Lee Bae, the Korean Master of black charcoal
A meeting with the Korean artist, Lee Bae, for a private visit of his Parisian studio. The man exhibits both serenity and kindness. Having barely crossed the entrance to his Studio, we were taken aback by the energy and the unadorned beauty which emanated from his canvases, where deep, black coal resonated.
For 20 years now, Lee Bae has worked in the depths of charcoal. He likes its color as much as its material which he explores each time by reinventing the richness of its texture. At the beginning, his encounter with this natural component was fortuitous: having arrived in France, the artist searched for a relatively inexpensive material to use for his works. It was a revelation for Lee Bae, for charcoal was in itself full of meaning and of force. For him, it evoked Chinese ink, and a connection with nature which is so important in Korea. Additionally, charcoal revealed to Bae all of its energy, contrast, and density yet also its lightness once it becomes dust again. In this material, the artist discovered an infinite field for expression.
Lee Bae described to us his long and meticulous process of creation (1 to 2 months)—almost a ritual—to bring life to each one of his pictorial works. Taking the time to thoroughly attend to his creation is an essential component of his philosophy. From working with the charcoal to preparing the canvas to render a particular subject, nothing is left to chance. These are, first of all, precise drawings of what Lee Bae will depict—his movement endures no deviation, his grace resides in a perfect balance, his poetry in a studied ease, his energy in a harnessed motion.
What is astonishing, and also contributes to the power of the work, is the effect of the depth of the canvas. It is no more than one, flat surface, yet in it we find a very perceivable transparence and visual relief. Lee Bae achieves this by successively superimposing three coats of acrylic over which he repaints each time, with the original motive being transparency. Even the acrylic’s texture is fascinating—it appears under the form of a creamy, white liquid which colors the canvas. When drying, the acrylic medium becomes transparent and waxy, taking on more of an eggshell color which will vary depending on the lighting. This creates a vibrant and lively background whose brightness emphasizes the force of the Black and the motives’ versatility.
Lee Bae confided in us that what interests him the most as a painter above all else is experimenting non-stop with new methods of changing the material’s features by revealing its other facets.
The proof is in the image! Lee Bae went downstairs in his studio for a moment and came back up with a piece of an entirely different genre he had painted 15 years ago. The painting is totally black and presents itself as a mosaic of pieces of charcoal which catch the light by making the silvery mica granules sparkle. Magnificent! You can even admire a larger piece along this same vein at the Guimet Museum (Musée Guimet) in the context of the “Carte Blanche à Lee Bae” exhibit (until January 25th)…The Guimet Museum has also purchased it for the museum’s permanent collection.
The evolution of Lee Bae’s work around the same element, charcoal, even extends to sculptural forms. His installation of charcoal blocks tied together, located in a room at the Guimet Museum, respond in brute force to the poetic curves of his paintings.
As I really like this artist, I later went to the Cernuschi Museum (Musée Cernuschi) where Lee Bae’s work is presented through 3 paintings, each one illustrating a facet of his artistic journey: a black painting from the 90s in a charcoal mosaic, a very beautiful work of a coiled black spiral on layers of superimposed acrylic, or even the black and white sculpture-painting where a thick layer of black charcoal of a few centimeters is placed in relief over the white canvas.
Lee Bae has unveiled himself; he is part of the artists from Asia who fell in love with France and who have made it their home. Born in South Korea, he completed his artistic studies in his native country where he began his life as an Artist with…some very colorful works! In 1990, he came to live in Paris to discover the magic of charcoal and worked in Lee Ufan’s studio for ten years.
Among the other recent major exhibits in France, we must recall that Lee Bae’s personal retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Saint Etienne in 2011 was six years after Lee Ufan himself had been presented there. Lee Bae was also later presented at the Fernet-Branca Foundation in 2014. In 2015, Paris celebrated him at the Guimet Museum as well as at the Cernuschi Museum.
Soon to come in 2016 is a line-up of exhibitions for Lee Bae, who has generated a growing interest in the world of Art. In France, of course, with an exhibit at the Château de Chaumnot and a “Mise à l’honneur” (an honorable recognition) at Art Paris in March. Yet in his native country as well, after a magnificent personal exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum in Daegu in 2014, the Korean Government itself would like to make Lee Bae an icon of Korean Art. And so, Lee Bae was offered a large home and workshop on the island of Ulleungdo as well as places to house his future assistants.
A beautiful artist to discover, creator of a major movement which makes curves dance with poetry, a magician–“Alchemist” who transforms charcoal into works of absolute beauty.
Caroline d’Esneval et Florence Briat Soulie
Translated by Brianna Reed, Vassar College ’16
Musée Guimet « Carte blanche à Lee Bae » jusqu’au 25 janvier http://www.guimet.fr/fr/expositions/expositions-a-venir/carte-blanche-a-lee-bae
Musée Cernuschi « Séoul -Paris – Séoul » jusqu’au 7 février http://www.cernuschi.paris.fr/fr/expositions/seoul-paris-seoul-1