Lee U Fan at the Tokyo Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

Perhaps it was the light, all fluorescent-tubes and tungsten-spots bathing the room in an unforgiving wash of white, cruel white. Or maybe it was the hour, just after seven in the evening being a little early, after all. It could have been the weather, with a temperature somewhere in the single digits centigrade and a north wind rattling the windows of Tokyo’s best homes, whistling "stay at home tonight." For whatever reason, while there were perhaps a dozen people milling about the Ginza’s seminal Tokyo Gallery last Friday evening, the room was filled with an almost nervous silence.

A look up at the art hanging on the wall and the reason for the quiet became evident – it was the paintings by Lee U Fan that had the gallery feeling a little empty and a little weird. Stilted is the mood evoked in a room filled with 13 canvases, some of them almost three meters tall, onto which an artist has applied, in all, maybe a saucerful of paint at most.

All Lee’s paintings are titled "Correspondance," and were executed over the last two years. They each feature from one to three, palm-width swaths of a mix of black and white oil paint on a field of otherwise empty canvas. Naturally, the eye is drawn in, to study the texture of the paint, which is a little soft and powdery-looking but otherwise unremarkable. Next, one can step back and study how the gray rectangles work in relation to one another and to the picture frame itself. Finally, the viewer if faced with the choice of either repeating the above, or fidgeting.

Lee is well-aware that his are the sort of paintings that those dismissive of contemporary art love to point at as examples of what is puffed-up and elitist about the art world today. It is therefore a little ironic that Korean-born Lee, 62, actually helped lead his Japanese contemporaries away from the heady conceptualism of Minimalist and Pop art, and western influences in general, during the 1960s. As a theorist, sculptor, and founding member of the group "Mono-ha," (School of Things), Lee advanced a unique Asian consciousness which, without shunning the outside world, argued against simply imitating it.

"Of course my new paintings are very simple and sometimes people understand them but sometimes they make mistakes," smiles Lee, who is dressed in a smart, 1970s-style black corduroy leisure suit and brown leather loafers, and sports a soup-bowl-style hairstyle. The artist elaborates in a catalogue essay, "I draw one dot on a blank canvas, " he writes, "that is a beginning. It creates a relationship between that which is painted and that which is not painted. The phenomenon of resonant space evoked by this act of interference – the competition between touch and non-touch, the mutual penetration – that is what opens up the painting."

Predictably, the minimal nature of Lee’s work has many westerners nodding their heads and whispering "ah, Zen" – and his string of successful European shows over the last twenty years or so ensures that Lee continues to be well-respected in his adopted home. "Japanese and Korean people who see my art also think of it as being very Asian," he says, adding that his new work has more to do with relationships than nationalities.

Lee says it is time for the viewer to do some of the work, to "use their imaginations – I just want to give the viewer a hint." The uneasy reaction at the opening suggests the artist may have simply come up with his some of his most challenging work yet.

notes: Until Mar 6, 1999 (3571-1808).
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