Art as Meditation, Infinity as Art
by Robert C. Morgan
Lee Kwan Woo’s Condensation pixellations based on the traditional use of Korean stamps and seal-signs are highly original works of art. In recent years, Lee collected these signs from many sources. In addition, he hand-carved and cast reproductions of these seals in resin using traditional Korean methods. The final step was to assemble them into a dense undulating grid-like pattern on the surface of his canvas. By re-contextualizing the meanings of these stamps either as a grid of impressions on Korean paper or as sculptural bas-reliefs on canvas, they have a profound spiritual effect on viewers who are familiar with the traditional use of stamps in East Asia. Some of the signs go back over two millennia when they were used as identity markers in writing and correspondence. Over the centuries, they became sophisticated signifiers of attribution, often revealing the owner’s spiritual and material status within the community. From a conceptual point of view, Lee’s carefully crafted assemblages transport meaning from the historical past into the present. As we encounter these Condensation prints and pixelated sculptural reliefs, the viewer may experience a strong feeling of unity within Korean cultural history. In addition to the use of both original and cast carved seals, the artist uses ink to accentuate various aspects of his abstract design cosmology or occasionally produces a composition of Buddha’s head.
Lee Kwan Woo is less concerned with the notion of appearance, or even identity in his work. He is more involved with the meditative process and the surface as a condensation of feelings and emotions. We speak of condensation as a vapor clinging to the interior an automobile windshield. We see it for a relatively short period of time before the air currents remove it. Condensation is a momentary action in the physical world, a natural effect. The stamps once symbolized a position or status of a professional person, a physician, a legal expert, a business person, or an artist – all regarded as temporary marks of identity in the full spectrum of the universe. Many of Lee’s stamps have a rugged, rustic look about them that somehow retains their integrity. However, when we look at them, we tend not to see them individually. Nor do we necessarily think of them in this manner. Rather we see them as a whole, as a vast ocean of consciousness, representing many lives and different moments in the history of the Korean community. They may project a heightened sensory awareness as we search for a meaning that lies beyond their appearance. From an Eastern point of view, we may reflect on these signs as representing the infinite number of human beings that have lived and worked on the earth, each contributing something of value to their communities, and each requiring a stamp of identity in the realm of daily commerce.
For Lee Kwan Woo the application of art to Buddhism suggests a form of meditation, a kind of ritual given to his art. When we look at the oceanic space of various stamps and seals, there is an implication of infinity that suggests emptiness beyond specific visibility. The effect is nothing in particular. It is a general notion of the cosmos that gives attention to what Buddhists understand as emptiness of mind, a concept essential to Buddhist teachings. Because Buddha is historically more indigenous to Korea than Confucius, and in some ways more related to the lives of ordinary people, we might think of Mr. Lee’s assemblages as being less concerned with the imposition of moral authority than with a great compassion and respect for one another.
In that all of his works are titled “Condensation,” we have to rely on the year or the measurement to communicate specific works. For instance, there is one I am taken with from 2011. It measures 36 x 29 inches. The ink color on the seal is orangey-red and it is positioned in a vertical format with more definition towards the top where the larger seals have been placed. This suggests a form of obverse perspective used in some of the great landscapes of the Northern Song period in China, but in this case, some would call it abstract. In fact, the work is not abstract. The Condensed works are really not abstract. They are representational. They are actual objects that have been used and altered and been given a radical redefinition in time and history as art. They carry memories from the past, what the artist refers to as “allegories of memory.” This is exactly what they are.
In returning to the concept of “open-mindedness” in the work of Lee Kwan Woo, some readers may be unclear as to what it means. The term I use is an English one, but there are other Chinese words that express what I mean more accurately. The words are wu-nien (no mind) and wu-hsih (no thought). Both words are also concepts. They are words close to Buddhist meditation and are also close to art in a way that extends beyond hemispheres or nationalities. They are less a principle, in the Confucian sense, or an ideology, in the Neo-Confucian sense, and more about meditative practice. They are words that describe the direction that Buddha sought to achieve: to instill emptiness in the human mind. Emptiness is the goal of meditation. It is close to nature, and therefore, requires no principle or ideology. It is a matter of emptying the mind of all unnecessary thoughts that stand in the way of self-enlightenment.
