You have a very visceral motion in your pieces. But you mentioned architecture earlier, and the inspiration you get from it. Where did that begin for you?
It’s very base. When I look at a landscape, what jumps out at me right off the bat are geometric lines. There’s these long vertical, sweeping lines. They’re very purposeful and directional. There are also horizontal lines that divide up the space that I see. I grew up in an urban setting all my life, so that’s what I would see. Just in the way of taking in information and being able to translate it onto a two dimensional surface, those are special elements.
Where do you think your artistic vision started in your own life?
I don’t think I was making art until I went to an art school. I went to UCSD, and I changed my major several times, ranging from engineering all the way to philosophy. I was taking art the entire time as some electives but I think it was an exercise in developing interest in art as a more serious pursuit. Once I decided to change my major to art, I though it would be a necessity to transfer to an art school so that when I went to the Tyler School of Art.
I see. So your show is at the Pierogi Gallery right now. You’ve shown work there quite a few times. Is it just a space that you really enjoy?
I love Drew and Susan! They’re just so fun to work with. I first met them in New York. One of my friends called me up and told me to head over to Brooklyn, to their space and to bring my laptop. I showed them some images, and they put me in a group show with some other artists. That was the starting point. We met really late at night. I was wondering, ‘how is a gallery open this late?’ I didn’t realized that they lived upstairs [laughs]. So I went to the first opening with that same friend and another artist. Right before the show, Drew sat me down and asked, ‘would you like to work with us?’ I was already working with another gallery in Chelsea at the time, but I really enjoyed and respected all of the artistic choices that he made and shows that he’s made in the past. So yeah, I decided to work with them instead.
That’s awesome. Do you think it’s important for artists to cultivate a relationship with the galleries that are showing them?
I think it’s essential to any artist. I have had conversations with artists of more renown, and it sounds like a cliche, but you need it. Contracts don’t exist, everything is good faith. We just trust them to represent us.
See Yoon Lee’s new collection at the Pierogi Gallery until May 3rd