Gold-covered nails, neon signs, watercolor—the spectrum of materials that artist Timothy Hyunsoo Lee employs reflects the young artist’s fluency across mediums. In his new show at Madrid’s Sabrina Amrani Gallery, titled “No one dies alone,” and in a current presentation at the India Art Fair, the artist moves deftly between a range of media to address such timeless themes as death and the possibility of spiritual transcendence.
One of the standout works of the show is Lotto Lotto (Farewell) (2015), a self-portrait covered with gold leaf. Lee has scratched away at the gold to uncover his photographic likeness—a process that at once references the Korean tradition of death portraits and lottery tickets. The piece offers a wry critique of our culture’s obsession with instant wealth by hinting at the inevitable fate that awaits everyone, rich or poor. Gold leaf recurs in many of the show’s works, recalling the significance the metal once held in the mortuary rituals of ancient cultures such as the Egyptians. In L’Origine du Monde (2015), the artist covers a piece of dead wood with the material, lending a sense of permanence to the impermanent natural material. The resulting sculpture, with its uncanny resemblance to Gustave Courbet’s infamous L’Origine du Monde (1866), suggests that birth and death are a single cyclical act.
In contrast with these more representative pieces, the show also includes a number of delicate, abstract watercolors. These works create complex and transfixing compositions out of the simple repetition of blue diamonds. While some of the watercolors, like As my breath passes over me (명복) III (2015), suggest heavenly landscapes, others (like A Study of Serenity, and Death, 2015) create a somber mood out of pure abstraction.
For Lee, artmaking is a means of exploring some of the largest questions that have plagued artists and thinkers throughout history. While his past work has probed the relations between trauma and consciousness, his current show turns towards the nature of death and its spiritual implications. Lee characterizes his process as a “search for the sublime...to find a transient medium that lingers between life and death.” His investigations produce works that are far-reaching, with subject matter that encompasses personal memories, religious myths, and art historical references. Together, they offer no simple conclusions about mortality, with each work exploring a different facet of the cultural significance of death.
Lee’s show offers a concluding note in the form of a dim backroom installation. Two neon works (one abstract, the other a sign succinctly reading “serenity”) bathe a landscape painting, No one dies alone (2015), in blue light. Though the afterlife may be the ultimate unknown, Lee seems to suggest that we might find a bit of solace in the universality of death.