In Search of the Source of Self and Universe

-Lee Sang-Bok’s painting

Seo Guil Heon (PhD in Plastic Arts)

Lee Sang-Bok has been curious about the infinite sky since she was a child. With her interest and curiosity, she had occasionally visited observatories and closely observed the stars of distant celestial globes shining in the night sky, pursuing her interest in the universe. The infinite space of her ‘big universe’ which so fascinated her entered into her paintings and was shaped as each specific ‘small universe’. She was interested in Western philosophy for a while in college due to many questions about the universe around her, but in the end she considered that the fundamental way of thinking in Eastern philosophy is closer to the universe she thought, dreamed and encountered than the rational vision of the West. Aware of this fact, she devoted herself to painting based on it.

The encounter with the infinite universe surrounding her was presented to her from a young age as the light into the source of self that was one of her reflections on ‘Who am I?’ Following this light, the universe came as a passage of encounters that resulted in various relationships, and the encounter acted as a factor that made the world appear as one gigantic universe intertwined with interaction by sharing each element. Her own self, ‘I’, is also included in her participation as one of the microcosm that constitutes the great whole. Therefore, the universe was already one with ‘I’. This awakening is the essence of the oriental thought that she learned and, as a painter, sympathized by seeing and feeling the world, so it became a subject of reflection on the vitality of the universe that constitutes it.

This reflexive theme of looking at the world is embodied in Lee Sang-Bok’s work as the concentration and dispersion of individuals with individual characteristics through various materials with diverse characteristics. Countless lines forming a chain relationship between archetypal cells appearing in her paintings embodying a universe composed of various relationships between living beings, which exist like different dots filling the infinite space, connect the invisible world to each other. It acts as a lifeline that connects and breathes the life. The lifeline connects each large and small independent entity distributed on the canvas into a single world, making canvas move as if it were a majestic cosmic galaxy woven in tight relationships while floating separately but cohesively into one mass. The condensed globes that shine like jewels and breathe are symbolized by beautiful ‘flowers’ or ‘stars’, according to the artist. In the organic harmony of the various formative elements, each flower or star, which is a single point and a microcosm as a distinct living organism, constantly exchanges its own vitality with the different universes which contain another rich world within the great universe. The background canvas consists of a dense set of overlapping dots, and the texture of the material is completely and tightly intertwined, embodying the unity of consilience among all elements of the universe.

‘Hanji(Korean paper)’, which the artist mainly uses as a base together with the canvas, already forms an organic world in itself through the fine fibrous structure that is tightly tangled. These materials exchange their elements with each other through living properties in which all materials are closely connected with each other. The vegetable fiber tissue of ‘Korean paper’ obtained from the bark of the paper mulberry takes in water-based acrylic paints one after another as a life force that breathes by itself, allowing the effects of color to permeate deeply into the canvas, not just superficially staying on the surface. In this way, through her Korean paper, she embraces the vegetative nature of deeply osmosis between materials along a thin line like a capillary, transforming the canvas into an ecological space that continues to grow.

The canvas she composes builds a dense and tactile surface densely woven with the convex stems exposed by the texture of these materials. As the universe itself with a ‘breathing’ vitality, it is made into another individual universe that is concrete and alive. In addition, the canvas, which gives a deeper visual dimension to the flat space by appropriately mixing coffee powder, glitter powder, or fine sand in the medium of acrylic, makes the space of the picture with planets of various shapes and expressions floating as living beings more three-dimensional and makes it more look like a complex galaxy. Thus, her canvas becomes a grand universe filled with light that seems to emanate from the source of that deep, distant galaxy of supernovae. All of these processes are a continuation of a new encounter with the distant universe, which the artist has been drawn to since childhood, and is a work that seeks to reach the root of the true self and the vitality of the universe, beyond the boundaries of the isolated self. Her work, which she has consistently continued throughout her life, clearly shows her journey of in-depth exploration of the artist’s self and the nature of the universe.

October 22nd, 2021

‘I’ is ‘We’: The Spiritual Energy That Binds Mankind

Sangbok Lee’s work

A poet communicates through poetry and a musician communicates through music. This means an artist communicates through paintings. What, then, is communication? It is a means of expressing your thoughts! So, a painter is a person who expresses their thoughts through painting.

Since artists have to sift through their thoughts in order to find the best subjects and creative techniques, as well as the interests that have captured their imagination and the values they pursue, it is natural to seek to understand the artists’ thoughts and suffering in their work, as they put their heart and soul into it. This is because artists select their themes for what to create. Therefore, it is good to consider the themes of the painting, to understand the artist’s interests, mind and values.

