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Behind My Door

2010, Gana Art New York

Gana Art NEW YORK is pleased to present its upcoming exhibition by Sungmi Lee. Comprised of a selection of mixed media works and installations, this will be the artist's first solo exhibition in New York.

Having made the transition from Korea to the United States all alone at the age of fifteen, Sungmi Lee has found solace and spiritual healing through investing herself in a luminous body of work in multi-media. In her pursuit of peace and reconciliation to overcome inner turmoil and cultural displacement, Lee has re-imagined and re-shaped unconventional yet everyday materials to transcend their original purpose. Drawn mostly to translucent light materials such as glass, resin, clear beads, tape and smoke, Lee explores the delicate and fleeting nature of her world.

The ephemeral nature of smoke serves as metaphor for the fleeting moments that shape our daily lives. In her early works, Lee captures incense smoke in plexiglass, memorializing the moment in a gesture to the Buddhist rituals of her youth. In a separate photographic series, she captures smoke rising from a factory outside her studio as snapshots on film, documenting the immediate and continuing impact of industrial waste on our fragile surroundings.

In her more recent work, Lee mourns the death of her father by paying tribute with clear resin flower sculptures titled Flower 4 U. Delicate and weightless, these lotus petals seemingly float in mid-air. In a related series titled Crying for You, Lee paints and pours white resin to form a life-size biomorphic mass that continuously drips and accumulates into its circular sister-work, Painting by Sculpture (Crying for You).

Sungmi Lee's only dark colored works are two-dimensional wood panels covered with beads, black oil paint and clear resin. In one titled Starry Night with U, the movement of the stars in the night sky takes on added depth and light from the highly reflective gloss of clear resin that covers the work.

Lee explores the healing and meditative process that goes into creating her work, which entails the repetitive and painstaking process of reassembling countless pieces of discarded material and casting large amounts of resin to form whole new and natural forms. Her transformations are born not only of material and form, but also a profound sense of harmony engendered by melancholy.


It was one of the brightest days so far this year when I met Sungmi Lee at her studio in Bushwick on a spring Monday afternoon accentuated with warm air and an occasional cool breeze. I took a photograph of Lee holding the door open to her building with the white sun shooting rays above her silhouette. We crossed the threshold up a couple flight of stairs to see her new works for the solo exhibition Behind My Door.

Lee produced the majority of the works for this exhibition within the past year during which time her father, a mentor, and another close friend passed away. Last year, the artist also began to research the subject of death in Tibetan culture. Tapping into her own background, Lee sees her studio practice as an outgrowth of both her formal art education and her family's Buddhist rituals and values. She describes these elegiac works as embodying the concept of bardo, an in-between state or journey, in this case from death to the afterlife. Through Lee's personal experience of mourning and reflection, these works embrace an authentic and emotional response to death and loss. Subsequently, liminality is a constant theme in these interdisciplinary works made with clear and white resins, glass shards and stryofoam salvaged and recycled from the street, beads, plexiglass, colored inks, plywood, plastic, chicken wire, and residual smoke. They seem in between jewelry and debris, and they resist simple categories to occupy the space between drawing and painting, between painting and sculpture, or between drawing and sculpture. They support hybrid descriptions like sculptural drawing and performative painting or painting made with drawing or sculpture made from painting and were accomplished through repetitive and meditative processes like carving plywood, burning incense sticks, applying hundreds of miniature beads, collecting and placing countless bits of broken automobile glass, and waling around an armature to pour resin. The use of incense for two of the works reveals the artist's desire to trap smoke in a creative process and to also bridge a private Buddhist practice to the public gallery experience. The other resultant works look like dripping elongated shapes or resemble natural forms such as flowers, crystals, and stalactites, or they are dark forms that refer to phenomenal expanse and celestial vastness.


