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[Korean Artists of Note] Lee Jin-ju brings images from the deep abyss

By Park Yuna

Published : Sept. 4, 2023 - 09:30

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Lee Jin-ju stands at her studio in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, Friday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Lee Jin-ju stands at her studio in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, Friday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

People go through numerous experiences in life. Some will be forgotten naturally, but some, whether pleasant or not, remain in the abyss of the unconscious.

Some memories are so strong they dominate one’s life.

Lee Jin-ju recalled an unpleasant incident from her childhood and called it “trauma” – she did not know as a little kid that the memory would stick around for so long.

“I did not think of it as a big deal at the time. But the unpleasant memory has lingered, popping into my head from time to time, which was painful. I did not tell the story to anyone until I grew up,” Lee said at her studio in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, Friday.

Lee was eager to learn about the memory that bothered her and looked up books on psychology. It was when she started to reveal her inner state of being through paintings that she was able to confront the memory of her younger self.

A part of an image of A part of an image of "The Lowland" by Lee Jin-ju (Songeun Art and Cultural Foundation)

“I have some moments that arouse images in my head. I think we all have memories that we do not want to face and cover it up,” the artist said. She believes everyone has a “seed” that can be created as art.

Lee's 5-meter-wide painting “The Lowland” from 2017 displays diverse images, including women in pantyhose carrying three-tiered plastic wreaths on their backs. Such flower wreaths are a common site at Korean funeral parlors. Some parts of the plastic wreaths are sunk in water. On the left is a dog, and further down are a pair of human feet underground. The painting is on display at the “Panorama” exhibition at the Songeun Art and Cultural Foundation in Gangnam, southern Seoul, until Oct. 28.

“It was a time when I was thinking deeply about death after my father passed away and the Sewol ferry disaster. I wanted to show a panorama of one’s life,” she said. The capsized Sewol ferry that claimed around 300 lives in 2014, most of them high school students on a field trip, remains one of South Korea's worst sea disasters.

"Your Room" by Lee Jin-ju (Arario Gallery)

Born in 1980, Lee explored traditional Korean painting at the College of Fine Arts, Hongik University. Her paintings embody characteristics of Korea's tradition in their techniques and materials.

Lee mixes powered pigment with “agyo,” a type of animal skin glue, and blends it water. Typically used in painting, agyo is obtained from the endodermis of animal hides. It consists mainly of protein and includes collagen.

“I find East Asian ingredients more comfortable than Western oil," Lee said, showing off her agyo.

The inaugural Seoul exhibition at British gallery White Cube, running Tuesday to Dec. 21, features a number of Lee's works as part of “The Embodied Spirit,” a show directed by the gallery’s global director Susan May.

Lee's paintings at the exhibition have a black velvet-like texture as the background with two women hiding their faces. The unique black texture came from the materials she used.

"Blazing Radiance" by Lee Jin-ju (Arario Gallery, White Cube)

The fine soft hair is delicately depicted, encouraging viewers to linger for a while, examining the brush strokes.

"It is rarely recognized, but we have fine hairs almost all over our body, except for on our lips and palms. We already have them, but do not notice their existence. I wanted to bring up things that we are not aware of," the artist said.

Lee goes beyond ordinary canvases -- her wooden-shaped canvases are created by her husband, Lee Jeong-bae, who is also an artist. To get to her studio, you have to pass through that of her husband where wood and cutting equipment are scattered about.

"Those who really know us would say one writes as Jin-ju, but reads as Jeong-bae," she jokingly said.

Lee's paintings, including "Your Room," will be shown at the booth of the Arario Gallery at Frieze Seoul 2023, which will be held from Wednesday to Saturday at Coex in Seoul.

“I am moving on to paintings inspired by everyday life and deep inside of myself – it could be death and life. Watching my kids growing up fast, ironically, I sometimes think of death, thinking how our life is so short,” Lee said.

Lee Jin-ju poses for a photo at her studio in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, Friday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Lee Jin-ju poses for a photo at her studio in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, Friday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

This is the first in a four-part interview series with emerging artists whose works are being shown at Frieze Seoul 2023 and Kiaf Seoul 2023 --Ed.