“Eternal Mother,” a recent show of painting, sculpture, and performance by Korean-born, New York-based multimedia artist Hayoon Jay Lee, demonstrated a remarkable merger of Asian content and Western contemporary art methodologies. Lee’s work spans a spectrum, finding points of contact between Korean tradition and the Western avant-garde. While her paintings reflect a Surrealist perspective, she also makes a variety of three-dimensional works and engages in on-the-spot actions—social sculptures in the Beuysian sense—that satisfy her need to create affirmative moments through exchange between herself and participants. At a time when Asian art in America still remains on the margins, Lee’s show stood out as an example of what can come from creative synthesis.
As a painter, Lee tends toward lyrical, surreal visions of nature. Her imagery is subtle, the work often small in size. But she is equally established as a sculptor. One of the strongest pieces in the show was
a piece of furniture—a glass-fronted cupboard with shelves supporting small bowls created with rice, along with a number of very white bone pieces. One Breath with Bones (2019) presents the bowls, variously colored in gradations of white, as a kind of art offering, echoing Buddhist practices, even if the space was a gallery and not a temple. The bones clearly remind us of death, and the experience of seeing them in the midst of bowls symbolizing food, nurture, and continuing life undercuts their seemingly celebratory existence as art. Part of Buddhist wisdom is that suffering and life itself throw momentary continuance into dismay; it seems that Lee is reminding us of this truth.
Lee’s low-relief sculptures made from grains of rice and tiny pieces of rice paper shape form out of painterly gestures. A Portrait (2019) emerges from a carefully arranged mound of matter; the hollows of the eyes, the rise of the nose, and the curves of the cheeks cannot be separated from the massed directional movements of the minute, individual elements. Dream Land 4 (2019) might be a mountain range or a strange cephalopod seen from above. Its topography again blends the energetic patterning of parts and whole.
The behavior of these individual grains of rice and paper, collected in the thousands to serve a common purpose, might double as a metaphor for social dynamics and human interactions. Lee’s opening night performance, recorded on video and shown for the duration of the exhibition, created a flow of exchanges, both staged and random, between the artist and visitors. As social sculpture, the event established a space in which participants could enact support or come together in ways of being that confirm rather than deny insights of a spiritual nature. Lee’s beautifully made works, both physical objects and behaviorally directed actions, oriented viewers toward a perception of positive, if shifting consciousness—an act of imagination and bravery.