Lee Bae. The sublime charcoal light
July 03 – August 29, 2020
Perrotin Tokyo is pleased to present a solo exhibition by Korean artist Lee Bae, based in Paris, France, and Seoul, South Korea. Often referred to as ‘the artist of charcoal‘, Lee has been exploring the various characteristics and philosophies behind charcoal as an artistic material for nearly 30 years. With his experimental and adventurous method of exploring monochrome, he is also recognized as one of the most prominent figures of the post-Dansaekhwa period. Following his exhibition in Paris (2018) and New York (2019), Perrotin Tokyo is presenting his third solo exhibition with the gallery.
Barbeque charcoal that Lee Bae encountered in a local shop in Paris became his own version of madeleine from Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu). Living and working in Paris, charcoal was a fragment of memory that reminded him of the folk ritual ‘Burning of a Moon House’ from his hometown Cheongdo. When the first moon of the lunar calendar rises, the people of Cheong do would make a moon house using wood and straw, ties their wishes written on paper, and sets it on fire, hoping that their wishes will reach the full moon along with the sparks. The moon house later becomes charcoal and the people would take the charcoal remains to their homes for various purposes. Putting charcoal into food will detoxify the harmful elements, and a piece of charcoal hung in front of homes will protect a newborn baby with its sacred quality. For the same reason, Lee uses charcoal and emptiness, described as moonlight, as his artistic metaphor.
In Landscape, the intrepid negative space at the center of the artwork forces the dense, massive black motif of compressed ground charcoal to each side of the canvas. The following passage from an earlier poem Landscape (Paysage, 1857) by Charles Baudelaire is poetically applicable t the homonymous work of Lee: “The streams of smoker is in the firmament / And the moon spread out her pale enchantment.” Shifting the attention to focus on the boundary in landscape where the black motif and the negative space encounter, the noticeable heavy, solid motif unexpectedly clashes and breaks down into the negative space. Colliding between heaviness and lightness, presence and non-existence, drawn and what cannot be drawn, moon house and moonlight, displeasure and pleasure, the sublimity flashes like a spark of fire. Although charcoal is born from fire, it’s materiality forever possesses the spark to return to its origin as fire, light, and emptiness.
The charcoal shards composed on top of a canvas in Issu du feu each reflect diverse shades of light like the stained glass in a gothic cathedral. Tightly juxtaposing shards of charcoal onto the canvas, bonding it, and polishing its surface, Lee encourages light to indulge above the substantial materiality of blackness. Like entering into a dark room, his works allow finer details as the eyes get familiar with his works. The spectrum of light in Issu du feu, providing countless shades as if it is a dictionary, is made possible by the incalculable wood grains and rings cocreated by nature and the challenge of time the tree has gone through. The evidence of time accumulated within the material makes light dance above Issu du feu. Untitled, often referred to as the Acrylic Medium, looks as if several layers of circle sare inattentively drawn on to a canvas with a sing led-ash of paint. But with a closer look into the artwork, the circular motif looks as if it is smudged or floating.
The artist creates this effect by drawing the selected motif with a painting mixture made using ground charcoal and acrylic medium, dries it, puts a layer of clear acrylic medium, then repeats the process by drawing the same motif on top until the artwork is complete. Through this repeated process, a new notion of negative space appears. Other than the familiar concept of horizontal negative space, described as the undrawn space on a flat surface, Untitled also possesses a vertical negative space created by repeatedly layering clear acrylic medium. This is the re-appearance of sublimity that was ousted by the scientific revolution, hidden between the gap of negative spaces. Sublimity, one of the first fragment of the memory of human existence, permeates between yin and yang, in the fault line of the noumenon and phenomenon, and in between the signified that endlessly falls into the signifier.
The ‘charcoal light’ in the title is a combination of charcoal, referred to as the moon house, and negative space, referred to as the moonlight. The viewers naturally focus their attention on the drawn and produced charcoal mass, which is seemingly produced and exists with a sense of purpose. However, Lee’s work has always also focused on the negative space, the moonlight, the void. In East Asian painting, moon and moonlight are often described using negative space, a technique called ‘honguntakwol‘, directly translated as “to reveal a moon by drawing clouds around it.” Hence, negative space can be referred to as moonlight. Throughout Lee’s work, the two concepts constantly coexist and communicate: as charcoal and light in Issu du feu, and as charcoal and negative space in Landscape and Untitled. The moonlight differs depending on the space that his works are exhibited in – Perrotin Paris (2018) represented the moonlight as the sophisticated modern city light, whereas the negative space at Perrotin New York (2019) presented a mythical dimension. Now, it is time to walk under Tokyo’s moonlight.