Ballpoint Abstractions

For those of you who think creating modern art doesn’t require dedication, you should take a look at the exhibition of works by Korean artist Il Lee (“Ballpoint Abstractions”) currently on display at the San Jose Museum of Art. You will be amazed. I did not know that such intense, focused dedication was possible. Why do I say that? Lee’s work is produced by scribbling on paper and canvas with a ballpoint pen—weeks, months and years of scribbling, millions upon millions of scribbles placed just where he wants them to create his intended visual effects.

The Korean-born Lee has lived in New York since 1977 and has exhibited internationally, including Paris, New York, Los Angeles and his native Seoul. It’s entirely fitting that his work should be shown at the SJMA in conjunction with the exhibitions of works of Op-Art and M.C. Escher, obvious aesthetic influences on Lee. His early 1982 drypoint etching, A Tape Measure, has an Escher-like topological subject and compositional style, but note the background texture made of scribbles. Another striking early work, Untitled 82-E (1982), produced in acrylic and oil stick on canvas, shows his emerging technique taking a more important, upfront role.

The installation of a wall full of Lee’s small drawings, many of them models or preliminary studies for bigger works (and even some finger paintings, but not like a six-year-old), gives the viewer a fascinating glimpse into the development of the artist’s working methods. Several of his medium-sized works on display allude to Op-Art, such as BL-054 (2005), which positively dances with perceived movement as you stare at it. A few of these pictures even have a little painted color behind their well-placed blobs of scribbling, creating a welcome contrast to the majority monochromatic works.

However, the pictures that really take your breath away are the very large ones. The trees/forest metaphor of the stunning BK-002 (2006) will not be lost on the viewer who closely examines the large 80 x 127 inches canvas to observe that it is built of an incredible mass of the expected ballpoint pen lines. It must have taken a very long time, much patience and a lot of strategic planning for Lee to produce that image with his technique.

A small display of items from Lee’s studio is quite interesting and includes a box of spent blue and black ballpoints and a sculpture of melted ones. He must have used tens of thousands of these pens over the course of his career.

What a treat this exhibition is and how lucky we are to have it right here in our own museum. The current exhibitions at the SJMA will keep you entertained for many hours and they are so good you will want to return to see them again and again. There are many excellent exhibitions coming up later this year, including a selection of paintings by the late American master Richard Diebenkorn and “Fantastic Universe,” dedicated to the works of the great Spanish Surrealist, Joan Miró.

Il Lee: Ballpoint Abstractions continues through July 8. Don’t miss it. 

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