Installation view of “Lee Ufan” at Pace Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong. 

New Works

Lee Ufan

Pace Hong Kong
Hong Kong Korea, South

For nearly 20 years, Lee Ufan’s “Dialogue” series (1996– ) has explored questions of process, material and spatial relationships. A new batch of paintings from the series by the Korea-born octogenarian, now in his sixth decade of art-making, is on view at Pace Gallery’s Hong Kong branch. There the conversation continues.

The self-titled exhibition marks the debut solo show in Hong Kong for the modern master of the Mono-ha and Tansaekhwa art movements—from Japan and Korea, respectively—and the first since his seminal 2011 survey at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Five vertical canvases, dating from 2014 to 2015, each occupy their own wall in the gallery’s space, which is located 15 stories above Hong Kong’s bustling Central district. Like the other works from the “Dialogue” series—which have been exhibited in major international cities, including New York, London and Seoul—each painting consists of a single dab or dot of sky-blue or burnt-orange paint on a cream or white surface.

LEE UFAN, Dialogue, 2014, oil on canvas, 162 × 130 cm. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong. 

While Lee’s other series employ repetitive gestural marks—such as “From Point” (1972–84), recognizable for paintings that comprise rows upon rows of small squares fading from navy to nothingness, or “From Line” (1972–84), in which a dipped brush is dragged from the top of a canvas to its bottom until the paint streak runs dry—“Dialogue” presents just one or two broad brushstrokes of varying size, color and orientation surrounded by a void. Each of the dabs is painstakingly built up through applications of a traditional Asian concoction of ground mineral pigment with animal-skin glue, which Lee does by crouching above the canvas laid flat on the ground. Each work can take weeks to complete.

This sense of process and material is evident when viewing the works up-close. In the single broad dab depicted in Dialogue (2015), seamless layers of powdery paint, as though sculpted from sand, have formed an impasto that heavily protrudes from the canvas at the top and thins to a whisper at the base. From right to left, the stroke’s hue fades evenly from gunmetal gray to pure white. Ragged edging at its base implies the use of an enormous paintbrush. As with some of the other paintings in the room, the dab is in the bottom half of the canvas and slightly off center, hovering a bit to the right.

With the works displayed on the next wall, however, the positioning of the dab flips. Now the drip runs the other way, from bottom to top, fading to white from left to right. In Dialogue (2014) the dab has been painted in orange and lacks the heft of its 2015 counterpart; the former’s coating is lighter, with no built-up “rim” where the brushstroke begins.

LEE UFAN, Dialogue, 2014, watercolor on paper, 104.8 × 76 cm. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong. 

In the gallery’s second room is the fifth and final work: a smaller scale, watercolor painting of a single brushstroke on paper. Glossy and slick, and strictly two-dimensional, Dialogue (2014) lacks the physicality that we feel towards oil paintings as weightier, impactful objects in space. But Lee’s watercolor has vibrant, inky hues that pack a punch. Concentrations of cobalt on the right side of the dab diffuse to traces of a faint, sky-blue wash on the left. Rippled edges on its bottom show paint pooling and trickling into the faint crags on the paper.

Whether in oil or watercolor, Lee’s composition of “a single dab in the void” remains the same, consistently raising the question of the relationship between the “object” and the space it occupies on the canvas. To encounter one of these sparse canvases is to consider the resonance of the squat, floating color-fields that occupy them. How do these crystalline accumulations relate to the canvas, the room and to each other?

It can be tempting to relate the void or the white spaces—or “margins” as they have often been called in relation to Lee’s work—to art historical theories from Eastern disciplines. Yet Lee, who has been based between France and Japan for decades, has resisted such categorizations, despite his prominent role in seminal Asian art movements. With this in mind, “Dialogue” feels a fitting title for the series in question, in more ways than one. 

Lee helped lay the theoretical foundations of the Mono-ha movement that ushered in fresh examinations of material properties, process and relationships in 1960s Japan. Through his latest works and others, he continues to contribute to the discourse of minimalist abstraction that he helped introduce to his adopted home and abroad.

LEE UFAN, Dialogue, 2015, oil on canvas, 146 × 114 cm. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong. 

“Lee Ufan” is on view at Pace Gallery, Hong Kong, until January 9, 2016.

Siobhan Bent is Hong Kong desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific.