Review: Irresistible object:Lee Ufan at the Guggenheim


Lee Ufan’s arrangements of rocks and canvases are sparse and clean, but he is no glib minimalist.  Instead of looking coolly on these works, we identify with the intense absorption behind each line.  Lee’s signature calligraphic stroke has a dense beginning and a diffuse end; it is a momentary depression followed by relaxation.  In the From Line series (1972-84), each vertical mark starts with a pressure which eventually releases and relents: there is a deep, almost teeth-gritting tension that tails off into haziness.
Although the Korean-Japanese artist often begins with a heavy, immutable shape – a stone boulder, a fierce indentation of the brush – this kind of austerity becomes lost in the context of the whole work.  In From Winds (1985), a dark stroke is dashed around by light ones: an image of severity is tossed about until the initial impulse is forgotten.  Hard steel sinks into airy cotton; rocks are embedded in luscious purple cushions which create a softened echo of their curves. 
Lee’s works are full of strong, unbreakable structures which become weightless at a touch.  A metal plate has a tantalizing upturned corner, like a slice of oozing cheese in a burger.  Harsh lines are left to cool off on a white canvas.  Rigidity and definition are matched with feather-soft lightness, so that we can note the precise impression which one object makes on another.  For Relatum (1969), a steel box is magically held together by white cotton fluff.  In a visual joke, this cage-like space is rendered harmless by intervening clouds; the fluff lends its porosity to the steel which clinches it.  In turn, the clouds themselves are affected.  These vaporous traces are locked into a metal harness: gaseous matter has somehow been bolted into place.
Most of these installations are about the meeting of two forms.  If tough, geometric shapes can be pinned together by ethereal stuff, then the contradictions implied by different textures may be reconciled.  When stone meets fabric, what can these substances do to each other?  We mentally tap their surfaces together, scratch one with the other.  After this initial friction, the warring impulses we associate with each material start to merge.  A rock seems flexible when it forms a melted, hollowed-out space in a cushion; a steel plate with a nip in it (possibly the work of a nearby stone?) looks infinitely pliable.  For those of us with a compulsive bent, this kind of set-up is extremely alluring, like the sinking of fangs into something sweet and tender.  In fact, there is a flirtatious encounter between the irresistible force and the immovable object in these works, where the qualities of one object are imparted to another.  There are also subtler exchanges of association: paint can take on a metallic appearance, especially when Lee uses pale grey oils which evoke a polished lens, as bright and clear as a mirror.  
The Guggenheim is the ideal venue for this major retrospective.  Thanks to the building’s spiralling paths, we flow smoothly around the works, walking around in little arcs before closing in on an individual piece.  This causes us to reproduce the dynamic of Lee’s brushstrokes: we zoom in on a work, then move off in a tapering line.  Towards the end, the architecture ensures that we are abruptly confronted by a giant canvas called From Line (1978).  The picture is almost comically succinct: it is a single blue streak which is defined and confident at the top, but lapses into a faint blur along the way.  You feel like shouting, “Enough said, Lee Ufan!”  This is an image where one stroke really does say it all.

By Lesley Chow

Lesley Chow

Lesley Chow is a Melbourne arts critic and associate editor at Bright Lights. Her articles have also appeared in Artist Profile and Photofile. She has curated works and appeared on festival juries in Portugal, South Korea and Hong Kong. She is the author of catalogues for artists including Jacqui Stockdale, Alan Jones and Guy Maestri.