Pacific Northwest College of Art : : 2011
Jungjin Lee: The Stillness of Wind
Chas Bowie on the melancholic landscape photography of Jungjin Lee's Wind, on view in the Feldman Gallery + Project Space.
Melancholic, elusive, and fibrous, the desolate landscapes of Jungjin Lee’s Wind series have little in common with the cool topographics of most contemporary photography. Printing her images on handmade rice and mulberry papers coated with light-sensitive emulsion, Lee depicts meditative spaces that are more emotional than geographic.
The photographs in Wind were taken in the desert of the American Southwest and the forested Korean peninsula, yet their actual terrains are spiritual and psychological. A sooty, yawning canvas tarp is pictured as an barren void separating earth and sky in Wind 04-55. An offshore pier forms not only the horizon line, but also the rickety spine of Wind 06-58, while the mysterious jetty that bisects Ocean 99-31 leads viewers further and further into the scene’s dark waters. Skeletal house beams, a thick fog hugging black mountains, and a window frame surreally overlooking a sea of nothingness from its crumbling brick base are each rendered in ashen highlights and gunpowder shadows.
Tempestuous and entropic as their subjects may be, Lee’s sensually textured prints evoke a measured calm. The stillness of can be traced to the artist’s steady compositions, which often tend toward the symmetrical. As a young girl in Seoul, Lee trained to become a calligrapher, studying how one might achieve formal and spiritual balance with an economy of form. The artist continues to use her brushes, albeit in a manner far less gestural than in the past. Rather than using commercially available photo papers, Lee swaths her handmade sheets with Liquid Light, a famously temperamental silver emulsion. As a result, none of her prints are identical, each bearing the paper’s unique grain patterns and the artist’s distinct brushstrokes. Moreover, the Liquid Light soaks into the coarse paper as it dries, so that Lee’s landscapes are literally ingrained in the mulberry fibers. Unlike many photographs, which appear to be all shimmer and surface, Lee’s images physically embody their structures, reassuring in their steadfastness.
Korean artists have depicted the country’s crumpled mountains and forests for approximately 2000 years, and landscapes have perpetually served as the primary genre of Korean art history. Lee is but one of many contemporary Seoul photographers to focus on the spiritual and emotional qualities of the land.
“The images in the Wind series,” Lee wrote in an artist statement, “represent my introspective states and thoughts.” (1) The sentiment can also be found in many of her peers’ work, including that of Hyung-guen Park, who maintains that his own photographic space “is obviously a place in an actual world, reflecting (his own) inner world.” (2) Their theories are distinctly Korean, reflecting the “true view” landscape theory pioneered by painters such as Jeong Seon in the eighteenth century. True-view painters sought to describe not only the physical characteristics of the land, but its psychological character as well.(3)
The Korean emphasis on landscape symbolism cannot help but recall the writings of American photographer Alfred Steiglitz, who called his abstract cloud images of the 1920s “Equivalents,” for their direct correspondence to interior, metaphysical truths. Francis Picabia, a friend and contemporary of Steiglitz, endeavored in 1913 to explain the new, nonrepresentational art that was just beginning to emerge.
“A composer may be inspired by a walk in the country,” Picabia said. “Does he attempt a literal reproduction of the landscape scene? No, he expresses it in sound waves, he translates it into an expression of the impression, the mood.”(4) A century later, the painter’s analogy echoes across the silent spaces of Jungjin Lee’s haunting emotional landscapes.
1. Vicki Goldberg. “Shorthand Notes from the Spirit,” in Jungjin Lee: Wind (New York: Aperture, 2009) unpaginated.
2. Anne Wilkes Tucker. “Past/Present: Coexisting Realities,” in Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2009), 19.
3. Soyoung Lee. “Mountain and Water: Korean Landscape Painting, 1400–1800.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Web. 13 Oct. 2010.
4. Francis Picabia, as paraphrased in “A Post-Cubist’s Impressions of New York. New York Tribune March 9, 1913, part 11, 8. Qtd. in Sarah Greenough, “How Stieglitz Came to Photograph Clouds,” in Perspectives on Photography: Essays in Honor of Beaumont Newhall (Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1986), 157.
by Chas Bowie