For the perfect idler, for the passionate observer, it becomes an immense source of enjoyment to establish his dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite. To be away from home […] to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”
― Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays
Heejoon Lee’s works combine photography and abstract painting as a way to recollect – and reconnect with – memories and places. In the current show at Kukje Gallery Busan, the artist presents two of his most representative series – Shape of Taste, and Image architect, both stemming from the artist’s fascination for architecture, cities, and their relation with memory and nostalgia. In Shape of Taste, Heejoon Lee reflects on his personal relationship with the city of Seoul and its ever-changing landscape: abstraction becomes a tool to impress the memories of familiar places that ceased to exist onto canvas. On the other hand, in Image Architect photography is incorporated into abstraction, as a way to investigate the artist’s personal relationship with architectural environments. Once again, the painterly element layered over the printed photographs is deeply connected with Heejoon Lee’s impressions and feelings. Through the choice of color, the artist hopes to convey the different components of a memory, such as temperature, humidity, light, sensations felt at the moment, and so on.. Time, as a concept, is ever present. Sometimes in the way it is captured by the black and white photographs, other times when it floats through the fields of color. As viewers, we are invited to observe and connect the paintings to our own memories and feelings, recalling that same attitude that the artist adopts when strolling in his hometown, or in one of the cities he has visited abroad. This demeanour, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes formally attentive, has been described by Baudelaire: the French poet and essayist saw the artist as perhaps the only figure able to capture the ephemeral and fugitive aspects of modern life.
In this article, we enter in conversation with Heejoon Lee, delving into his artistic practice, discussing the works presented at his current show at Kukje Gallery Busan, and diving deep into the complex relationship between time, memory, architecture, and the act of painting.
At Kukje gallery you present over 20 works belonging to two of your most representative series, “Shape of Taste” and “Image Architect”. They both encapsulate core elements of your art, which could be seen in the sense of observation, the relationship with architecture, and the two-dimensional combination of abstract painting and photography. Could you introduce us to the exhibition, and how it connects to your overall practice?
This exhibition is my first show at Kukje Gallery and does mean a lot in many ways, it is also the first show I am having in Busan, therefore first-time meeting with the audience there, and I really wanted to show some of my most important body of works. Also, the exhibition made me think about the methodology in my practice and how I can develop my work in the future.
“Shape of Taste” connects to a very personal experience of coming back to Korea after your studies abroad, to find the familiar places you used to frequent totally disappeared. Could you tell us more about this experience and the process of translating it on canvas?
When I came back to Korea, the city of Seoul felt very different from when I left for Glasgow to study for a master’s degree. After two years, a city that was so familiar to me became almost foreign: the streets changed, many shops transformed into others…and those changes gave me a feeling of detachment from my own hometown. In a sense, this also allowed me to see Seoul more objectively – stepping back from the society that I belong to and seeing it with the eyes of an outsider.
“Shape of Taste” was born out of this sentiment. I started working on the color palette of Seoul, which is more diverse than many other cities I visited, connecting it to my own painting aesthetic and associating colors with memories.
In a sense, some of your paintings might suggest an atemporal element, as both pictures and abstract shapes seem to capture time in a precise manner. I wonder if that could relate somehow to how Shape of Taste, for instance, captures feelings of nostalgia and relates to a country like Korea, which is ever-changing? As well as in how Image Architect relates to your reinterest in capturing everyday scenes and translating them into abstraction. Have you ever considered how time is incorporated in your work?
I think that painting itself as a medium has the characteristic of capturing time, as does photography. When combined, they both complement and support each other, each medium enriching the encounter with its own peculiarity. In my work, I am trying to mix those two different mediums in the canvas space and trying to express, capture, or hold – something that I felt at a precise moment.
Definitely, time is one of the interesting and important elements in my work, but not the only one. As I focus on translating memories onto the canvas, I also attempt to capture the temperature, humidity, dryness of the environment, as well as private feelings and emotions that I felt and encountered in the spaces I visit.
In Image Architect, you develop the photo-collage work introduced in The Tourist (2020). Photography is incorporated into abstraction. I am interested in asking you about the inspiration and development of this series, how it connects to architecture, and to the relationship between memory and abstraction.
It starts very naturally, if I go somewhere, or when I have a meeting with somebody, it could be a café, or hotel, or anything else – when I see some very interesting space, it really captures my eye. It could be because of the color or geometrical shape, or maybe the aesthetic or the design. All of these lead me to take photos. And then, instantly I save it on my phone and keep it there for a while.
In my studio, I take the time to look back on the memories of those spaces. When I go through my photo album, some photos immediately recall memories and feelings about the space, and that’s how it starts. When I select the photos, I extract the colors from them and think about how to re-compose them on the canvas.
Some colors are based on the original photo with color. Others stem from an attempt to portray the memory of a space, a feeling or a temperature. Through my choice of color, I want to recall the sensations (physical and psychological) of such space. Additionally, the whole process is always linked with how I title my paintings. All these elements – title, colors, the black and white photographs, lines, shapes, and dots offer several clues to the viewer to think about such a space.
In your painting, the way you work with abstraction reconnects strongly with the aesthetics of modernism, functionalism, or color field. I am interested in asking you about your approach to abstraction both in stylistic terms, but also in terms of the relationship between memories (which are something which fades and is nuanced) and how you channel them into such precise shapes.