There were three occasions when the artist Sangbok Lee found herself at odds with her parents. To give just one example, Lee’s parents wanted her to become a teacher. However, Lee insisted on becoming a painter. Lee recalls that, from a young age, she was particularly interested in what lies beneath visible phenomena. The theme of her debut work was ‘encounter’, which was born out of her passion to not only reproduce objects in her paintings but also to capture their essence.

For a cute baby to be born, there must be an ‘encounter’ between man and woman. Likewise, for the birth of creation, there must be an ‘encounter’ between heaven and earth. Nothing can exist without an ‘encounter’ taking place. But an ‘encounter’ does not exist as a mere phenomenon. It is an organic concept that necessarily accompanies production. The existence of all living things depends on an ‘encounter’ taking place. The ultimate foundation is ‘heaven and earth’.

The painting was created to express the eternal ‘encounter’ of creation, in which heaven and earth become one. This painting is a symbolic work that can help us to understand Sangbok Lee’s style. The paintings ‘Family’ and ‘Creation of the heavens and earth’ that followed are the result of the natural progression accompanied by an ‘encounter’.

Finding the essence in phenomena, the universe in me, and the pursuit of universal truth, are the natural consequences of philosophical thinking. So, as the thought that started with ‘I’ becomes truer and deeper, the more our thoughts incline toward the universe, which is the ultimate essence. When our thoughts finally reach the ‘universe’, we realize that all living things in the world are inseparable from each other within the Creator. In Sangbok Lee’s work, this perception is reflected in the themes of her work.

When looking at the themes of her work, including such relatively early themes as ‘Encounter’, ‘Family’, ‘Heaven and Earth’, ‘Cheon Ji-in (Heaven, Earth and Human Beings)’, ‘Cosmos’, ‘Relationship of Life’, ‘Mystery of Love’, ‘Creation of Being’ and ‘Birth’, there is nothing that can be overlooked. They are mysterious and fantastic. The themes reflected in Lee’s work cannot be accessed without her realisation.

In particular, the theme of ‘Genesis 1,2,3,4,5,6’ is ‘Heaven and Earth’ – that is, ‘Yin-Yang’ and ‘Cheon Ji-in’ – in other words, ‘Heaven and Earth and Human Beings’. ‘Yin-Yang’ and ‘Cheon Ji-in’ are basic elements of Oriental philosophy. Symbols such as Ο, □, △, 一, and •, which are frequently to be found in her works, are in line with these basic elements of Eastern philosophy. Whether they are arrived at through philosophy or personal realization, if they are based on truth, meeting at one point is natural. The continual recurrence of these symbols in her work means that her thought pursues the right Tao.

For Sangbok Lee, the ‘•’ represents both herself and the cosmos. It is the heavens. The reason why the cosmos and herself are represented as a single dot stems from the perception that the two are inseparable. Lee came to realise that we are one, connected by the spiritual ties that bind all of humanity together, and our identity is ‘•’. We exist interdependently: when I help you, I am also helping myself. The simpler the symbol, the greater its symbolic meaning and scope. The ‘•’ she seeks and pursues is the universe’s very essence.

The word ‘cosmic’ means rotation and revolution, that which is independent but, at the same time, necessarily subordinate to something else. That is why it is difficult to express the cosmos as an independent entity, because it encompasses both the collective and the individual.

The themes found in Lee’s work, such as ‘form is nothing other than emptiness’, ‘love’, ‘soul’, ‘universe’, ‘nidana’, ‘Indramang’ and ‘Chunrajimang’, are unique languages that describe one’s own subtle cosmic community relations which cannot be expressed in a single word.

The value of her work was first recognised abroad, where it received rave reviews and was widely exhibited, including at a solo exhibition in Washington, D.C.; Salon Grands et jeunes d’aujourd hui (Grand Palais, Paris, France); Contemporary Istanbul Art Fair (Turkey); and the Korean American Artists Association of Washington State. In addition, she has won the 6th Grand Art Exhibition of Korea Prize, the Korea-China Cultural Exchange Award, and the Korean Fine Arts Association President Award.

A style of painting that spans East and West

Lee, who graduated from Hongik University’s Department of Painting and Graduate School, before going on to study at the Department of Painting at the Graduate School of Fine Arts at Illinois State University, has developed a Western style of painting. Western values are the opposite of the East’s; the tendencies of the East are a priori, communal, and intuitive, whereas the West values empirical theory, individualism, and science. Western painting, therefore, when reproducing things considers shape, colour, gloss, contrast and perspective to be very important, and tends to depict these details by layering the paint.

