Since the 1990s, artist Lee Bae has explored the medium of charcoal, beginning with its traditional use in drawing to later expanding his practice to performance, sculpture, and painting.Read More
Born in rural Cheongdo in 1956, Lee Bae received his BFA (1981) and MFA (1987) from Seoul's Hongik University. He initially worked as a teacher, securing a position at a middle school in Seoul, before he moved to Paris in 1989 to pursue a career as a full-time artist. Although Lee had trained as a painter, he discovered that he did not have the means to keep purchasing oil paint and canvas; it was then that he turned to the inexpensive medium of charcoal.
Lee approached charcoal and its blackness not as darkness or a lack of colour, but as a black material that reflects light. Cultural resonance also played a part in his choice: in traditional Korean culture, charcoal is regarded as a purifier and often employed in ceremonies as a metaphor for rebirth and cleansing. In works such as 'Landscape', produced from the late 1990s to early 2000s, Lee used charcoal powder to create abstract clouds of black against a white or grey backdrop.
Lee is considered a second-generation Dansaekhwa artist, a term that refers to a loose group of post-war South Korean artists who share an interest in creative process and the physicality of their materials. At Hongik, he studied under the influential Dansaekhwa artist Park Seo-Bo, and later worked in Paris as an assistant for Lee Ufan, another prominent artist associated with Dansaekhwa. In a 2019 interview with Sculpture Magazine, Lee also said that Dansaekhwa artists and Bruce Nauman have been inspirational for him.
Working and living between Paris and Seoul, Lee Bae began to gain recognition in Korea following his Artist of the Year exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwacheon in 2000. The major solo show proved to be a turning point in his practice, after which the artist began to expand his practice beyond canvas drawings. Lee's experimentation saw the artist throw charcoal and soot into the air in performances, as well as mix charcoal powder with acrylic medium, among other interventions.
The 'Issu du feu' series, which the artist began in the early 2000s, also emerged from the artist's desire to intensify his study of the materiality of charcoal. In addition to large-scale assemblages consisting of charcoal blocks, he also creates canvas works in which pieces of charcoal are brought together and ground until the surface becomes smooth. 'Issu du feu', which translates to 'Issue of Fire', references the different shades of black that the charcoal reflects depending on the angle from which it is viewed.
Lee Bae creates ink by combining powdered charcoal and acrylic medium, which results in a stark black colour. Since around 2017, the artist has produced his 'Untitled' paintings, characterised by simple yet elegant sweeps of black ink on canvas. The lines in the 'Brushstroke' series, begun around 2018, evoke calligraphic lines, but are abstract and spontaneous gestures.
Lee Bae has exhibited his works since the 1980s. He is represented by Galerie Perrotin and Wooson Gallery. Recent solo exhibitions include Union, Phi Foundation, Montreal (2021); Paradigm of Charcoal, Perrotin, Hong Kong (2021); Lee Bae, Johyun Gallery, Busan (2020); Plus de lumière, Maeght Foundation, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France (2018); Carte Blanche à Lee Bae, Guimet Museum, Paris (2015); Lee Bae, Daegu Art Museum (2014); and Musée d'art moderne et contemporain (MAMC), Saint-Étienne, France (2011).
Selected group exhibitions include Resonance, Horim Museum, Seoul (2021); Floating World, Perrotin, Hong Kong (2020); The Eastern Gesture — Five Voices from the Korean Avant-garde, Dep Art Gallery, Milan (2020); Homage to Korea, Wooson Gallery, Daegu (2019); Gwangju Biennale (2016); Overcoming the Modern, Dansaekhwa, The Korean Monochrome Movement, Alexander Gray Gallery, New York (2014); and Dansaekhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwacheon/Seoul (2012).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021
n 1990, Lee Bae was a classic starving artist, a 34-year-old immigrant from South Korea working in a squat in a dodgy suburb of Paris. Lacking money for paint, he went to a service station and bought