The earliest work represented here actually predates the recent tragedies. The black- and-white triptych White Air is a visual antithesis to her signature incense smoke on plexiglass works she has been making since 2002 and represented by The Journey (Day 3) and That moment, that day. For this photographic work, the artist did not produce the smoke to be captured, instead she recorded an occurrence she witnesses daily. Here, photography attempts to contain what is perceived as ephemeral, atmospheric, shapeless, and uncontrollable and serves to reinforce the distance between the artist and the quiet storm outside her studio window. More like conceptual photography, White Air presents a sequence in which buildings appear to get engulfed and erased by the rising clouds of smoke or steam--a reminder of how human industry begets destruction--a beautifully foreboding metaphor for mortality and the cycles of life and death.


The titles of Lee's works secure her creative impluse as postminimalist in which color, shape, and form are linked to the artist's own personal existence and emotions. For instance, she made the sculptures of Flowers 4 U as a direct response to her father's death and how she did not have the chance to buy her own flowers to leave for him at his funeral in Korea. Serving as a tribute to her father, these

chandelier-like clear resin lotus flowers were made with petals each uniquely cast from a separate rubber mold and carefully attached to a stemless arrangement. These fantastic blooms are translucent, dreamy and seem so light that they magically float in the space on their own. The lotus itself is a ubiquitous Buddhist symbol for purity and an unattachment to earthly desires, and many figurative depcitions of Buddha have him seated on a lotus. Moreover, Lee's flowers dramatically aggrandize the Korean Buddhist tradition of installing up high in a temple small paper lotus flowers with candles to assist the traveling spirit during a period of mourning or to represent prayers and hopes for the living. Like a large inverted candle, the mushroom-shaped Crying for you makes visible the weight of grief. White resin, as the artist's tears, drips from the suspended form, and Lee honors both the creative and mourning processes by making use of the white resin that has fallen from this sculpture onto the protective plastic on the floor to give life to its companion piece Painting by Sculpture (Crying for you). This related work reveals the artist's own circumambulating path as she layered resin onto the larger work. The two other works that actualize the artist's sadness are Tear stain (Frozen river) and Tear stain (Pillowcase) and further bring attention to weeping as a physically and spiritually cleansing experience. The color white predominates in most of Lee's works, as with The last gaze, while cool marine blues pop up in Melting#2 and #4. In some cultures and traditions, white has associations to death, while in others it symbolizes purity. Here, white may also refer to Guan-eum, the white- bodied Korean Bodhisattva of compassion, who is also known in Sanskrit as Avalokiteśvara and whose name means the perceiver of lamentations as well as goddess of mercy.


As a contrast to the melancholic whites, Starry Night with U (#44) brings forth a feeling of hope in its pearly darkness where black oil paint, white resin, and beads as distant stars are sealed under a layer of clear resin. As if again gazing outside the window of the studio, Lee this time gives a deeper view not stunted by what's earthbound and directly outside as in White Air. Now, we peer into the radiating heavens to where incense smoke and prayers have the power to travel. Altogether, Lee's latest works mediate our relationship to the eternal and reminds us that grief is a temporary state for the infinity within each one of us. If the bardo for mortals is the space between past and future, then we occupy the present to live and love and to accept our human complexities. The exhibition Behind My Door is an invitation to let yourself experience it all at once.

Edwin Ramoran, April 2010

Edwin Ramoran was born and raised in Palm Springs, California. After receiving his BA in Art History from the University of California, Riverside, he moved to New York City in 1994. He is currently director of exhibitions and programs at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art in Newark, New Jersey. Ramoran is a recipient of a Curatorial Research Fellowship from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the apexart Outbound Residency. From 2002-2007, he was director and curator for Longwood Arts Project, the contemporary art center of the Bronx Council on the Arts. From 1994 to 2002, he worked in the curatorial department at The Bronx Museum of the Arts. Ramoran has been a guest curator in New York at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, PERFROMA 05 at Artists Space, P.S. 1 Contemporary ArtCenter, Center for Book Arts, Dixon Place, Dieu Donné Papermill and Gallery, Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning, South Asian Women's Creative Collective, and Visual AIDS.

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