However, Lee not only used techniques associated with Western art, she also tried combining them with oriental materials. Instead of relying on the rich colours of oil paints to capture the essence of what lies beyond visible phenomena, she expressed her own world of enlightenment by applying such oriental materials as Korean paper, also known as Hanji, Dak paper, brush, stone dust, soil and ink to her Western-style paintings.

What is Hanji? Although it is as thin as a mulberry twig, it is in fact a deep vessel into which is poured all the joys and sorrows of history’s most outstanding poet calligraphers. Hanji can be pasted onto the canvas or worked upon directly using oil paint on an oriental brush to create a Western painting with an oriental feel, or by mixing various materials such as oriental paints, watercolours, inks, acrylics, and glue to create an antique colour.

Lee produced her 2015 work, ‘Heaven and Earth’ (mixed media on Korean paper, 62×80cm), by dipping Hanji in water before rubbing it with her hands to create the effect of several overlapping strands of fibre. Rather than adopt the Western painting technique of layering colours, Lee colour coats through bleaching, an approach that stems from Oriental philosophy and the principle of letting go of your ego in order to become one with the universe. Sangbok Lee has a reputation for being ‘a painter with a Western style who is familiar with the Eastern way of thinking’, whose ‘works use oil paints with an oriental brush to create paintings that are Western in style but with an Eastern sensibility’, showing the depth of thought behind her outstandingly creative technique that encompasses the East and West.

Awareness equals responsibility

Our eyes cannot see things that are too small or too big to see, but these things cannot be said to be invisible. Only an amateur would equate the visibility or invisibility of something with its existence or non-existence. Since ‘form is nothing other than emptiness (色卽是空)’ and ‘emptiness is nothing other than form (空卽是空)’, the wise man perceives the invisible in the visible. Also, the wise man does not distinguish between what he knows and does not know. This is because of an indramantic principle which states that ‘macrocosm = microcosm’. However, in order to capture the cosmic characteristics of a micro- and macrocosm on a small canvas, Sangbok Lee has no choice but to use natural symbols. Therefore, in order to understand Sangbok Lee’s works, which are rich in abstraction, it is necessary to understand these terms.

So, she draws. She paints what she knows, feels and comes to understand. Painting is about giving form to something, which is true of writing as well. So, her painting is her writing. It is ‘으(/u/)’, ‘오(/o/)’ and, at the same time, it is the shape of ○□△. The ancient symbols that appear in her paintings mean that this 21st century painter from the East has reached the same level as the progenitors of ancient civilizations. The reason she has no choice but to paint this kind of painting is because of a sense of responsibility that comes from her strong awareness. The extent of her awareness makes her feel a powerful sense of responsibility, such that we can say that her sense of responsibility as an artist is to the universe, the heavens that everyone is familiar with. It is community, oneness, and organic interconnectedness. Just as everything within the cosmos is interconnected, so the materials in her work are also interconnected, like the neurons in our bodies. Although this might sound messy and imperfect, it is an indramang we cannot escape. They are the ties that bind us all together, the threads of causality.

In 2016’s ‘Relationship of Life’ (mixed media on Korean paper, 120×150cm), there are small connections marked with solid lines. In 2018’s ‘Relationship of Life’ (acrylic on Korean paper, 60×73cm) and ‘Relationship of Life’ (acrylic on Korean paper, 73×92cm), these marked connections become thicker and more distinct, showing that Lee’s awareness has deepened and become more pronounced. So, it can be said that her paintings are always evolving. Her paintings will continue to evolve, because she is not the same person she was yesterday, and tomorrow she will be different again. As her awareness continues to deepen and widen, her works will likewise reflect this.

Who is Sangbok Lee?

‘No flower blooms without being shaken!’ The poem this line is from is well-known because people sympathise with what it describes, such as the ‘twisted trees barely rooted in cramped cliffs’, which may inspire people to empathise with Lee’s own artistic struggle. If you only spend your life trying to understand and see the world according to your natural talents and abilities, you will not impress people; they will not be able to empathise with your story. An artist may create many different paintings, but you cannot expect them to make a great impression unless they reflect the artist’s own suffering. Therefore, in order to promote empathy – like ascetics in pursuit of some higher truth – artists should not stop pushing themselves in order to achieve a greater understanding of the world. That is why we look forward to seeing the next great artwork by Sangbok Lee. She will continue to meditate on, and agonize over, the world on her canvas, achieving fresh insights. We will see the great emotional intensity of her work impress the world and understand her efforts to comprehend and faithfully reflect it.

May 10th 2021