Sensations and Stillness
"Each act, even the repeated one, is virgin." -René Char 1
Jimin Lee's still lifes are based on photographs of objects that bear her memory by being used, touched, or seen everyday. Lee leaves clues for us, triggering our curiosity to trace them and unveil hidden stories. Taking the entire canvas, the snapshot of each item demands our complete involvement, psychological and emotional. The blown-up image of objects that are too familiar to draw our attention provokes anxiety. This silent yet insistent invitation is so tempting that we feel as if we were voyeurs stepping into a forbidden site; we begin to trace the presence of the painter, which is invisible but stands behind her work.
Simple forms of ordinary objects carry far more psychological weight than we realize. They are no longer ordinary but stand as singular pieces that mark the artist's domain. Lee reveals her boundaries by presenting familiar items that suggest her daily ritual, which has shaped her networks of sociability and relationship. Such ordinary objects as a shower curtain, a blender, a coffee pot, a massager, and hair curlers are marked by her intimate personal contacts. Her repeated use of those objects seems to gradually intensify her symbolic relations to them.
She unconsciously marks each moment while reflecting the previous moment. No moment is identical and the past is always variable. As Gilles Deleuze holds, we don't repeat the same repetition. Repetition has two different faces; the superficial repetition of the external elements and the profound repetition of the internal totalities of a past. Material contact is modified by the contemplative soul. This difference between the external and the internal is an integral part of the repetition2. Against the background of a variation in intensities between one encounter and another, Lee continues to repeat her habit and make another mark on her memory.
Lee's earlier prints, Yes?, Re: You don't call you don't write, and Cheong more or less directly address the desire to be connected. The unopened back of a manila envelope in Yes? suggests her eagerness to uncover a fact: its smeared surface evokes anxiety regarding the message. In Re: You don't write you don't call, the blurred and repeated letters of the words no mail that boldly cross a computer screen speak to us of our vulnerability even in cyberspace. Another example that conveys a frustrated communication is Cheong. Someone intended to explain cheong (which means "internalized affection" in Korean) in an email message, which has arrived in the form of a jumble of meaningless symbols. The sense is that translating an emotionally loaded word to another language can never convey its profound meaning. A complete communication, if any, would be beyond a verbal one.
Isolated images taken from a snapshot capture uncanny traces of Lee's psyche. The shower paintings, Transcendant Ordinaire II and III record her repeated acts and simultaneously convey a varying sense of each object. Flat tones and subdued color endow the blown-up images of familiar objects with a monumental look. Yet, these paintings do not fix merely the surface of the object. The intensity of her sense of it penetrates deep into the reality of each object as if claiming truth, so as to animate the surface. This subtle tension of the in/animate renders her work uncomfortable. Moreover, the unusual proportion and placement of each object magnify our anxiety. The ambiguous relations between disparate objects are intensified in the parallel between the blurred image of the round head of the shower and the clarity of the centered view of the drain. Facing us head on, the clear image of the wet drain almost petrifies us. Her daily ritual of cleansing her body and soul is enshrined in ambiguity and enigma.
Some objects are heavily marked with her sense of touch. In a Freudian sense, Lee confers an anthropomorphic status upon the banal objects that she encounters as individuals. These are not fetishes that involve "a negative pleasure" of the patriarchal subject -- objects that evoke "mortal anxiety" mixed with erotic and destructive impulses. Rather, her relations to them go beyond this Freudian pleasure principle. In British Warm, the hot water bottle looks as if it were floating against the background of the cloudy bed sheet. The red bottle seems imbued with the life force by virtue of its blood-red color and suggestive chest-like shape. It is an unthreatening companion to safely cuddle with. Her relations to it may be both sensual and spiritual. Such ordinary kitchen items as a blender and a coffeepot are also tools to nourish her. In The Masseur, the greatly magnified head of an electronic massager aggressively demands our attention, both visually and psychologically. Looked down upon, this object on the floor could be a vulnerable object of violence. Despite its placement thrown on the floor, it stands on its own against any violent intrusion. Its sleek, solid shape implies a self-sufficiency that would counter the passivity of a submissive body. In The Curlers, a stack of plastic hair-curlers attracts our attention and at the same time makes us uncomfortable. Stacked rolls of curlers whose magnified details have been rendered with painstaking brushwork look almost architectonic. The plastic curlers in bright hues carry the weight and density of marble standing as monuments to her daily ritual.
An extension of her touch is presented by the view from her studio in The Chain. It is the scene that she first looks at when she starts her day by pulling down the chain to open the window. The landscape is indeed a background for the metal chain that divides the canvas in the center. The entire view outside the window is subordinated to her touch because it is the need to handle the chain that leads her to come and see the view while she opens the window.
Reunion illustrates her use of contemporary print media techniques. The book titles imprinted on spines tells us the sources that she has been referring to in developing her techniques. The publicized references are displayed in full color and all spines are heading toward us. In contrast, in the painting, Private Gathering, seven file folders completely refuse to show the material inside. The blocking wall of flat folders crosses out the canvas in the middle. The unusually elongated canvas only provokes frustration, giving no clues as to her personal references shrouded in privacy.
By shifting between inside/outside, superficial/profound, or matter/soul, Jimin Lee tries to visualize the complex experiences encountered within her surroundings. The apparent serenity of the seductive surfaces masks the unknown pulsations underneath the layers of each rendering. Those pulsations could create a crack, an opening through which secrets could leak and change everything. This risk accompanies each encounter that keeps her alive.
Assistant Professor of Art History
University of Alabama
- Quoted by John Cage in "Questions," Perspecta 11 (1967): 71.
- Gilles Deleuze, Different and Repetition, translated by Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 285-92.