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New Paintings in Black by Lee Bae at Andrew Shire Gallery
Lee Bae, Untitled, 2009. Acrylic medium, charcoal black on canvas, 130 X 162 cm / 50.7 x 63.18 inches. Photo: Courtesy Andrew Shire Gallery.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Pierre Soulages has made the point often: it is not black that interests him, but the way black causes the light to react, the way it projects it in front of the canvas so that it changes as we move around it. The same goes for Lee Bae, but the other way round: what interests him is not the white or cream spaces, even though they are immediately visible, but the powerful contrast they afford with the black continents painted in his works. From the beginning of his career, black has been Lee Bae’s principal subject. A black that recalls his Asian origins – Indian ink, calligraphy – and that he first explored using wood charcoal, a substance that is itself highly characteristic of Korean culture. After ten years of working with wood charcoal, Lee Bae began replacing it with bamboo charcoal which, when mixed first with water and then with acrylic medium, is even darker and denser. For, beyond the actual symbolism of the material, what drives Lee Bae is this attraction of black. A black that, like the black hole in astrophysics with its huge gravitational pull, inexorably draws in the gaze and becomes an extraordinary reservoir of energy.

What, then, is the reason for this powerful attraction, this need, even? Quite simply, black is the only colour that Lee Bae has found to evoke the notions of density and energy that are the true core of his work. In this, too, he has never swerved; he has remained focused on these concepts ever since he became an artist. That said, there has been one change: in the early days, Lee Bae painted human bodies in a simple, almost stylised form, to condense the image of life. Gradually, though, he moved away from the figure, getting rid of all the narrative or even anecdotal aspects that it necessarily engenders, and turning towards abstract forms. Not that he necessarily knew what the result would be, but he did manage to endow his marks, signs and gestures with even more strength and vitality. And he did so precisely by paying even more attention to the blacks, to the relations of scale between these black forms and the light, candle wax-coloured space surrounding them. And if we take the time to look properly at these blacks, we soon become aware of their tremendous capacity to draw us into their incredible depth, so much so that we start to wonder how they are made. The answer is time. One needs to see how Lee Bae works to understand how much this depth of black depends on the superimposition of several strata, of several layers of paint on the canvas. For even if, technical factors (such as the spreading of the medium) mean that Lee Bae is obliged to act quickly, each work needs to be gone over several times, as if in a ritual, and to be allowed a certain amount of time for drying and for the metamorphosis during which the black comes to the surface and grows stronger. Watching the artist work, we also realise that, contrary to what one might imagine, there is nothing random about the black forms. They are generally worked out on paper first, then repeated several times in identical forms as he applies the successive layers that constitute the work. For each of these forms, even when constellated, no energy is wasted in uncontrolled gestures. On the contrary, it is the precision and attention of their contours that give them their tense, vibrant quality, a sense of something beyond, so that the black sinks into an infinite depth from which, ultimately, an astonishing light seems to rise up.

Not long ago, when asked if he might one day venture into colour, Lee Bae replied that he was beginning to think about it and that he had even put out tins of coloured paint in his studio so that he could get used to them and to the previously inconceivable idea of painting with them. Since then, he has made that move, risking the use of red and brown. A real revolution. But only in appearance. For, as Lee Bae reminds us, black contains all the other colours, and therefore to work with any of these is still, at least in part, a way of putting black to work.
- Henri-François Debailleux

The exhibition is on view at Andrew Shire Gallery from February 25 through March 27, 2010.

Andrew Shire Gallery | Lee Bae | Black |

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