When Korea’s Sejong the Great introduced the Hunminjeongeum—or the “proper sounds for the instruction of the people”—in 1446, he explained that “there have been many who, having something they want to put into words, have in the end been unable to express their feelings. I have been distressed because of this.” Until then, the literate population of his kingdom wrote in classical Chinese. By replacing logographic characters from another language with a phonetic system that reproduced the vernacular, the idea was that speech, rather than signs, would bring people closer to themselves. Now called hangul, the modern Korean alphabet consists of twenty-four letters (fourteen consonants and ten vowels), many shaped like the speech organs used to produce that sound, from the tongue placed at the roof of one’s mouth, say, to one’s lips pressed firmly together.
In his first solo show at Harper’s Apartment, Korean American painter John Hyen Lee interrogated the junction from which speech and signs diverge. Eleven beguiling, meditative oil-on-wood abstractions—ranging from one foot in length to wall-spanning panels—blur the boundaries of language, revealing the ways it both provides and evades meaning. Largely adopting the structure of grids and ruled lines, the paintings resemble the books that children use for practicing handwriting or mathematics. Sometimes the compositions are executed in bluish greens and grayish whites so faint that one must stand inches away from the surface to properly observe the artist’s careful, focused shading. They recall the works of Agnes Martin or Robert Ryman with their palimpsestic feel and unvarnished wooden edges, layering, and accumulation. Fluent in both English and Korean, Lee demonstrates how doubling can both add and obfuscate. Repetition belies variation.
While the paintings may evoke portraiture or landscape, they ultimately resist easy classification. Take Memory Forest (all works 2023), which presents rows of strangely shaped mounds that could be lidded eyes, trees, hills, or scratches of writing. At the top of the composition is a crescent moon; below it are semicircles the color of dried blood that linger like setting suns. (Blue Sea) arranges a series of pupilless eyes against a chalky-blue ground. Bits and pieces of Hangul litter Lee’s works, reducing sounds back into shapes. Sometimes he does this explicitly, as in Memory of Square, which reproduces the letter giyeok (two lines meeting perpendicularly at a corner) over and over again. At other moments, the characters feel more vestigial, as we saw in Moon with Writing, in which a pair of rectangles with thick black borders frame what appear to be the recto and verso of a book. Curlicues and slashes float alongside forms evoking disembodied ears and noses.
Lee’s paintings reassemble the building blocks of language into images at once alien and familiar. Curiously, the works often seem faded or exposed, like botched photographs or analog slide projections, their surfaces ostensibly smudged by an unseen finger. A shadow might fall over a part of the painting, as though it were produced by a page being turned. Is this how memory is summoned before it is rendered into speech? These works offered an attempt at translation, albeit from a prelinguistic realm and into a private argot. We might not have the words to answer the question, but with his attentive, delicate approach, Lee begins to gather a personal vocabulary for things unsaid and unsayable—Dennis Zhou