The Work of Jungjin Lee

by Anne Wikes Tucker
(Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

In Jungjin Lee’s Pagoda series, massive objects float delicately on large sheets of hand-made rice paper. Gravity is denied. The north/south orientation of sky to earth is thwarted. Stone shafts with decorative iron spires are attached to nothing but their own mirror images. The artist has eliminated the solid stone bases of the pagoda that would anchor the shaft in history, to the earth, and to tradition. One recognizes the shafts source as the culminating point on the roof of a pagoda as well as its multiple functions to beautify and to announce the pagoda from a distance. Even with great variation in the shafts that she photographs, the generic form is distinctive. Yet here, each shaft floats free into a poetic space: elegant, grand, isolated, and open to new meaning. Ms. Lee wants each viewer to bring his or her own imagination into play when searching for significance in these images. She has freed the shafts in order to stimulate new associations. Thinking of literal references, my mind ranges from petrified segmented worms to corrugated versions of the ancient stone female, the Venus of Willendorf, to stone beads strung for Amazons. Aside from such concrete associations, I find conundrums. The forms themselves evoke logic and order, but their reinvention introduces disorder and enigmas. I recognize what she has photographed, yet, am pleasurable disconcerted by their new form.

The Pagoda series was inspired by Ms. Lee’s return to Korea after a decade in the United States. She received a Master of Arts degree from New York University while working as an assistant for photographer/filmmaker Robert Frank, himself as famous émigré who radically changed his photographic style when he emigrated from Switzerland to the United States in the 1940s. While absorbing the contemporary arts scene in New York, Lee began photographing in the American desert. To print the images in the American Desert series, she developed her preference to coat rice paper with Liquid Light photographic emulsion. Thus, she combines modern chemicals, a classical Asian form of paper, and American landscapes. Because the prints are large, the desert plants in them are portrayed at near life size, but the cactus plants are much more delicate, and less threatening than in real life. She amplifies certain physical characteristics and rhythms found in desert forms, while eliminating other aspects in order to evoke her impressions.

Lee does not want to be regarded as a photographer, at least not one who makes documents of a specific time and place, such as a photojournalist or a professional portrait photographer. Her own thoughts and feelings at the time of exposing the negative are more critical to the picture than describing the scene before the camera. She keeps enough realistic detail to anchor her pictures in life, but her printing process is akin to painting. Her hands, rather than machine, sensitized this application. Contemplation about the needs of each specific piece guides her decisions. Also, the images do not have the hard, rectangular edges that we associate with photographs; the paper is soft and the edges irregular. By controlling where she applies photo emulsion and exposes the negative, she situates the object on the paper wherever she wishes. The process that she has chosen expands her control over the relationship between the image and the paper support.

The Ocean series steps even closer to the pictorial issue we associate with abstract art. By reprinting the same image three times on one sheet of paper, she accentuates the subjects abstract tones and patterns. By photographing small segments of her subject, as she did in the Pagoda series, she prevents us from recognizing or identifying the specific locations where she photographed. Actually, water (when photographed without its shoreline) is always a generic, rather than a specific subject. The ebb tides and ruffled waves that Lee photographs are integral to any every stretch of water. Unlike mountains whose profiles are fixed and thus can be identified, bodies of water cannot be distinguished visually one from another without including surrounding land. She has chosen a subject ill-suited to the documentary characteristics, she moves further still from the documentary mode.

Jungjin Lee’s art reflects both her awareness of contemporary issues in art and photography as well as her Korean heritage. She transforms ancient architectural forms into images of a dynamic present that are nevertheless deeply personal. In the catalogue Contemporary Korean Photographers: A New Generation, Bohnchang Koo writes that Lee “renders her themes like silent objects, but their silence is like an infinite whispering."1) These memorable whispers are both ancient and new.

1) Houston, Texas: Foto Fest; March 2000,p.