I have some good news. You can still get into the PYO Gallery in downtown LA to see "Depth of Shadow," and I highly recommend that you do. This solo exhibition by artist Yong Deok Lee is a must-see in order to fully, viscerally, appreciate the work. This show contains tablets he refers to as "negative sculptures," however, they initially reference themselves through the framework of painting, or early relief sculpture. I would call them paintings with sculptural elements, myself, which is a personal bias, however, one I feel that I can justify as follows: These are rectangular images of figures in painted, flat, environments, suspended from the wall like a canvas. The point of departure: They are not canvases, but a ultra-smooth, block tableaux of what gallery manager Meghan Crowley describes as a proprietary blend of "fiberglass, gypsum" and other compunds.
Like early relief sculpture in the cradle of Western Civilization (think Sumaria) forms are not free-standing, but attached to their origninal block and bound to the wall. Unlike relief sculpture, the form is negative, rather than positive. Standing directly in front of the picture plane, or would-be canvas, one sees a concave carving painted to elaborate details such as clothing, skin tone, etc. The foreground, whether it be a swimming pool, or some other contemporary "no place" or "every place," is painted in lighter hughes and with minimal articulation, creating a flat world in contrast to an empty shell of a human. Now that sounds sad, doesn't it? Flat world, empty shell of a human. Yet, the paradox of this work, is that it reverses these cliches in a way that suggests to me that this artist is no misanthrope.
"The process of my works has an axis of transfer," states LEE, Yong Doek, in a conversation with Biljana Ciric. He is speaking of the photographs of daily life which are the starting place to select a subject, which are later transferred to computer, and carved in relief. But there is another axis, between the seeming reality and emptiness of our mundane world and the point at which the emptiness becomes fullness. Metaphysically, that is is an axis of transfer, and physically, the viewer will experience it by walking toward, and away from, these pictures. Close first, you stare into an empty shell carved out of the tablet. Many viewers mistake the carving as the imprint of some type of mold, but it is actually carved, Crowley points out. Up close, the painted detail appears incongruous. The detail doesn't seem to match the empty space: It is a transparent artiface.
But step back, 10, 15 feet and you will hit the axis. At that place, the negative form pops and presents itsself as a figure, stepping out of the picture plane. Who is to say which is the "real" interpretation of the figure? At the point of demarkation the negative sculpture begins to look like a holographic, well-executed painting. Jules Breton (1827 - 1906) and his gleaners come to mind, in the weight of the body, the homage to the ordinary man. The muted backgrounds add motion to the figuration, as waves over a swimmer begin to undulate, as the flatness of another picture reinforces the dimensionality of the subject. Each of the subjects is in a state of incipient awareness, lost in reading, lost in sitting, lost in aloneness, a total form of contemplation that does not assert itsself in contemplation suggests that the object is almost aware of the gaze, but captured, a second in advance, in a state of totality that comes from neither observation of the Other or awareness that one is being observed. There is a peace in that state that we all know, but once we turn our awareness to it, it evaporates. Paradoxically, through artiface, the ultimate unveiling is achieved.
© 2009, Moira Cue for The Hollywood Sentinel