THE magagine : : June, 2002
Review : Bellas Artes Gallery in Santa Fe
JUNGJIN LEE:<BEYOND PHOTOGRAPHY>
by EUGENIA PARRY
She makes them large to resemble scrolls. Refusing the frame, they unfurl.
Sheaths of handmade rice paper, glued to lengths of brown rice paper of coarser grain, assemble photographic fragments of rippling ocean surfaces, eddying grasses, ruined stone parapets, stairways and temple architecture. Mechanical traces of camera and negative are gone. We have entered the territory of no-mind, eloquence that craves silence.
Some want to credit the strength and originality of this work to the influence of photographer Robert Frank, whom Jungjin Lee assisted in New york. What could the Swiss-born formalist malcontent and detached street observer have taught her? There aren't two more dissimilar temperaments. Lee spent ten years in America studying photography traveling through western deserts, which confirmed her pleasure in horizons and limitless space. Frank stayed safely on the pavement.
The dour majesty of Jungjin Lee's photographs derives from less familiar states of mind. We must turn to the ancient Korean arts and crafts that held her in thrall before she photographed. Born the youngest of five in South Korea in 1961, she startled her business-minded family by mastering calligraphy as a child. At Hong-Ik University in Seoul she majored in ceramics. Traditionally, in the great Korean pottery of the Yi dynasty, no claims were made for consciously aesthetic beauty. A thing was created before beauty was even considered.
The most esteemed Korean pots seem the poorest, that is, they exemplify hakeme(brushmark), a principle of irregularity without parallel in the West. Hakeme refers to roughly applied white slip to coarse, cheap vessels with hemp, fiber, rice straw, or grass brushes that resemble dish mops. Swift, broad, insouciant, hakeme was never an art. Nature is ever-present, not depicted, but recalled through textured clay and slip. The maker never signed the piece. The signature was hakeme itself, spontaneous marks of a practical, placid mind.
Jungjin Lee's rice-paper scrolls emulate hakeme's rough irregularity. they also reflect a theory-free mental state. She says she was never able to achieve in clay what she discovered by photographing, enlarging, cutting, and pasting. One wonders why the Asians who have written about her work didn't consider these obvious Korean connections. When she cautions herself:-"If my head is full of ideas, it's difficult to get strong inspiration from things in life"-this is hakeme conscience: the no-mind of Buddhism; vitality; beauty without intention.
Pattern, fundamental to oriental design, also directs her constructions. Pagoda towers, patterned, reassemble into mirror reflections of themselves. Ocean surfaces, durable as stone, stack one over the other. Whirling grasses, like energy fields of "magical" crop circles, turn the rice paper into magnetic fields.
Soetsu Yanagi in The Unknown Craftsman observes that pattern is neither depiction nor mindless repetition. It is intuitive and visionary. Unrealistic, irrational, exaggerated, and largely symmetrical, pattern always emerges from textures of raw materials. Never explaining, showing what could never be, pattern is the essence, the very life of an object. Jungjin Lee understands this well. It is a hallmark of her work.
Continuing this notion of pattern's emotional power, her images also grant the greatest possible freedom to the viewer's imagination, leading easily into what we in the West call Surrealism, the language of the dream. Cement walkways disappear into ocean waves and depths; a taut rope, attached to nothing, spans an infinite see; the artist summons in us the sleepwalker who serenely joins the unknown.
As with ceramics, Lee's work is unthinkable without the backbone of calligraphy. Photography to her means, quite literally, the brush, with which she applies Liquid Light emulsion to sensitize the rice paper. The broad strokes, at first, hardly covered the paper. The image is ultimately defined by what the marks left out. Lens-made forms, printed, lie buried in rice-paper fibers, a kind of primitivism that recalls the muffled telling of paper negatives in early photography that were also sensitized by hand. But the true spirit of Lee's work lies in the mystery of presence in absence that guided the spontaneous gestures of Zen painters.
Photography has always looked to other arts for ways to bend and stretch its potential. Jungjin Lee refreshes camera work by alluding to ancient disciplines of clay and ink. I have rarely seen pictures that contradict contemporary photographic practice as forcibly as these images do. Made now, they seem always to have existed. Arriving from deep time, they feel immediate. Like a simple Korean tea bowl, their rough insouciance invites touch.
Jungjin Lee is an artist for whom photographing is a step that demands other actions. The camera shutter's click is neither result nor conclusion. Like the calligrapher's brush poised over paper, the click announces, quite simply and with a deep breath, the still point from which the maker's work will begin.