Perrotin Shanghai is pleased to present Lee Bae’s solo exhibition Souffle d’Encre. The artworks on view comprise Lee Bae’s recent large drawings from the Brushstroke series, along with three sculptures that may signal a future direction of Lee’s artistic practice.
The following essay was written by the curator and art critic Fei Dawei after a conversation with Lee Bae.
The friendship between Lee Bae and I began thirty years ago. I feel sincerely happy for him that his works are going to be shown at Perrotin Shanghai and meet the Chinese audience. This occasion marks his second solo exhibition in mainland China, which was preceded by the artist’s eponymous exhibition “Lee Bae” (2009) at the Today Art Museum in Beijing.
Lee Bae (born in 1956) is two years younger than me. He moved to Paris in 1990, a year later than I did. For most foreign artists who arrived in Paris then, life was difficult in the beginning. Without enough budget to buy paint, Lee Bae came upon a sack of barbecue charcoal and did some experiments by painting with charcoal on paper. Little did he know that this undertaking would prompt him to turn to charcoal drawing as his main medium and initiate a variety of artistic adventures.
Charcoal has unique meanings in Korean tradition. It is believed that charcoal can dehumidify houses and ward off evil forces. When the first full moon of the lunar calendar rises, people would perform the ritual of “burning the moon house”, setting ablaze a sacred moon structure built up of pine branches. The charcoal carbonized by the burning of pine wood is considered a purifying substance with spiritual implications.
Relatively inexpensive, the medium of charcoal made it possible for Lee Bae to explore various aspects of its materiality. He no longer felt displaced or uprooted when painting with charcoal. In his artistic practice, he found a way to connect with his cultural root. In this world of black and white, certain themes of Lee Bae’s past re-emerged, including charcoal ink, calligraphy, and his own childhood.
Over the last three decades, Lee Bae’s practice centers on the same question: What can be expressed by the specific medium of charcoal? What does charcoal want to express? Lee mobilizes a way of thinking rooted in the culture of the East. More specifically, he places himself on equal terms with the tools and materials he uses; he listens to them, rather than manipulating them.
Lee Bae started a new series titled Brushstroke around 2020. This time, the artist turns to a greater challenge: he soaks a broad brush in diluted charcoal ink and applies the ink to paper. The most obvious feature of this series is the fact that, once Lee starts, he can hardly hesitate or change the movement of his brush. On this score, Lee moves into a realm that beholds the essence of East Asian ink-wash painting and calligraphy. In this realm, how an artist sets the brush to paper and how he wields the brush are of paramount importance. Brushwork and the shades of ink set the tone for the whole piece. When moving the brush on paper, an artist exerts control to the utmost degree, whereby he forgets to control itself.
To listen to the voice of charcoal, Lee seeks to activate the memory deeply embedded in his body, by which he guides the movement of his hand. Each stroke is an unfolding of psychological time. As a result, his brushwork can be seen as the self-initiated performance of the medium itself, as well as the crystallization of the artist’s thoughts accumulated over a long period of time. Traces of chance and contingency are also present in Lee’s brushstrokes, manifested by tremors of the artist’s hand, as well as by twists and pauses of the lines. Lee’s broad brushstrokes seem to have a life of their own, a liberated, spirited, and vigorous life that exists in itself and for itself.
Several fascinating, even playful, aspects are integral to Lee Bae’s practice. His brushwork not only unfolds on a flat, two-dimensional surface, they also conjure a three-dimensional space through twists and swerves. Quite surprisingly, I once found that reflections of light can be glimpsed at the place where his broad strokes make a turn. Therefore, Lee Bae’s Brushstroke series should be understood on three registers, namely the two-dimensional plane, the three-dimensional space, and the fourth dimension of time.
This exhibition at Perrotin Shanghai features works of the Brushstroke series, especially pieces that demonstrate Lee’s short lines. In these works, one can see long, wrinkled lines, broken lines, and arrangements of short lines. Lee created some of these short lines by applying charcoal powder made from willow, pine, grapevine, and oak, which points to psychological changes inherent in the artist’s movement of brush and the artist’s experiment with the rhythm of the pictorial space. In Lee’s works, if a long line can be compared to a deep breath, then short lines are juxtapositions of multiple breaths and thoughts.
The three sculptures included in this exhibition are part of Lee Bae’s latest works. They show the artist’s interest in exploring the three-dimensional aspect of his two-dimensional Brushstroke series. Looking forward, these sculptures may signal a future direction of Lee’s artistic practice.
Born in 1956 in Cheongdo, South Korea
Lives and works between Paris, France and Seoul, South Korea
Lee Bae’s monochromatic practice is a formal and immersive journey into the abysses of blackness. Subtly blurring the lines between drawing, painting, sculpture, and installation, he has developed his abstract aesthetics across categories to imbue the noncolor with tangible depth and intensity. Until the early-2000s, he worked exclusively with raw charcoal to create minimal, refined, mosaic-like assemblages of charred wooden shards or chunks on canvas, as well as larger sculptural arrangements of carbonized trunks. Charcoal, obtained by burning wood and used to revive fire, offers a powerful metaphor for the cycle of life that has further inspired him to expand his exploration to include the fourth dimension of time. While he has moved on to solely working with carbon black, a substance close to soot, Lee Bae’s latest series of pictorial works crystallizes random elemental gestures, which he practices with charcoal ink on both canvas and paper, recording his movement and time.
Born in Cheongdo, South Korea in 1956, now lives and works in Seoul, South Korea and Paris, France, Lee’s works have been the subject of solo exhibitions at museums and institutions worldwide, including Phi Foundation, Montreal, Canada; Indang Museum, Daegu, Korea; Wilmotte Foundation, Venice, Italy; Paradise Art Space, Incheon, South Korea; Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul de Vence, France; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Vannes, France; and Musée Guimet, Paris, France. Lee’s works are included in public collections, notably the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MMCA), Gwacheon, South Korea; Seoul Museum of Art (SEMA), Seoul, South Korea; Leeum-Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, South Korea; Horim Museum, Seoul, Korea; Paradise Art Space, Incheon, South Korea; Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul de Vence, France; Musée Guimet, Paris, France; Musée Cernuschi, Paris, France; Baruj Foundation, Barcelona, Spain; Privada Allegro Foundation, Madrid, Spain; Medianoche Foundation, Granada, Spain; and Phi Foundation, Montreal, Canada.