Lee Seung Hee was born in 1960 in Cheongju, the capital of North Chungcheong province, South Korea. He trained in the Craft Design Department at Cheongju University, where he studied ceramics, fiber craft, dyeing, and tapestry. His remarkable ceramic works unite the beauty and charm of traditional Korean forms with the more conceptual concerns of contemporary art. As a master of ceramics technique, he creates much of his work in Jingdezhen, in southeastern China, where he established a studio in this historic center of Chinese porcelain production in 2008. Since then he has won international acclaim for his Porcelain Paintings and his Bamboo series. In the Porcelain Paintings, which subject Korean ceramic masterpieces of past Centuries, Lee ingeniously transforms the original three-dimensional objects into stylized, shallow-relief images on porcelain tiles. His subsequent Bamboo series involves the production of thousands of ceramic “bamboo joints” that, when joined together, evoke groves of graceful, freestanding bamboo trees. His most recent ceramic works, the Space of 8mm series, infuse unexpected hints of volume into renderings of folded and layered sheets of paper. Throughout his career, Lee has emphasized motifs, materials, and colors that have strong associations with traditional Asian ceramic works. In this way, he enables viewers to make an imaginative connection between his undeniably contemporary works and the rich heritage of ceramics.
While in his previous series Lee Seunghee has often transformed fully 3-dimensional objects into low-relief ceramic works, Space of 8mm, his most recent group of works, gives a dimensional form to what is ordinarily a flat object—a sheet of paper. He starts by sculpting a flat clay surface with a thickness of 8mm in a variety of sizes and formats. To create the effect of sheets of paper that have been folded or layered upon each other, he applies 10 to 20 layers of the clay/water mixture kaolin to obtain a minimal but discernible “paper-thin” elevation.
Before firing these works in a kiln, he selectively glazes them—for example, applying glaze to the front but not the back of the seemingly folded paper sheets. By employing different colors and thicknesses of glaze, he achieves an astonishing range of rich, subtle hues. An artist who is an undeniable master of ceramic technique, Lee Seunghee says that “I am on my way to finding something which cannot be found in other materials but only in ceramics.”
Lee’s Porcelain Paintings result from a prolonged and technically demanding process. Starting with a blank clay tablet, he painstakingly applies up to 70 extremely thin layers of kaolin, a mixture of white clay and water used in porcelain production. Each layer requires a full day to apply and dry. In the next stage, he carefully isolates a raised central shape by scraping and cutting away the background. In this way, he renders, in shallow relief, the outline of the historic ceramic work that is his subject. After applying, where needed, a traditional ornamental pattern in colored pigment, he glazes and fires the work in a kiln. The entire procedure can take up to 90 days from start to finish.
The Porcelain Paintings imaginatively reinterpret a variety of historic ceramic masterpieces—vases, bowls, jars, dishes, bottles, drinking vessels—from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The original ceramic objects that Lee depicts include examples of the celebrated white porcelain that made its appearance in the 15th century, and whose elegant minimal forms were prized by the Korean aristocracy. Lee also turns to classic examples of the blue-and-white ware of the same period, noted for the use of cobalt blue pigment to create stylized patterns of birds, dragons, lotuses, and bamboo. In all of his Porcelain Paintings, Lee centers the viewer’s attention on a deceptively simple image whose low relief subtly suggests the actual volume of the original ceramic object. Lee’s works do more than pay deserved homage to the masterpieces of the past. The innovative visual language that he employs reveals a sophisticated sense of spatial play and perceptual paradox--qualities that mark these as unmistakably contemporary works.
In Asian culture, bamboo has long been identified with such virtues as modesty, integrity, and resilience. Recreating bamboo that is flexible in nature with the fragile and inflexible material, Seunghee creates a tension between natural and man-made, between hard and soft, and between flexible and rigid. Such contrasts reflect a tension within every man.
To create his imposing Bamboo ceramic installations, Lee first sculpts individual “bamboo joints” from clay, then fires them one by one in a kiln, and finally assembles them into groups of freestanding tree trunks. For the most ambitious versions of his bamboo grove installations, which feature ceramic bamboo tree trunks reaching almost 14 feet in height, as many as 10,000 ceramic joints may be needed. The colors that Lee chooses for his bamboo works consciously recall the classic hues of Korean ceramics: white, celadon green, black, and reddish-brown. The artist has made entire “bamboo groves” in black ceramic, with striking results that suggest a traditional ink landscape come to life.
