Perrotin Tokyo is pleased to present a solo exhibition by Korean artist Lee Bae, based in Paris, France, and Seoul, South Korea. Lee Bae, known as the artist of charcoal, has been exploring various facets and properties of the material for thirty years. With his experimental monochromatic works, he is also referred to as a post-Dansaekhwa artist. Following his exhibitions in Paris (2018) and New York (2019), Perrotin presents his third solo exhibition in Tokyo.
A bag of barbecue charcoal Lee encountered in a local store in Paris became his version of Marcel Proust's madeleine from the book In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu). For the artist who was living and working in Paris at the time, charcoal was a fragment of memory that reminded him of the 'Burning of the Moon House', a folk ritual in his hometown Cheongdo which he brought back from his old memories. On the night of the first full moon in the lunar calendar, a Moon House is built and set on fire, hoping that their wishes will reach the skies alongside the smokes. Once the Moon House becomes charcoal, people would take the pieces to their homes and use them for various purposes. Charcoal in food will detoxify it and hanging charcoal at the home entrance will protect a newborn child with its sanctity. Referring to this tradition, Lee uses charcoal and moonlight (empty space) as his artistic matter.
Landscape exhibited at Perrotin Tokyo presents a bold empty space that pushes out black motifs (blocks of charcoal powder fixed onto the canvas with medium acrylic) to the edges. 'The streams of smoke rise in the firmament/ And the moon spread out her pale enchantment': these verses from Charles Baudelaire's poem 'Landscape' (Paysage, 1857) is a prescient description of Lee's homonymous work. When we examine the border of 'Landscape' where the motif and empty space meet, we notice that the hard and heavy motif collapses as it collides with the void. As heaviness and lightness, presence and absence, representation and the un-representable, the Moon House and the moonlight, pleasure and pain confront each other, the sublimity flares like sparks of fire. Charcoal is created from fire but permanently processes the sparks to return to fire (light, emptiness).
In Issu du feu, each piece of charcoal reflects light differently, like the stained glass in a gothic cathedral. Lee tightly places pieces of charcoal on canvas, binds them, and polishes the surface to enable the black matter to reflect light. The more our eyes become familiar with his works, the more we are able to notice the delicate details of his work, like how our eyes adapt to a dark room. The spectrum of light in Lee's works, like an encyclopaedia of light, is made possible by the numerous woodgrains and tree rings that nature and time have created over a long period. The tree rings accumulated over time results in a playful engagement of light.
At first sight, acrylic medium works displayed at Perrotin Tokyo looks as if several layers of circles were inattentively drawn with a dash of paint. But as we look closer, the motif seems smudged or floating. The artistic process allows this refreshing encounter of an alternative concept of the empty space: Lee draws the motif (a circle) using charcoal powder and medium mixture, dries it, then superposes it with another layer of the same motif on top of the first, which he repeats several layers. In addition to the well-understood horizontal void (the empty space with no drawing on a two-dimensional surface), we find a vertical void created between the repeated motifs across transparent layers of medium. The sublimity dismissed by the scientific revolution has crept into the gaps created by this empty space. As one of the fragments of mankind's earliest memory, sublimity has seeped into the boundaries between the yin and yang, the material and the phenomenal, and the gaps of the signified that endlessly slides under the signifier.
The title, the sublime charcoal light, combines charcoal (the Moon House) and the empty space (the moonlight). Viewers tend to focus on charcoal—what is drawn and created on the canvas—but Lee's works have always reflected the moonlight at the same time. Here, moonlight is referred as an empty space as East Asian painting often describes the moon or the moonlight as a void or emptiness through a technique called Honguntagwol (烘雲托月), meaning, 'to reveal a moon by drawing clouds around it.' In Lee's works, these two elements constantly coexist and interact with each other: as charcoal and light in Issu du feu, and as charcoal and empty space in other paintings. The moonlight varies according to the exhibition space—at Perrotin Paris (2018) it appeared as a modern city light, in Perrotin New York (2019) the emptiness had a mythical dimension. Now, it is time to walk under Tokyo's moonlight.
Text by Sim Eunlog, art critic. Courtesy Perrotin.