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Artists

Sensing the Painterly Reality

About a South Korean emerging painter, Hyein Lee and her amazing way of encountering the world.


To the artist Hyein Lee, painting landscape is about visually expressing her perception of the world rather than construing the reality. Lee spends much time on understanding what she feels and perceives about the world she is living in before she starts painting as if she is following Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s definition of an artist. Ponty, a Contemporary French Philosopher, defined the artist as someone who draws the world by lending the body to the world, “It is lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings.“ Eye and Mind, in Merleau-Ponty, 2007 (L’Œil et l’esprit, Paris: Gallimard; 1964

“I do not know why I get lost, but this habit of mine is addictive. Once I started doing it, I just kept on doing it. I felt like something was missing so it became very important for me to find out what that was even if that would mean me getting lost. It is just like a trip that does not have any destinations or objectives; all the accidents that happen on the way, things I do to solve the problems, unpredictable weather, and people I meet make my days interesting and full” – from the artist’s interview

Albertine, 2017, Oil on canvas, 72.7 x 60.6 cm (each, 8 canvases), Installation view of Intuition 2017, Hakgojae Gallery, Seoul, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Hakgojae Gallery, Seoul.

Albertine, Lee’s latest painting, depicts her observation of the rose tree, which changes during the day. She drew how the surrounding environment, especially for the flow of air and the amount of light, impacted the rose tree on 8 canvases. Time holds the space, and the artist observes what impacts that space over periods of time and uses color and sentiment to express her physiological and psychological reaction to it. For example, it is different between how Lee views the rose leaves from a corner of the garden early in the morning and how they see those at night, feeling the cold air after the weather cools off. Lee, namely positions herself between the different time layers and serves as an observer, who perceive time passing sophisticatedly. (For your information, Albertine is the character loved by the main character (narrator) from a novel, In Search of Lost Time by a French writer, Marcel Proust.

For paintings to have more values than just a way of representing the reality, it needs to have “depth,” especially if it is depicting the objects or anything else that visually exists. Ponty discusses this painterly/spatial depth on Paul Cezanne’s paintings and has pointed out this is because depth emerges from the relations among all the invisible elements that exist across different phases of time rather than those among the visible elements that exist at the moment. This is similar to why we focus on “coincidences” that Lee talks about and why she emphasizes experience-based paintings. Coincidences provide a new perspective or inspiration to the artists, and those bring out even more profound depth, combined with colorful palette on Lee’s artwork.

Heyin Lee's Performance at 2017 Gangjeong Daegu Contemporary Art Festival, Daegu. Image courtesy of the artist and Dalseong Cultural Foundation, Daegu, Korea. Photo by Sarah Kim.

Recently, Lee had a performance, demonstrating her work process at the opening event of an outdoor art festival. The artist first sat and sketched in the dark corner of the park away from the crowd when she was preparing for the event. After then, she brought her painting out to the crowd and completed it in front of them. She also showed them her hanging up the completed work on the wall and cleaning up the venue (During the festival, her work will be presented at the gallery in a sequential order. Also, she will be live streaming her performance via Facebook, and they can be found on her Facebook page.) Aside from a physical result left on a canvas, Lee’s action of painting and sensing space-time in her performance has extended the boundary of ‘In Situ’ which has been confined usually to some formless arts, to painting. A painting (the result on canvas) is an inevitably a record of what is left from painting (painter’s action), but we can also view it as traces of a painter and painting (action). The ‘In Situ’ of painting that we can observe from Lee’s painting is ultimately from the depth of traces that is left on the canvas.

The Horizon, 2017, Sizes variable, Installation view of 2017 Gangjeong Daegu Contemporary Art Festival, Daegu, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Dalseong Cultural Foundation, Daegu, Korea. Photo by Sarah Kim.

Lee states that she perceives her existence in the landscape when painting the scenery, while she also senses time. If we consider human as a result of a series of accumulations of the past, an individual’s personal value from this accumulation determines his or her viewpoint on emotion, depth, and, color in surroundings. In other words, Albertine is a trace of the rose tree, which contains Lee’s personal attention and gaze, and is also a result of uncontrolled emotions and senses of the artist (or controlled, for particular reason), who release them at a certain time and space. The true charm of Lee’s artworks is based on this result, which enriches individual’s appreciation of her artworks as they meet his or her unique personal history and time.