Visual tension – Miyeon Lee

Folks, I know I haven’t involved you in any studio visits for a while but let me regain your interest by introducing Miyeon Lee. Miyeon and I met on a beautiful day at Berlin’s Botanical Gardens, where we started getting to know one another. In a nutshell, we come from two totally different countries and cultures; use English as our Lingua Franca; she is a painter, me, well… What connects us, though, is Berlin and how its vibrancy and vivacity is fueling our aspiration after visibility. We both restarted our engines here and dove right into its vast art scene. Needless to say, a survival requires immense efforts and energy, time and resources, it generates certain tensions: Pressure, troubles, angst – to only name a few – are building up until you either give up or you let go…

Miyoen, born in a relatively small town in South Korea in 1980, discovered soon that all she wanted to do was paint. Fortunately, she took the calling seriously and went to Art High School, where she could expand her skill and passion. Her further journey led her to study Fine Art in New York and the path to becoming a painter was laid out (I feel like mentioning monetary struggles, family quarrels, performance anxiety is redundant). What is more important to tell is the way she experienced the city’s atmosphere, its architectural environment, and to realize how these spatial influences can be read off in her paintings. The vast verticality, the massive transition spaces, the discomfort of construction sites. For the last couple of months, Miyeon is grounded in Berlin and continuing to paint. Unsurprisingly, the emphasis on the juxtaposition of tension and freedom, struggle and letting go, claustrophobia, and the call for psychogeographic action are simultaneously growing apparent painting by painting. She encourages us to jump right into the space, to play with its temporal and spatial boundaries, and to embrace the limitations of freedom. Her paintings, thus, visualize the transition from a mere objective manifestation of a place – which usually start off from photographs – into a separated psychological and subjective dimension. “With these photos I build up a relationship, the spaces become mine, but I am just passing by. At the same time, I am looking for a connection to the building and try to make sense of the space”.

Acrylic on Paper 120x150 cm
Acrylic on Paper
120×150 cm

Hence, in her new series of works (yet to be titled) we  find hallways, staircases or thresholds. Their architectural structures are strictly arranged according to the rules of geometry, including ninety-degree angles and central perspective. They are spaces within spaces, only partly functional, remain mainly unnoticed, and usually uncomfortable. Lonely locations – “non spaces” – that indicate metaphorically the transition stage she is currently trapped in. “I always compare the practice of painting to farming. You need good soil to let grow of anything. This studio, for instance, the relationship of colors and lines, this visual language, that’s the soil and its very important to have a really good foundation. All the other factors, like sunlight and rain, are books, other people’s writings, my own organization of thought, or research. They are small but crucial inputs to let a solid product grow. Finally, you also need to let go of it, step back, cut the cord and let it free”. Like good wine you need to know when the time’s right to drink it (and in which company it’s enjoyed the most).

Acrylic on Paper 120x150 cm
Acrylic on Paper
120×150 cm

Thus, the painting becomes autonomous at some stage. It “tells” her to cut the cord, to let go off reality, and to add what lies within herself. The personal struggles, for instance, the constant existential fears, and the societal failures get revealed and appear in a personally related abstraction illustrated by means of lines, shapes, and colors. The control over reality that the photograph initially permitted her, becomes loose and turns into a replica of her inner being without rationalizing too much. “I really can’t. I very much listen to what comes from within myself – this primitive way of doing art”.

Acrylic on Paper 120x150 cm
Acrylic on Paper
120×150 cm

What is more, Miyeon visualizes dichotomies – be it either through the concreteness opposite the abstract, reality against rationality, or tension versus freedom. “What I am trying to say lies beneath the image; these subtle moments created by the brushstrokes, the unstable tension between control and trying to let go”. Thus, the next phase in her painting process is one of actually losing control, adding a layer of coincidence and chance. I admire that in her works. She neglects this “narcissist” aspect of art – the unnerving scrutiny over perfection and the constant controllability, for instance; she embraces the unpredictability of paint and fate; she suddenly yields the process; she allows the paint to run down freely; she surrenders; lets the outcome subject to change. Finally, the cord is cut. The “child” is thrown into the (art) world.

Acrylic on Paper 120x150 cm
Acrylic on Paper
120×150 cm

Another layer in Miyeon’s paintings, which I encountered in her latest body of work, are analogies to her past and the society she grew up in. The stringent geometry of lines, for instance can be regarded as a reference to the strictness and correctness of South Korean society. What counts is the collective, societal rules dominate people’s behaviors and their looks, and the strive to becoming successful is intrinsic. Miyeon experienced these pressures, she grew up with it. Her mother wanted her to become a “kick-ass surgeon”, follow a safe career path and get Western eyes. But something must have been inside her from an early age on, some small rebel against conformity. Like in her paintings, at some point in her life, Miyeon broke out of the conventions, fled reality, and released her free spirit. “As a South Korean person, I carry part of this Korean group consciousness with me, the culture, everything I grew up with somehow breathes out of my paintings. Anxiety, control, and competitiveness are so immanent in Korean society that there is not much breathing room for the individual. It seems like our minds are cut off from the rest due to the division into North and South. The mind of South Korean people seems also cut. They forget how to think expansively and this makes the psychology of the people and their ways of thinking more caged. To survive in society is really difficult. … I think big parts of my thoughts – and I don’t want to sound too negative about South Korea – but the stress part, the anxiety part, its partly personal but also rooted in the situation of my motherland”.

So, I did not grow up in a compliant society and might not be able to fully understand Miyeon’s struggles within her home country but I can relate to her current state of mind all the better. What I grasp is the depiction of rather neutral places/stages, where one does not linger for long and merely (or necessarily) function as gateways to other places/stages. Nevertheless, they are crucial places/stages, where to make decisions and where the hope to convert into fruitful places/stages culminates. In the end, she visualizes how to let go of the constant strive for acceptance, success, conformity, normalcy, perfection and how to deal with these universal strains honestly and truly. In my opinion, her paintings are closer to reality than any photograph of the building. Miyeon takes us off the default paths, makes us aware of the risks, and finally does not give an answer.

Find her former works under miyeonlee.com

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