The desire to relinquish desire and to find emptiness of mind is what I believe Lee Kwan Woo’s art tries to achieve. He is first and foremost an artist before anything else. For example, we see objects in the material world as having a particular function. This is how we understand them. Objects are identified according to their use. We know them in terms of what they do and how they perform in the everyday world. A chair is where we sit. A bed is where we lie down. A vase holds flowers. A faucet turns water on and off. Lee’s work is not about these kinds of functions. The meaning in his work is neither practical nor functional. His Condensation works do nothing in particular. Rather they belong within the realm of the spiritual – not spiritual in terms of religion, but spiritual in terms of emptiness. They serve to bring us closer to nature, that is, the nature within ourselves that connects us to the universe. Lee Kwan Woo’s work is paradoxically deeply within, yet outside the everyday world, which is essentially, the way of meditation.
Seven years ago I as invited to stay at a Son (Zen) Buddhist temple. It was winter and snowing, and I slept on a cushion on the floor of a small room. In the morning I woke up to the sound of a stick broom sweeping the stone steps outside my door. One of the neophyte monks had been asked to clean the snow from the area outside my door so that I could easily walk down the steps and onto the stone path to the hall where the other monks had congregated earlier for meditation. Later it occurred to me that the monk’s sweeping action was practical, but practical in a very different way than what is understood by Westerners. The sweeping was done as a kind of meditative action so that it took on another meaning, a more distilled meaning. In Son Buddhism – which was popular in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty that ended in 1392 – neophyte monks would perform the same sweeping action whether or not any snow or leaves had collected on the steps or the path. The sweeping might occur at any time if the steps or path were relatively clean. This was called “meaningless work” – a meditative action –that could lead the mind of the young monk toward emptiness. In Son Buddhism, particularly the Rinzai sect, the function of sweeping was to empty the mind. In doing so, the practitioner is brought close to nature.
I think Lee Kwan Woo’s art is original for conceptual reasons, primarily because of its intent and its focus on meditation in the sense of sweeping the clear steps. The stamps and seals he uses are embedded with real memories, and in real time and space. As an artist, he gives them another reading, one close to Buddhism, but also capable of being shared worldwide. In this sense, the artist’s work becomes universal only when it is truly personal, only when there is a vision that the force of the artist’s material involvement chooses to transmit to others. The paradox is that by going deeply within oneself, one becomes universal. I am not certain this is the intent of Lee Kwan Woo, but the work is clearly in search of a new path toward understanding. Having seen some of the actual works of Lee Kwan Woo both in New York and Seoul on a recent visit to the Able Fine Art Gallery this past summer it is clear that Lee is seeking a new way to make art that signifies ideas he believes are important and very much within our current historical moment.
Robert C. Morgan, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus in Art History at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who currently lives in New York City. He is a painter, curator, international critic, and lecturer, who writes frequently on the work of Korean artists. In 2011, he was inducted into the prestigious European Academy of Sciences and Arts in Salzburg.
Finite Infinities in the Work of Lee Kwan Woo
by Mary Gregory, New York art critic and writer
By bringing the many into one, yet never losing the shining clarity of each individual, artist Kwanwoo Lee makes a statement that goes beyond art and speaks directly to his view of life. Lee is a talented Korean artist who combines ancient tools and contemporary vision to create complex works of art that carry many layers of meaning. His Korean heritage is stamped on each work, yet the most fundamental message of his art is universal.
Kwanwoo Lee creates paintings that are not made of paint. His two-dimensional surfaces are actually not flat at all. And yet, it is difficult to describe them as sculpture. His elemental forms are at once unique and representative of mass production. A harmonious form of contradiction seems to be the artist's chosen environment.
Lee's works are composed of stamps. Each stamp carries a word or a pictograph or just a design of the artist's conception. The stamps are placed, in an uneven, undulating layer, across a flat surface. Some jut out. Some recede. They create fields and waves when seen from a distance. As a forest is composed of trees, and an ocean of infinite drops of water, so Lee's constructions achieve completion by the accumulation of many.
