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The Original Portrait and Face of Koreans : The Sculpture of Lee Yeoungsup

Goh, Chunghwa (Art Critic)


 The Studio of the sculptor Lee Yeoungsup is located a little higher than the empty site where the ancient Godal Temple once stood. Everywhere man lives is probably similar, yet in the artist’s studio you can feel even more time where life now and life in the past trade places. This is a place where time past and time present flow in one current of air, where places in the past and places in the present touch each other and become one texture, where the artist uncovers time, layer by layer.

  Lee has lived for years near the site where the ancient Godal Temple once Stood. The rarefied air of this place, where time past seems to flow and cut through time present, must have touched the nature of the artist. His principle subject, which is the same now as before, is the inertia of time. From here he moves up in time, looking for his true homeland like the salmon, caught up in its ecological code, whose nature is also to move up the stream toward its homeland. This, however, is not an easy job. The artist reveals that he has doubts; he asks himself if his work is in fact going against the current of today’s sculpture, or if it is going against present time. He passes through a process in which these questions become his principle subject, and his principle subject reveals that the response is found in the initial question. He finds the path to the exit from his doubts in the past, not the present, of this site where even now an archeological dig in in progress.

    The response that the artist has found here cannot be seen as something that ignores the demands of contemporary sculpture, even though the response belongs to the past. On the other hands, the response is close to an essential aesthetic consciousness that still inspires an emotion after having survived the violence of time that targets at each moment the disappearance of existence and crosses the earth since the beginning of time. This means that the response is also near to the original form that comes from existence, like a fountain from which time flows. In this context, the work of the artist is to restitute and return the original and essential form, which, more than all else, is Korean. This is not then the phenomenal or tactile surface of the sculpture, existence, and period, but the object of contemporary currents that flow softly around everything.

  Such an aesthetic consciousness of original form is not at all foreign to those of us today who are familiar with the phenomenal and the tactile surface. For instance, the humorous aesthetic of the terra cotta idols of the Shilla Dynast (57 B.C - 918 A.D.), the generous smile on the faces of sculpted Buddhas in the Baekfae Dynasty (18 B.C. - 660 A.D.), the grandiose and sober states and technique of no technique of the white porcelain ceramics of the Chosen Dynast (1392-1910) are all part of aesthetic consciousness and are linked to a reversal of consciousness that regrets things that are lost or just forgotten, like unconscious forms. This reversal is like nature — that is, the nature of man. Such nostalgia is itself a moving feeling rather than a simple memory, and is a psychological occasion where the present communicates continuously with the past. The artist presents as the real source from which his work springs the generous smile of the statuette that seems to show its generous heart as that of the people of the Baekjae Dynasty, the archaic smile in the sculptures of Greece, and, more than anything else, the stone totems and statuettes of boys that were popular most everywhere during the Chosun Dynast. It’s true that the flow of time has made us forget the names of the creators of these diverse stone objects, creators who, at the time, weren’t even honored with the title of artist.

  However, since their objects are artistically free of a variety of forms that we often see in the history of art, they emit the strong odor and nonchalant touch of people. The determination that these stone objects exude, and that could be called primordial, is the essence of existence, and is closer to the tenacity of life than of art, just as, according to today’s terms, the intrinsic and primitive necessity and naturalness, which is closer to the final causes of existence than to the meaning of simple physical reality, probably evoke the spirit of such life.

The realization, artificial or willful of the original figure, which is almost no different from the creation of nature or in reality inspired by the force of nature, is absolutely impossible. If one succeeds through luck, it is only an awkward imitation of nature or a mediocre copy of antiquity. It is only possible when it is fraternal, when the character of the artist and the character of nature communicate with each other and become energy. Such a fraternal being is far from a logical process, and when it is arrived at through a long struggle to shape its material, it can wipe out oblivion by destroying all the resolutions that can be but artificial ones, leaving what I consider being minimal traces of such a struggle. Here, we can only see that the artist has succeeded in creating this fraternal being. What is certain is that at least the artist considers it to be the frame of mind that inspires his own work; and in this real work is the strong possibility of such a realization.

  In this sense, Lee’s work consists of traces of difficult research that appropriates his own nature into the nature of the object, which, instead of being accomplished as a full form, is half abandoned to suggestive form. The suggestive form itself, which implies these traces, could be the emptiness in traditional painting, which also implies that the task of filling empty space with an invisible form is up to the spectator, not the artist. The problem of the work, then, is first to discover through experimentation antinomic form that appears empty on its surface but, in reality, is full, for instance, with a kind of visual poetic aura or tension, and then to create an accord between suggestive form and the form itself.

  In many cases, the seduction of the work could easily come more from this suggestive and latent form that has not yet become figuration than from the form itself.   In Lee’s work, this suggestive and latent form resembles traces of natural erosion, like a gentle harmony or a form only half finished. And like the sculpted and painted stone works, it suggests minimal form through etched lines of a half-finished figure, one that has avoided the figurative prejudice of the form.

  Here, we feel in general an almost awkward touch that is far from technique, a feeling that is more evident in the work where the artist takes as subject the child. This childlike feeling can be seen as the common particularity in all of artist’s models, whether it be the figure of a family, the statuette of a mother and child, or even Buddha. Beginning with the statuette of a seated Buddha in meditation, all of the artists models exude a gentle and naive energy or the pure heart of a child.

For this exhibition, the artist tries to distance himself from his past work. For example, by appropriating a cement mold and hanging it as a form in relief on the wall, he reinforces the image of the archeological dig. Here, the form is the original mold and a modification of the halo of Buddha in one of his past works. It seems to maximize the background that supports the backside of the model. Above all else in the artist's work, we feel the character of the different material, where the artificial meets the natural, and the meeting of the present meaning of the archeological site, where an object has just been discovered.


In this way, the working antennae of the artist are directed toward the past more than to the present, toward a certain finality of existence, which is less moved by the violence of the times than by the phenomena of the tactile surface. To continually create a communion between the present and past in these turbulent times is the meaning of the work of the artist, and from there he seeks the original portrait and face of Koreans.

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