On September 11, I stared at the gallery postcards scattered in front of me. The paintings, sculptures, photographs or ceramics depicted on them seemed ridiculously self-indulgent in the context of the moment, like an ice cream cone in the hands of a train-wreck bystander. I craved quiet — in the world, certainly, but also inside, an inward silence that would let me come to terms with the horror of the day and its magnified confirmation of humanity’s inhumanity.
I studied the postcards again and pulled from the pile the announcement of Ke-Sook Lee’s mixed-media exhibition, Stories From the Garden. Even as I looked at the flat reproduction, the noise in my head began to dim. On site at the Dolphin gallery, it diminished to a whisper, for there is nothing in the city quite as placid as a gallery or museum midweek: the whitewashed walls, the echoing footsteps and hushed voices, the sense of solitary communion with someone absent, whose eyes and hands have left behind the ardent relics of their emotions, dreams and yearnings.
This is not to say that Lee’s quietly pleasing works are escapist, though escape is possible. But they delve much deeper than superficial ornamentation, and it’s within those depths that silence occurs: moments of ineffable beauty, where language fails and only the heart has the capacity to respond. Of all the art on view this month, Lee’s seems the most antithetic to the horror on the East Coast. It is full of humanity’s grace, though no human is portrayed.
“Awakening in Her Garden I,” for example, is a large patchwork quilt of rice paper over white mesh, the edges raw and unfinished as if it were a work-in-progress. Half of the large squares have been folded and cut the way a child makes paper snowflakes. Alternating squares are solid, washed in pale cerulean blue or a sienna-brown pigment made of clay from Lee’s garden. Sometimes the blue abuts the brown, the way the sky or water meets the earth; sometimes the two colors overlap as if we were viewing the earth from high up in the atmosphere. Here and there the quilt is drizzled with a watery cobalt blue, implying a world washed in rain, or tears. The squares are stitched together with black thread, and in the center of each is a black or white pattern — Lee’s personal symbolism — with a curving, bending shape resembling the immediacy of sumi-ink calligraphy or the graceful gesture of a ballet dancer.
Lee’s work is autobiographical, inspired both by her childhood in Korea, where she learned to sew and embroider from her grandmother, and by her transformation in the United States (specifically the Kansas City region) into mother, wife and “an individual who is obsessed with her growth as an artist,” she says. “My work is based on my emotional experiences. To open my emotions and learn more about myself, I need to meditate to nothingness, to get to my inner self.”
But there is also a universality to Lee’s art, rising through the emblems of her life and into the viewer’s own. Her work has a powerful feminine presence that is, frankly, a welcome relief in a world thrown out of balance by masculine aggression that dominates and destroys. By contrast, the strength of the female principle lies in its quiet resolve toward creation, and thus, beauty, in all its enigmatic splendor. Such splendor is implicit in Lee’s translations of domestic icons — embroidered dish towels, pillow cases and quilts, for example — into serene icons of nature: the yin and yang macrocosm of sky/water and earth in perfect balance, one never more dominant than the other.
In “Pillow Case: Learning to Stand on Her Own Two Feet” and “Pillow Case: Her Voice Echoes Into the Sky,” Lee clearly delineates the horizon between sky/water and earth; that horizon is the one element that seems constant. Insets of tatted lace resemble suns or stars or starfish rising and sinking in a world in transition. Buried in the earth are painted spiraling images like fossils of cephalopods exposed by the wind. Time has passed, is passing. And so are we.
“Art can contain political issues,” says Lee, “and communicate messages that bring not physical destruction but empathy.”
Art can also bring tranquility, if only temporarily. In each of the nine works in “Dish Towels: Garden Flowers,” and in “Pillow Case: Waiting for Her Hands to Grow,” at least one black globe hovers in the blue wash or the brown, like a negative of the sun or a pool of water bereft of life. The black — whether as pigment painted or an inset of black fabric — appears simultaneously intrusive and essential, a bothersome part of nature that, like it or not, has its place.
Regardless of the medium, all art is viewed in multiple contexts: the physical space in which it exists (not only the gallery or museum but also the relative city, state and nation) and the psychological space of the viewer. And contexts change. A reading of Lee’s work would have been different — perhaps significantly so — on September 10. But as of the next day, the meaning of Stories From the Garden was forever altered. The work is now more important, more necessary, because it reminds us that a species able to destroy so hideously can also create so magnificently. That amid the ignoble is the noble, and that someday we might shift our horizon to a more equitable position.
Life rises to such heights, and sinks to such depths, that often art alone can express such unsettling contradictions. Perhaps that is what gives art its significance: its ability to provide new clues, from one moment to the next, toward understanding a world that is perpetually confounding.
“Art is a beautiful form of communication,” says Lee. “It can touch the human soul and stay inside for a very long time. Art can be contagious in a peaceful way.”