The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Lee Sang-nam 'dares to die' to survive as an artist

By Park Yuna

Published : Feb. 6, 2024 - 17:43

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Lee Sang-nam (Courtesy of the artist, Perrotin) Lee Sang-nam (Courtesy of the artist, Perrotin)

For its first exhibition of the year, Perrotin Seoul is presenting a solo exhibition of Lee Sang-nam, an artist who, with roots in conceptual minimalism, has developed his art in different ways throughout his 40-year career.

Lee, 70, moved to New York in 1981 to explore his own art in the global art scene after graduating from Korea’s prestigious art school Hongik University. The city's vibrant art scene shocked the artist who had stuck with conceptual minimalism up until then. In New York, he was exposed to expressionism and graffiti art, which were popular at the time.

"Blue Circle No.4" by Lee Sang-nam from 1993 (Courtesy of the artist, Perrotin)

“At first, I was frustrated because I felt like conceptual minimalism was not something people would enjoy. It was a very hard time for me but now I feel so lucky because I was able to find my own language of art, continuously studying diverse art there,” Lee said during an interview with The Korea Herald on Jan. 30 at Perrotin Dosan Park in Seoul.

In New York, he realized how much he had been exposed to “male-oriented” or “violent” art before moving there. “The city was swept with feminism. I came to think about how I can encompass diversity and avoid a male-dominated perspective in my art. You may be able to find that in the colors and shapes of images in my paintings,” he said.

An installation view of An installation view of "Forme d’esprit," a solo exhibition of Lee Sang-nam at Perrotin Seoul (Courtesy of the artist, gallery)

His acrylic paintings look flat, but they are the result of repeated layering of acrylic and lacquer, then sanding and coloring again. Lee refers to the images and signs in his paintings as “nomadic beings” that connect and are entangled with each other.

“My imagination comes from the civilized things created by humans after the Industrial Revolution, for example. It is interesting to see how people think of different objects looking at those images,” he said.

In New York, he saw performances and plays that he was not able to back in Korea four decades ago. The way his art is created is also influenced by those plays -- different incidents create an interesting story. His act of layering, sanding and coloring similarly create a unique – sometimes unexpected – story.

"Forme d’esprit (H29)" by Lee Sang-nam from 2022 (Courtesy of the artist, Perrotin)

Throughout the interview, Lee looked determined to continue with his own art.

“You should have the guts to continue your own art. Sometimes you may be daunted by what people say about your art, or you may feel like you are lost in finding your own thing. But you shouldn't be self-conscious about what you do or be servile to be recognized or earn fame.

“You will survive, if you dare to die,” he said.

The exhibition "Forme d’esprit" runs through March 16 at Perrotin Gallery in Seoul.