Lee Ufan’s new paintings look very different depending on where you are standing. From a distance, when you can take in several of the large canvases at the same time, abstract shapes seem to emphatically announce themselves as existing; however, they are also pointedly ambiguous as to what they are. Shading is used to hint at three-dimensionality in some, resulting in what look like cylinders, or rotund pots, at a distance. If you move in closer, though, this painterly illusion disassembles into featureless gradients of colors or patchworks of overlaid brushstrokes.
Though the SCAI the Bathhouse exhibition is populated with paintings of similar shapes, each of them proclaims, in a different way, that it is not what you thought it was. One seems to be composed of broad brushstrokes that go left to right, but in fact is painted with multiple downward strokes. It also appears to have a limited brown palette, but on closer inspection there are barely visible speckles of bright red and blue around the edges of the central motif, where a dry brush seems to have caught the surface of the textured watercolor paper. These out-of-place flecks of vivid color are reminiscent of chromatic aberration in photography.
At numerous levels, Lee prompts us to remember the treachery of images. In order to appreciate this, however, the paintings, all of which are entitled “Dialogue,” demand that you spend time with them; delicate hairline brushstrokes and tiny splatters of paint communicate and promote intense concentration. Monochrome works from earlier in Lee’s career, which often featured repeated single strokes, do not play with visual feints in the same way.
As well as the dialogue between the artist and materials and world at large, there is the dialogue between the different works in the space — “The part where nothing is painted makes the viewer aware of space, turning the entire exhibition space into a work of art, not just the part that was painted,” as the gallery’s description puts it. Then, of course, there is the dialogue between the work and us, the viewers. More on that later.
Another dialogue is worth considering: the one between Lee’s current work, and those of his earlier self as manifested in the ideals of Mono-ha, the mid-1960s-’70s avant-garde movement of which Lee was a co-founder. Two key concepts were: first to critique the idea of the permanent art object as a product of the artist’s self-expression, and second that art should be a matter of revealing the “world as it is,” rather than have meaning being imposed on it.
An occupational hazard of Lee’s still-growing reputation as an internationally celebrated artist, with outcomes such as a permanent Lee Ufan Museum at the Benesse Art Site on Naoshima in Kagawa Prefecture, is the increasing likelihood that the artist’s fame will overshadow the work as a medium of encounter. (The idea of art as an encounter between notional dichotomies such as ‘self’ and ‘other,’ ‘civilization’ and ‘nature,’ has been explored at length by Lee in writing and art practice.)
Not that Lee is under any obligation to keep to ideas he proposed half a century ago, or that he is unilaterally responsible for his global reputation, but alongside a contemplation of “being-in-the-world,” there can also be thoughts about “being-in-the-art-world,” and acknowledgment of how our perception of the artist may affect what the work can communicate.
In a 2015 interview in art collector’s magazine Apollo, Lee mentions his fondness for Heraclitus and the idea that “you cannot step into the same river twice and that everything is ever moving, always changing.” However, seeing Lee’s work during the COVID-19 crisis, which has temporarily closed nearly all the major art venues in Tokyo, feels like stepping out of the constant flow of exhibition scheduling that aims to attract as many visitors as possible by either showing the familiar, or promoting the next big thing.
For one thing, there is the subdued intensity of the work itself, with its mesmeric effect of holding our attention in the present moment. But also it feels like Lee’s paintings are both familiar and being pump-primed to be the next big thing at the same time. Though the circumstances are in no way positive, the odd calm of Tokyo on the edge of pandemic disaster suits the frenzy and discombobulation cached in Lee’s work, as does the medium-sized space of SCAI the Bathhouse. Sooner or later there’s going to be a big Lee Ufan retrospective in Tokyo and that will be a very different dialogue to what the works can offer in an exhibition of this scale.
Update: Due to COVID-19 precautions, SCAI the Bathhouse has temporarily closed. Please check the website for more information.
“Lee Ufan: Paintings” at SCAI the Bathhouse runs through April 25; free entry. For more information, visit www.scaithebathhouse.com/en.