Whitney Combs 2001


The artist So-Un (Han-Kyoung) Lee was born in Korea and has lived and worked in Switzerland since 1968. She studied traditional and contemporary art forms in both Korea and Europe. 

At the center of her artwork is a facility with the brush - her ability to draw, to paint, to make the fundamental marks that allow her to pursue of myri-ad of styles. Anyone even superficially familiar with Korean art (and Asian art in general) is aware that in these traditions there exists much closer relationships between image, text and poetry, which are often masterfully displayed through calligraphy, than in western traditions. So-Un Lee, though, is not a traditional painter of any stripe. She draws from her train-ing and knowledge and, deeply, from her experience. 

In 1999 So-Un Lee produced a series of poetic calligraphic works that are not only masterful examples of brush work that give new expression to each of the characters depicted but also include emblematic renderings within the characters themselves that read almost like collage. In the work Fire a dragons head floats within and near the top of the character for "fire" and throughout the rest of the character flames and disembodied parts float. Water is a much more peaceful work presenting frolicking turtles (you have to see it) and paddling ducks. Other paintings from this series include The King and The Dragon. These paintings all are presented on tradition-al Korean papers and are studies in balance and harmony on the edge of 

dissolution. Much the same can be said of So-Un Lee's paintings of blos-soms and flowers. All the balance of hue and line and the mystery of asym-metry of the best of traditional styles are present. 

We are led then to recent works which veer from nearly abstract to extremely literal narratives. In the abstract works sharp dark forms emerge from a near cacophony of colorful marks; large brushstrokes in black and delicate hues form neither figure nor character. 

Of some recent strongly literal and specific work is the series Apoca/ypse New York which So-Un Lee has derived from the tragedy in New York City of September 11, 2001. These works bring to mind the calligraphic series of 1999. Like them letters are painted with bright, brushed colors on tradi. tional papers. Here the large letters "NY" are presented in a style some-where between calligraphy and a New York Yankees logo. Within the broad black lines of the letters are renderings of the burning and crumbling World Trade Center towers, falling figures, and flames, everywhere. 

The paintings of the Daily New York series offer a pacific contrast to the Apocalypse works. Here the letters "NY" are filled with almost patriotic imagery -- the statue of liberty, waving flags, the World Trade Center intact. But perhaps not too much attention should be paid to these dynamic and oddly appropriate renderings of recent horror. Horrors come and go and 

the eternal questions remain. With the series of On the Roving paintings and the work Stolen Harvest (all also from 2001 ) So-Un Lee approaches and reapproaches the conundrum of the individual faced with the mystery of the universe. The recurring motif is a nude woman surrounded by nature. The woman holds her arms over her chest hugging herself. In one image there is a question mark over her head. But there is no question this recurring character in So-Un Lee's work is by degrees fending off danger and lost in introspection in the midst of the wonder of the world -- be it the swirling winds of autumn or a bird filled forest in spring. 

In the work Fire from the Volcano of Scorn is again the woman protective-ly holding herself; snakes are at her feet and she is awash in a river of fireflowing from a tigers mouth. Seemingly coming with too little too late, a dove of peace arrives unnoticed above her head with an olive branch. 

In Morbid Envy the woman character once again hugs herself and looks to the ground. Here though So-Un Lee's work takes a decidedly political turn and seems to point to the condition of being an alien in Switzerland. From above the figure in the painting Is threatened by a huge Swiss hik-ing boot (complete with Swiss Flags a flying) that is filled with snakes. On the other side of the work an oversize tiger roars and cascading from his mouth are splashes of color which could be fire or gore or, on the other hand, flowers. 

The work Onlooker and Competition appears to be a study of one of the individual's most basic relationships to society. It offers two roaring lions, one in the background and the other in the lower left corner of the painting pushed as far into the foreground as possible. The one in the foreground is all roaring mouth with a wonderful bright red, swaggingiongue that looks like it weighs 50 pounds. Without being explicit the painting suggests a competition for a not visible mate. Birds and butterflies depicted flitting above reinforce the reading. 

So-Un Lee with her melding of styles and traditions and no holds barred approach to diverse subject matter offers the viewer much to view and contemplate and in the end leaves many more questions than answers exposed. In another recent work the question mark that appeared over the wandering woman reappears in one of the Apocalypse New York paint-ings. Here are not the letters "NY" but just the twin towers of the World Trade Center in flames. They are viewed from below -- thousands of sheets of paper float around them -- and in the sky above is the dove of peace, olive branch in beak, with a question mark above its head. 

Whitney Combs, New York, 2001