HYUNGKOO LEE, Geococcyx Animatus, 2005–06, resin, aluminum sticks, stainless steel wires, springs, oil paint, 44 × 130 × 41.5 cm. Photo by Cathy Carver. Courtesy Arario Gallery, Seoul.


Hyungkoo Lee

Arario Gallery
USA Korea, South

An unsettling, bulging eyeball in the intricate mixed-media drawing, A06 (2005-06), greeted viewers at the entrance to “Animatuseum,” Seoul-based Hyungkoo Lee’s New York solo debut. Part cartoon, part scientific study, the image set the tone for the exhibition, which played humor and objectivity off each other, while presenting the findings of the artist’s recent archaeological excavations of pop culture in displays reminiscent of natural history museum dioramas.

Distributed throughout Arario’s darkened galleries were examples of Lee’s “Animatus” series (2005-07), wonderfully detailed and realistic skeletons of well-known American cartoon characters, theatrically lit and grouped together in suspended animation. Leading with a spindly right claw and hyper-extended neck is Road Runner in Geococcyx Animatus (2005-06), his beak open mid-“Beep! Beep!” and pursued by the persistent Wile E. Coyote, Canis Latrans Animatus (2005-06). Elsewhere, Jerry flees from a pouncing Tom, and an irate Donald Duck hovers high above his trio of mischievous nephews. The fabricated fossils were meticulously crafted in Lee’s workshop out of cast resin after much careful study of actual animal anatomies, preliminary sketches and prototypes, many of which were also on display. Somewhat unexpectedly, the act of translating animations into objects gives these characters a weighty spatial presence, bolstered by the evidentiary authority associated with fossils. Lee’s sculptures make it seem as if the Looney Tunes characters actually walked the earth.

Like much Pop Art, Lee’s sculptures use mass culture to draw in the viewer while addressing darker subtexts, such as the obsession with bodily transformation, American cultural hegemony, ethnic stereotypes, and even those Warhol favorites, celebrity and death. Lee’s interest in animated characters emerges from his earlier work, photographs and videos that documented the unsettling effects of a series of ingenious wearable devices the artist calls “The Objectuals” (1995-2004). Engineered to optically exaggerate Lee’s facial and bodily features, the series was initiated in an attempt to overcome the “undersized Asian male complex” the artist claims he suffered from while completing his MFA at Yale. Homo Animatus (2007), a new version of Lee’s Animatus prototype from 2004, is a little man with a gigantic skull—possibly a caricatured self-portrait—that links the two series. Through irony and exaggeration, Lee also manages to slyly critique the museum, laying bare its central paradox: the modern desire to resist death by capturing, preserving and reanimating the past, symbolized by the perpetual pursuits of many of his chosen cartoons.

Lee put his process on display in a bright, glass-enclosed laboratory in the rear gallery, which included a worktable and shelves littered with tools and vials. As with the tongue-in-cheek Latin names he gives his creations, Lee’s faux-scientific approach appears to challenge science’s positivist promise. Yet, as a staged representation of Lee’s studio, this lab suggests overlaps between the two practices, highlighting the creativity and imagination science requires and the importance of empiricism and experimentation in the artistic process.