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Maia Ruth Lee, "B.B.L Cobalt Umbra 1-46" (2023), India ink on canvas, 80 7/8 x 126 x 2 inches (framed) (photo by Charles Roussel, all images courtesy the artist and Tina Kim Gallery, New York

Shortly after I went to see the exhibition Maia Ruth Lee: The skin of the earth is seamless at Tina Kim Gallery (April 6–May 6, 2023), the poet and translator Soje sent me this poem by the Korean poet Kim Eon Hee, which they had translated as:

Trunk

This leather trunk

So tough, so bloated, so heavy

Unzip it and it
Gapes open, its entire body a maw

Comes returned to sender
After being refused

Stuffed with a chopped-up memory wrapped in plastic, it

Stinks, so
Freakish

Reading the translation transported me back to Lee’s exhibition, which consists of paintings, sculptures, and a video, “The Letter” (2023). What connects these works is Lee’s experience of migration, living in the diaspora, rootlessness, and traveling between the three cultures in which she has lived for extended periods: South Korea, where she was born and went to art school, a small Sherpa village in the Himalayas, where she spent her childhood and adolescence, and different parts of the United States, including New York City and Salida, Colorado, where she now lives and works.  

“The Letter” is composed of snippets of family films documenting, among other things, the artist’s parents and brother, her relocation from Seoul to a remote area in the Himalayas, and what life was like in the mountains. After the plane lands, travelers unload their luggage and begin to trek up a trail; it took two weeks for Lee’s family to reach the village where she and her brother were raised. Many people are carrying wrapped bags that echo the sculptures lying on the floor nearby. Lee’s parents went to Nepal to compile a Korean-Sherpa dictionary. Since Sherpa is an oral Tibetic language, the task took many years. As the film plays, we read excerpts of letters the artist wrote to her friends in 2020 and 2022, during the pandemic, mostly about the ideas of “home” and “place.” 

Made in 2023, the sculptures are part of the series Bondage Baggage (2018–ongoing), in which Lee wraps parcels, boxes, and suitcases in sheets of plastic, tarps, burlap, or canvas, which is then carefully fastened by a rope-like cord she uses to encase the object in a tight net. The series title can be interpreted in multiple ways, inviting viewers to go beyond the literal. Looking at the tightly wrapped forms, I was unexpectedly reminded of a staged photograph of Unica Zürn bound in rope, by Hans Bellmer, that appeared on cover of Le Surréalisme, Méme. Headless and limbless, her body is seen from the back, the vertebrae just barely visible. Lee’s bound sculptural forms are surrogate torsos. 

Stacked against the wall, the objects in “B. B. Check-in” (2023) may have been inspired by the artist’s memory of airports and conveyor belts, but their removal from the context changes them; they become limbless corpses, lost objects, soft vessels containing the stuff of one’s life, reminders of upheaval, migration, deportation, imprisonment, and even torture. Piles of baggage stir up all kinds of associations, reminding us that forced migrations have been one legacy of the modern era. 

Although it is not immediately apparent, the sculptures are central to Lee’s painting process: she wraps the bundles in unprimed canvas, fastens it with cords, and rubs ink into its uneven surface. Next, she cuts the cords and unfolds and stretches the canvas; she does not know what the painting will look like until it is stretched. Not surprisingly, I was reminded of the pliage paintings that the French-Hungarian artist Simon Hantaï began making in 1960. His technique was to fold the canvas into various configurations and apply paint to the exposed areas. Writing about Hantaï in 2006, Carter Ratcliff was precise in his estimation: 

[Hantaï] is one of the very few artists, European or American, who responded to Jackson Pollock’s poured paintings in a genuinely original manner. Pollock invented a new way to paint and Hantaï did the same.

While close looking reveals that the resemblance is superficial, and I think Lee arrived at her process without being directly inspired by Hantaï, it is important to point out, because both artists share an interest in destabilizing the figure-ground relationship, albeit for different reasons.

By wrapping sculptural objects from her Bondage Baggage series in unprimed canvas, and then securing them with cord, Lee starts with an ungainly and unforgiving three-dimensional surface. In contrast to the canonical readings of Pollock and the Minimalist response to his work, Lee is not interested in being literal. She wants viewers to make associations as well as recognize the unstable world in which she and many others live, her memories of both a personal and collective experience. The one thing she does know when she begins a painting is that there will always be unpainted areas in her work. 

Lee’s use of ink to stain the raw canvas is rooted in the tradition of Asian ink painting on paper. Formally, she has pushed ink painting into a new place, all while staying true to her diasporic experience. The tension between the painted, gridded areas and the raw canvas makes these paintings strong. It is as if the white areas are ragged gashes cutting into the grids. The figure/ground strain is brought to an acute pitch in “B.B.L Cobalt Umbra 1–46” (2023). Two sharp-edged forms in the painting that look like they are exploding are joined by a sharp-edged blue shape that extends between them. The two gridded blue forms seem to be pushing outward. Dotted lines are visible in the linear gaps between the grid’s rectangles. With their unevenly inked blue rectangles arranged in a loose grid set within a tattered shape, Lee’s flat shapes record both crumbling order and violent change. 

In the nearly square “B.B.M Cobalt Umbra 1–45” (2023), the sharp triangles formed by the unpainted ground underscore an irresolvable struggle. This formal standoff is a befitting image of our times.

 

Maia Ruth Lee: The skin of the earth is seamless continues at Tina Kim Gallery (525 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 6. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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