Written by Christopher Phillips, an independent curator and critic
Lee Seung Hee was invited to numerous solo exhibitions including "Synchronicity" and "TAO: Between Dimensions" at Park Ryu Sook Gallery in Seoul, Korea; "Transfiguration" at Waterfall Gallery in NY, USA; "Object beyond Object" at Force Gallery in Beijing, China; "Path" at Wally Findlay Gallery in Palm Beach, FL; "CLAYZEN" at Korean Craft Museum in Cheongju, Korea, and many more. Lee's works have been exhibited internationally including "Who Will Give an Answer" at Cheongju Museum of Art in Korea; "Rethinking Craft" at SeMA Nam-Seoul Museum of Art in Seoul, Korea; "Reduction of Sense" at Ozasa Gallery in Kyoto, Japan; "Contemporary Korean Ceramics" at V&A Museum in London, UK; and "International Biennale of Vallauris 2016" in Vallauris, France, among many.
Thanks for your time, Seung Hee. Looking forward to getting to know you!
To start us off, please tell us what is ART to you?
Art, for me, is a charger for life. I often feel that we live in a programmed structure, living according to the unexplainable system rather than by spontaneity. Living a life of constraint requires much energy, so we need to gain energy from somewhere. In my case, I gain that energy by doing repetitive daily actions in my studio - doing art. Even though I am doing something, I find fulfillment in my heart rather than a loss of my energy. And I live another day using this energy. However, living as an artist is whole another story. It is still an area of confusion because I live much of my life as a non-artist. I desire to be an artist, and I always want to be in the state of becoming rather than being an artist. I wish to be known as a person who always strived to be an artist.
Art is also a dream beyond my fears. I define a dream as things that trigger my curiosity, unexplainable thoughts, and many abstract senses I feel. Working in my studio is not a reflection of the reality outside of the studio, so my work might appear “useless.” But, I am in the process of believing that doing the “useless” work in my studio is a way to live out my true self. And living out who I am is what fulfills my life. This is why I define art as the charger of life.
It is surprising that an artist like you is still exploring and learning what it means to live as an artist. That is encouraging and motivating. Regarding your works, do you have a message that you want to deliver to people through your work? What would you want them to think or feel?
People look at the world through the lens of experience and knowledge. My goal is to create an unfamiliar sight to their experience and knowledge, which will collide with the familiar. I hope to see that collision in people’s minds. Hopefully, through the interaction of the unfamiliar and the familiar, the past incidents will be re-recognized and re-connected, creating small influences on their lives. And I hope that this experience will be a small ingredient for their new dream.
I love how you said an ingredient for a new dream. How did art become an ingredient for your dream to be an artist? When and why did you decide to follow your path as an artist?
A path as an artist is like bibimbap* where despair, surrender, courage, and challenges are all mixed together. So, even in my sixties, I still wonder what it means to live as an artist. Receiving an acknowledgment for my works is always awkward and ambiguous. Sometimes, I feel like there is a large gap between myself as an artist and myself as a non-artist. When I display good works, I am very proud of myself, but at other times, I question myself and my life. That is why I spent less time as an artist. I desire to become an artist, but I’m afraid to say that I am an artist yet. But, if I have to answer your question, I decide to live as an artist when I am invited to a meaningful exhibition. Those moments encourage me and remind me that the world acknowledges and appreciates me. I think in those moments, I can confidently say, “I am an artist!” More concretely, I thought that I became an artist when I signed as an exclusive artist with the gallery.
*Bibimbap - a Korean dish in which all vegetables are mixed, making a harmonious taste
It sounds like you had many conflicting moments in your life as an artist. Despite the obstacles, what motivates you to move forward as an artist?
I would say three things: curiosity, recklessness, and courage.
Then, what has been the happiest moment and the challenging moment living as an artist?
I think artist life always holds both happiness and suffering like a two-sided coin. As I look back, the most challenging moment also holds and reveals the happiest moment living as an artist.
Thank you for sharing stories in-depth. I am grateful to have this conversation with you. Thank you, Lee.