Lee Bae, More Light, exhibition at Maeght Fondation

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29 March 2018
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In the spring, from March 24 to June 17, Korean artist Lee Bae will take over the Maeght Foundation to present paintings, sculptures and refined installations, specially designed for the architectural space and light of the foundation. Under the curation of art critic Henri-François Debailleux, this exhibition highlights a body of work built around very subtle blends coming from Western abstract art such as Arte Povera and the codes and traditional artistic practices of Korean culture. With Lee Bae, the idea of nature is present through fire and charcoal but also through the symbolic and intangible black. The artist likes to emphasize that the burned wood and coal he uses come from the human hand and its ability to transform this natural material.  

The black forms, the materials, the white backgrounds, the light and shadow, the density and transparency have been the vocabulary used by the artist since the beginning of his career to reveal an environment and an interior landscape where the forms, the space and the elements become the philosophical and poetic expression of a relationship with the world. Between the forms and the materials, temporality and the emergence of gesture, an attitude between body and nature, everything in Lee Bae's work is the expression of vitality, strength and energy. 

The pictorial and abstract universe of Lee Bae concentrates on one evocative power: the material. He creates with perfect alchemy an essential equilibrium between charcoal's profound black for his abstract forms, and the milky white color obtained thanks to resin and the successive layers of acrylic paint, extremely smooth, that make the real skin of his paintings. These gracious lines are like shadows in weightlessness; without references, they are mental images that the artist repeats on canvas in a methodic way in order to give them life and reveal this striking contrast between force and lightness. This abstract form is self-sufficient without an anecdotal or narrative aspect. It demonstrates its real nature, its essence, offering to the painting a zone of energy, purity and spirituality. 

INTERVIEW WITH LEE BAE

Interview by Henri-François Debailleux, curator of the exhibition. 

How did you create this exhibition at the Fondation Maeght?

This is not a retrospective, even if the works date from 1990 to today. With the sculptures, installations, paintings and drawings presented, I simply wanted to show my progression, the evolution of my work. I also played with the rooms inside the Foundation as well as with the outdoor space. I installed eight large pieces of charcoal in the courtyard, tied with elastic, which I arranged as if they were a menhir, the standing stones in Carnac. I brought my bundles from Chung-Do, where I was born, near Daegu in South Korea. They were carbonized in the mountains in an old igloo-shaped furnace made of clay. They were burned for two weeks at a temperature of about a thousand degrees, like firing ceramics, then cooled for two weeks also. A month in total. I made them in Korea and I've brought them here as an encounter between the pines of St. Paul and the Korean pines. I like this idea of travel, of the voyage that corresponds to my way of thinking and my way of life for almost thirty years now with my regular trips back and forth between France and my home country. 

You're referring to charcoal which takes up a prominent place in your work. What initially led you to choose this material?

When I arrived in Paris in February 1990, I found a workshop in Pantin in an old Seita factory. I went to specialized shops to buy materials to paint and I was very surprised by the price. I had very little money and for me it was terribly expensive, especially the paints. I hesitated a lot and near my studio, there was a warehouse and building materials where I found bags of charcoal for barbecues... I don't know why, I bought one of these bags. And then I remembered that when I was a student at Fine Arts in Seoul, I had started with artist charcoal and it was the same material. I also immediately realized that with one bag, I could work one week, which was economical. I was very happy because I didn't have to limit myself or to slow down because of the cost of the materials. At first, I used it like artist charcoal. And then, little by little as I moved forward in my work, I bought a semi-transparent acrylic medium for fixing, the same medium that I use today in my paintings. I soaked the coal in it and when I drew, it would stick by itself. I rubbed a lot and the coal powder filled the canvas, which gave interesting material reliefs. 

You've since remained closely linked to charcoal, and even today for your sculptures and installations. How do you explain this attachment?

When I started to work with charcoal, I immediately became aware that it was very much linked to my own culture. At that time I needed to keep a strong connection with my origins, like any unknown artist landing in a city he doesn't know, doesn't speak the language and, on top of that, is coming from the Far East. I felt foreign, very far from home, and charcoal allowed me to rediscover the world of India ink, calligraphy, the atmosphere of the construction of the houses I had known as a child. In the Korean tradition, in fact, when you dig foundations, charcoal is the first thing you use, especially to protect against moisture, insects, etc. Also, when a child is born, charcoal is hung on the door by a rope. It is also at the center of the "Moon House Burning" fire ceremony, when villagers build a mound, like a house, 20 to 25 meters high, with pine trunks during the first full moon of January. The different members of each family hang their wishes written on pieces of China paper, then set fire to the whole thing. This charcoal, symbolically strong, was therefore familiar to me. It keep me linked with my past. It was both an economical, situational and cultural relationship. Eventually, it was this last cultural aspect that led me to continue working with it, when I could have used plaster or metal. But I wanted to continue with charcoal which is still today very important to me and lets me combine my origins with the Western world, to show that what might appear as unique is universal and that the symbolism of charcoal is readable everywhere around the world. With, of course, the wonderful aesthetic qualities and possibilities that charcoal offers. 

How did you approach the Fondation Maeght?

I've known about the Foundation for a long time. I've been there several times, with an obviously different perspective to prepare this exhibition, and each time, the Maeght Foundation reminds me of a monastery. Just like in front of Korean temples, there is always a large statue to fight the devil and here there are Miró sculptures in the garden which are like symbols, icons. As if Miró watched over the Foundation. This place, dedicated to creation, art and its presentation, is also for me a place of meditation. I once saw a Giacometti sculpture next to MoMA. People lived near it, they worked in the neighborhood, they moved around at full speed around it, rushed, stressed out. I felt a form of aggression, emphasised by the touch, the way the material is worked with a knife. When I saw the Maeght Foundation's sculpture for the first time, I had the opposite feeling. It was one of appeasement, of great spirituality, a great presence like that of a monk in a monastery. There was contemplation, like in prayer, and a lot more simplicity and sensitivity than in New York. The dialogue was totally different and it was this place that instilled this impression in me and that changed my perception.  

You once said that its architecture also made you think of a monastery...

Yes, and in particular the shape of the roofs with their curved edges, it makes me think of the temples with their roofs rising upwards and as if they're rising toward the sky. The comparison has always struck me. The flow of light also makes me think of the light of a monastery. Finally, there is the context, the environment, which is very similar. In the same way that the Foundation is surrounded by pine trees, there is almost always a pine forest in front of a temple. And also, it is a very fragrant wood, where a mushroom grows, in Korea and in France, the "pine mushroom", which has an exquisite taste.