By RACHEL ROSENFIELD LAFO
When Steven Young Lee was invited by Grace Kook-Anderson, the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art, to exhibit as part of the APEX series, the artist made a trip to Portland to study the museum’s collection of 19th-century Korean Joseon dynasty art. As an American of Korean descent, the collection was of particular interest. Lee’s practice explores issues of identity and belonging by borrowing images, designs and forms of artwork and imbuing them with his own interpretations. For the APEX exhibit, Lee chose two works from the museum’s collection: a 19th- century Korean Storage Jar with Design of Two Dragons Chasing Flaming Pearls and a late 19th-century Korean Tiger and Magpie painting. The works serve as touchstones for the exhibition; they are objects of beauty and reference points for the ideas the artist explores in his own work. His approach is respectful yet at the same time irreverent, referencing historical traditions and time-honored techniques of glazing and decoration but adding unexpected surprises and a sense of humor to his ceramic sculptures.
Lee’s installation Tiger and Magpies, consists of 96 porcelain plates hung in a grid on the gallery wall. Here, Lee reinterprets and updates the cultural symbolism of the tiger (regarded in Korea as a guardian figure) and the magpie (a representative of the common people) by casting them as cartoon characters from his childhood. In a cheeky cultural transformation, the tiger becomes Tony the Tiger, the advertising mascot of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal, and the magpies become Heckle and Jeckle, characters from the Terrytoons animated cartoons from the mid-20th century. Lee may offer popular culture replacements of traditional animal symbols but he embraces tradition by adhering to the blue and white color palette popular throughout the history of ceramic art as well as by employing the centuries-old Japanese practice of kintsugi to fill the cracks in several of the plates with gold, a method that was used to add value to a work.
Lee’s most radical alterations are in the fabrication of his jars, five of which are on view in the exhibition. They are in various states of fragmentation and disrupt our expectations of what a pot should look like as they are torn apart and broken, the unity of their forms violated. Lee explained why he does this in a talk presented at the Portland Art Museum on February 24, 2019, stating that his goal is to make objects that create “a harmony through dissonance,” to deconstruct objects so that they can be defined by their imperfections. He also wants to test the notion of how value is assigned to artwork by resisting the idea of perfection and instead welcoming failure and the unexpected improvisations that may result from it.
The most extreme example of a disrupted form in the exhibition is Jar with Dragon and Clouds, a wall sculpture constructed from fragments of a very large jar that broke in the kiln during firing. Rather than discard the piece, Lee reactivated it by re-fusing the broken shards into an abstracted form evocative of clouds floating in the sky. He assembled the shards so that both the rough surface of the inside of the vessel and the smooth glazed surface of the exterior are visible.
Whereas a visitor to the exhibition might not realize that Jar with Dragon and Clouds had started its life as a fully-formed jar, only to break apart in the kiln, it is evident that the other vessels in the exhibition were deliberately altered by the artist, their front sides torn open revealing broken edges and interior surfaces. In addition to being open to mistakes, Lee deliberately subverts the purity of his vessels by making tears in them when the clay is wet, then relying on the heat of the kiln and gravity to alter the shape even more. As a result, the jars tend to slump forward in a posture of defeat or supplication, such as in Porcelain Jar with Cloud and Dragon Design in Inlayed Cobalt Blue, a reference to the dragon jar from the museum’s collection, on view at the entrance to Lee’s exhibition. In his version of the dragon jar Lee not only renders the jar non-functional by tearing it open but also converts the drawing of snarling and writhing dragons of the 19th-century jar into a friendly, grinning dragon who resembles a 20th-century Puff the Magic Dragon.
Blood Moon Jar is another example of how Lee reinterprets a traditional form. Moon jars were made during the Korean Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and crafted in white porcelain, with both the shape of the pot and its milky-white color a reference to the moon. In contrast, Lee’s Blood Moon Jar, perhaps inspired by this past January’s blood moon visible during the lunar eclipse, has a rich unevenly-applied red glaze and an aggressively ripped open shape, interrupting the spherical shape of its historical prototypes. Moon jars were traditionally used for storing foods or displaying flowers, but Lee’s deconstructed version would not fulfill either function.
By turns playful, unexpected, elegant, sophisticated, and experimental, Lee’s ceramic objects are informed by his extensive knowledge of western and eastern historical ceramic traditions and techniques acquired through his research, residencies, and travels. As the artist director of the Archie Bray Foundation, a ceramic artistic residency program based in Helena, Montana, Lee is also continually exposed to new directions in contemporary ceramics.
The impulse to deconstruct, destroy, or otherwise distress historically appropriated forms is familiar in contemporary art. Perhaps the best known example is Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn in which the artist destroyed an actual 2000-year-old cultural object for his 1995 artwork Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. He destroyed what he termed a “cultural readymade” to question how value is determined in a work of art. Weiwei’s violent and controversial action destroyed but did not create, reformulate, or reimagine. Montreal artist Laurent Craste’s “Abuse” series features reproductions of Sevres porcelain vessels impaled by nails, stabbed by axes, or destroyed by a baseball bat. British Columbia artist, Brendan Tang’s “Manga Ormolu” series are remakes of Chinese Ming Dynasty vessels that are bent, folded, pinched, and interrupted to accommodate techno-pop elements. In her series “Broken Things,” London-based Chilean artist Livia Marin recrafts mass-produced objects such as teapots, cups, saucers, bowls, and plates and presents them with ruptures and breaks as if the ceramic innards of the piece have melted into a puddle. Korean artist Yeesookyung uses the kintsugi technique of gold infill in her “Translated Vase” series to join together shards of Joseon-style ceramics that have been discarded because they are deemed imperfect by potters. And the 2016 exhibition RE — Reanimate, Repair, Mend and Meld included work by twelve internationally-based artists “whose pieces imitate, replicate, or honor inventive repairs of the past.”
What differentiates Lee’s artwork is his reverence for and use of a variety of styles, techniques, and motifs from the past while challenging traditional practices by questioning the idea of perfection as it relates to value. Is the impetus to reference, borrow, and reinterpret art forms of the past and then partly destroy them a form of homage or critique? Is an artwork more valuable when it is in perfect condition, or do flaws make the work unique and more representative of the hand of the artist? These are the intriguing and timely questions raised by Steven Young Lee’s dynamic and inventive ceramic sculptures that honor the past while forging exciting new directions.