Stamps have been used in Asian societies for centuries. Like our signatures, they represent the individual whose name is contained in them. And, as signatures, they carry weight. Legal, social and business relationships, and events were announced, formalized and sealed by stamps. They declare "this is me, and this is my intent." In themselves, they can be beautiful, artful objects. Asian stamps have acquired poignancy in recent decades as they have become anachronistic and abandoned.
Lee describes how moved he was when, many years ago, he "discovered seals amongst the trash and debris left behind in empty or deserted homes." Realizing that each of those seals bore vestiges of the lives they represented and the history and rich heritage that would vanish when the trash was collected and removed. As such, he reclaimed them and made them his new medium.
After having worked on these pieces for more than a quarter century, Lee has left behind those original wooden stamps and now creates individual stamps of his own design, fashioned from 21st century materials like resin. Each stamp is a new creation. Some still contain names. Some name states of being, like happiness - or wishes, like good luck - or elements, like water. Some depict faces, or animals, or small representations of pottery, or bowls that might contain nourishment. Many of Lee's constructions contain hundreds of these hand-made stamps. Some contain more than thousands. It seems to be the artist's aim that eventually, one might encounter the whole universe through his stamps.
And yet, the stamp is literally only part of the picture. Again, as the forest and the trees, there is something larger happening in Lee's work. A thousand stamps may be composed into one benevolent Buddha head. They may form a gleaming, golden abstraction. They may, as in nature, not form any composition at all, or at least none that we can see from our perspective, just presenting a peaceful chaos.
Infinity is made of moments. Each moment contains countless choices. Lee presents a vast series of artistic choices to depict a series of moments, trying to convey a state to the viewer. The viewer will make his or her own decisions about the work—where to look, how to interpret, how to respond.
States exist in time and time is an important element in Lee's work. The works take time to create, as well as require time to be viewed. The amount of hours spent doing each stamp is part of the work and, at the same time, part of the reward. It becomes a meditative act. Repetitive, yet meaningful. Practiced, yet challenging. Each stamp, like each moment, is a record of a thought or an emotion.
However, states also transcend time. Both the personal and the universal, the ephemeral and the eternal are subjects of Lee's work. All the pieces share the same vision, the same aim, and consequently, the artist has chosen that they all share the same title, Condensation. Lee calls them Condensation, and, in effect, he is condensing thoughts into images, hopes into words. He's condensing families into names that represent them. He's condensing many images into one. He is condensing his experiences and views of life into his artwork. And at the same time, he's distilling. Bringing things down to their essences. Many become one. Shared characteristics overshadow individualities. Humanity is greater than nationalities or families. Nature is greater than humanity. The sum will always be greater than the parts.
Condensation also defines the act of water changing from one state to another. As water morphs from vapor to liquid it becomes more dense. It becomes fundamentally different. In his works, Lee seeks to transform the individual to a stronger state, an irreplaceable part of the whole.
Each stamp represents the possibility of losing oneself in the sea of living, or even in the void. The 21st century seems to have made our fiercely individualistic way of life in the west even more so. We live in a world of the self. Lee's reminder that we are part of something bigger, that we are one with everything, is a valuable statement. In his Condensation pieces the one and the whole are interdependent and complete each other. At the same time, the works speak to the idea of population, and bring timely recognition of the fact that cooperation has never been more necessary in our overpopulated world.
The American poet, Emily Dickinson, wrote "A Soul Admitted to Itself: Finite Infinity" in an attempt to describe the indescribable depth of the self. Kwanwoo Lee uses stamps and paint to try to bring across the same ideas. He uses an iconography in his stamps that is individualistic, idiosyncratic, and personal to the point of mystery, which adds to their power. In his work, as in all symbolic expression, sometimes the symbol supplants the meaning, sometimes the meaning is lost. Sometimes the symbol becomes the meaning. In Kwanwoo Lee's Condensation, all of these happen, and we are left with objects created from other objects that speak in an unknown language about separation and completion, time and timelessness, the single self and all of humanity.