There is certainly an influence from those “ism” from the past, as they are the must-learn and must-know in art school. But I’m trying to develop my own unique elements and views of abstraction. For instance, as I know, Greenberg’s modernism tries to find something very pure and religious, as well as something that doesn’t belong to our lives. But the abstraction that I’m trying to develop in my painting is based on real life, encompassing our sense of time and aesthetics. I think this is what differentiates my work. Additionally, I employ geometrical shapes (rather than expressive strokes), inspired by my interest in modern architecture and everyday figures encountered in daily life. The geometrical shapes that surround me are the sources that I use to transform and vary the rhythm and the balance of my painting.
For me, abstraction is a way of “storing” my feelings and memories, while also being able to erase and/or hide the images in the background. The fields of colors and shapes that I paint over the printed photographs invite people to bring their own experiences and feelings to the work. In my opinion, if there’s too much information from the painting, it makes it hard for the viewer to enter in conversation and relate to it. With abstraction, space is given to the viewers to think about what’s behind the painting, and what they can bring to the painting. My willingness is to invite people to interpret and share feelings and unique stories through my paintings.
In the history of modern art, the concept of “observation” has often been related to the advent of the modern city, by theorist such as Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin and – before them – Baudelaire, who saw the modern artist as someone who would have to capture the ephemeral and fugitive aspects of modern life. In your work, observation is a fundamental part of your practice, as it is your relation and exploration with cities. Could you tell us more about your concept of “observation” as well as your own interest in cities?
For me, the word “observation” describes a different attitude from the mere act of looking at or seeing something. In my work, as in my everyday practice of observing, I try to capture something or find meanings from the spaces and look more carefully to see what is behind the surface. When I use the word “observe,” it is like I want to extract something from the object and find meaning, and make it more contextual, to generate more stories.
You perceive architecture as a medium which incorporates and encapsulate society values. How did you become interested in it? Any favorite architecture that influenced your thoughts?
My interest in architecture started when I was very young. I grew up in a satellite city of Seoul called Nowon, where apartment complexes are standardized in a “copy and paste” manner. It made me reflect on how architectural structures, units, or districts influence our sense of understanding of the world, as well as our aesthetic choices. In a way, this experience and aesthetic are impressed into my own painting narrative. Additionally, I had a second experience of living in a “dandok jutaek”—a detached, individual house—built with red bricks between the 70s and 80s. These buildings are very familiar to university students, with interiors refurnished with more modern styles. Architecturally speaking, Seoul is unique, and I realized this as I started traveling abroad. All those architectural layers and experiences made me naturally interested in exploring the concept of space, as you see in my work.
You studied for your MA in Fine Arts in Glasgow, I am really interested in asking if your time in Scotland (so different from and contrasting with Seoul) influenced some aspects of your thoughts and practice.
I see myself as a traveler even when I’m in Seoul. It is almost like a way of living. And when I traveled to Glasgow to study, or when I traveled to other countries such as Barcelona, Southeast Asian countries, or Japan, I was just a traveler taking photos with a phone. But I think there is an important characteristic of this traveler’s point-of-view—how they consume the culture, how they observe the surface, how they move on from city to city—all these instant experiences and very fast-changing movements, allowed me to see these very short encounters and immediate feelings with more depth. All these instant memories and reasonings that stem from my travels are impressed in my work.
For example, when I traveled to Vietnam in 2019, I saw these beautiful tiles—some of them were very flat and geometrical, while others were in terrazzo style. Before traveling, I didn’t know that terrazzo tiles were universal. I thought they were very Korean, as the old school where I went was made of them. I did short research, then realised it was first invented in Italy and then traveled to the US, Japan, and Korea. I think that all those elements of traveling, hopping from city to city, and the constant new encounters always inspire me to make new series of work.
In the current exhibition at Kukje Gallery, you also presented some sculptures, or perhaps translation of your paintings into three-dimensional form. How did you develop this idea, and are you considering taking it further?
I first started exploring the three-dimensional potentials of my work in 2019 when I participated in a show called “Corners,” which invited artists to work with and react to an architectural corner. I personally saw my corner as a virtual space where I could experiment with miniature sculptures. In a sense, I always wanted to make sculptures. When I first enrolled in art school, I was more interested in making something than painting something, but somehow, I ended up in the painting department.
Yet, sculpting is still an attitude and a way of engaging with my practice. Sometimes, when I get stuck and can’t go forward with painting, I start to transform my own two-dimensional works into three-dimensional shapes. It is a way to find an exit, see different paths and get a hold of the obstacles I face in the painting process.
The new miniature sculptures that I made for the ongoing show at Kukje are based on the “Image Architect” paintings, where I incorporate the photographic element in every surface of the sculpture for the first time. It was fun and difficult to find the balance and the right structure, but when I was making them, I felt that I was creating some sort of architectural structure and, finally, a conceptual space which transforms our mundane life into something creative.
You can visit Heejoon Lee’s solo show at Kukje Gallery Busan until the 15.8.2022
Cover photo credits: Heejoon Lee (b. 1988), The Temperature of Barcelona, 2022, Acrylic and photo-collage on canvas 160 x 160 cm, Courtesy of the artist and Kukje Gallery. Image provided by Kukje Gallery