A glass of water with a flower is a different thing from one with a lemon. The object is an actor: a good actor can play a different role in ten plays, as an object can do in ten different pictures . . . . The object must act powerfully on the imagination, and the artist's feeling, expressing itself through the object, must render it worthy of interest. It only says what one makes it say. -Henri Matisse, 1952
Hanging in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is an extraordinary painting from the late period of the great Belgian Surrealist, René Magritte. Entitled Personal Values (1952), it depicts, in the artist's deadpan clarity, a bedroom interior with floating clouds as wallpaper. What transforms the picture, however, is that within the room are objects of domestic utility in sizes all out of scale to the room they inhabit. A comb dwarfs the bed it rests upon. Of equally large size are a matchstick, wine glass, shaving brush, and bar of soap. There is a "Through the Looking Glass" quality in the discrepancy of scale that Magritte accomplishes in many of his works, but none better than in this painting. That the objects of personal use form a surrogate depiction of the absent owner is clearly implied. What at first appears to be a fanciful interior takes on the characteristics of symbolic portraiture.
For Jimin Lee, the objects of her daily life have become artistic vessels to transport the viewer. Through selection, scale, focus, cropping, and color, Lee has transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. In our fast-paced society, we constantly look, but we rarely slow down to truly see. In this imposing new series of paintings and prints, Lee has demanded our attention by focusing on objects or viewpoints from her life. We can like or dislike her work, but we cannot ignore its quiet visual power. Jasper Johns made the famous statement, "take an object, do something to it. Do something else to it." As Johns did in his famous series of flags and maps, so too does Lee accomplish the same act in her transformation of her domestic environment.
The seeming uniformity of Lee's viewpoint in these paintings is an illusion. The works, in fact, are quite varied in scale and mood. Several, such as paintings of cactus, a bookcase, and the view out of her studio window in California, are relatively straightforward and to scale. What transforms them is the vertical intensity and viewpoint of the cactus and the depiction of glaring light and deep shadow in the rendering of her studio. Additionally, there is a subtle sense of melancholy in the emptiness of the view and the relentlessly stacked books and folders. No human being is depicted, yet, like Magritte, Lee has infused her works with the hovering recognition of someone absent.
There are works, such as the blender and coffee pot, that take on focus and significance through the sheer scale of the objects depicted. These might also be a sly commentary on our utter dependence, in today's modern society, on time-saving appliances. A subtle sense of humor is also displayed by Lee in several works. Things easily overlooked in our daily life become bizarre when focused on in her art. A pile of brightly colored hair curlers, a hot water bottle proclaiming itself "British Warm", and a faux leopard print shower curtain balance between the serious and the absurd when isolated under her intense artistic scrutiny.
Finally, there is a series of paintings, which, because of their close-up focus or sense of motion, take on an aura of abstraction. At first the showerheads, drains, and faucets do not match our comprehension of them because, although we know them all too well in reality, we need them to be visually deciphered when confronted by them in the immense, formal presentation of Lee's art.
Georges Braque said, "Once an object has been incorporated in a picture, it accepts a new destiny." For Jimin Lee, her art is the deeply personal evolving out of the starkly ordinary. She makes us notice the commonplace and creates a mysterious, almost spiritual attachment to the world around her. Widely respected for her accomplishments as a printmaker, she is now presenting this first gallery exhibition resulting from her new direction as a painter. The prints and paintings presented here show Jimin Lee as an artist of skill and substance, creating not works of West or East, but those that hold universal truths about how we cope with the task of daily existence.
Robert Flynn Johnson
Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco