SELF: Portraits + Places – Brenda Goodman, Julie Heffernan, and Elisa Jensen

by Jen Dragon

Brenda Goodman, Self Portrait No. 5, 2004 Courtesy: Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and the Artist
Brenda Goodman, Self Portrait No. 5, 2004 Courtesy: Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and the Artist

Self: Portraits + Places is a three-woman exhibition of paintings recently at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts in Woodstock, N.Y. The artists in this exhibit, Brenda Goodman, Julie Heffernan, and Elisa Jensen, consider the myriad senses of being within the confines of the painted portrait.

Brenda Goodman, Self Portrait No. 1, 2003 Courtesy: Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and the Artist
Brenda Goodman, Self Portrait No. 1, 2003 Courtesy: Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and the Artist

For Brenda Goodman, the notion of Self is mirrored by the unflinching gaze of the canvas as the artist paints herself naked and standing alone in her studio. These artworks predate the abstract paintings she is now known for yet underline the very personal foundation of all her work. In these Self Portraits in the Studio, the crushing space evokes a loneliness and vulnerability that is almost unbearable as haunted masked figures surround a terrorized woman (No. 1) while other paintings feature the artist gazing at herself or at the viewer in clothed curiosity (No.5).

Julie Heffernan, Self-Portrait as Lacoön, 2022 Courtesy: Hirschl & Adler Modern and the Artist
Julie Heffernan, Self-Portrait as Lacoön, 2022 Courtesy: Hirschl & Adler Modern and the Artist
Julie Heffernan, Self-Portrait as Mad Queen, 2021 Courtesy: Hirschl & Adler Modern and the Artist
Julie Heffernan, Self-Portrait as Mad Queen, 2021 Courtesy: Hirschl & Adler Modern and the Artist

Julie Heffernan weaves a different version of selfhood from the chaotic skeins of dreams and visions. The fluidity of the female form merges with the botany of the natural world, presenting an allegorical tableau vivant. In Self Portrait as the Mad Queen, the subject possesses a strength that controls telluric currents while funneling a white-hot intensity that can bend destiny. All of Heffernan’s paintings merge artifice with nature ; what is supposed to be wild and savage (the woodlands) are intricately ordered while the protagonists present as inscrutable actors posing as timeless archetypes.

Elisa Jensen, Lights Across the River, Night (left), 2022 and Dawn, 7:45 AM (right), 2023 Courtesy: Pamela Salisbury Gallery and the Artist
Elisa Jensen, Lights Across the River, Night (left), 2022 and Dawn, 7:45 AM (right), 2023 Courtesy: Pamela Salisbury Gallery and the Artist

Elisa Jensen turns away from both figure and fantasy as she places the Self squarely in the geography of light and object. Her subject matter is the serenity of interior space and the intimate connection to the forms that shape our world. Jensen depicts humble domestic objects and phenomena, such as a beam of light through a window, as a stage setting for an internal drama. Her dark interiors parallel the depths of the mind’s eye while the views out the windows become the portals that link the inside experience to the vast world beyond.

As three Fates, these artists present separate visions of Selfhood as an embodied physical emotion, a mystical mythology, or a subject-less experience bound by the very rooms we inhabit. These intangible self-portraits eclipse the subject in meaning as the paintings in SELF: Portraits + Places capture the paradox of individuality and the reality of a universal human experience.

“Victor Ekpuk: Language and Lineage” at Princeton University Gallery

by Siba Kumar Das

Victor Ekpuk, Portraits # 5 & 1 (Portrait Series), 2015, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum- photo Joseph Hu
Victor Ekpuk, Portraits # 5 & 1 (Portrait Series), 2015, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum- photo Joseph Hu

Nigerian-American artist Victor Ekpuk sees himself as an indigene of the West African culture which engendered Nsibidi, an ancient ideographic communication system that is both textual and performative. Native to the Ejagham peoples of the Cross River region shared by Nigeria and Cameroon, Nsibidi likely originated around 400 C.E., spreading to the neighboring Ibibo, Efik, and Igbo peoples. During the Age of Slavery, it also crossed the Atlantic, taking root in Cuba and Haiti. Ekpuk draws inspiration from Nsibidi to create dense sign-and-symbol networks that dominate his art, giving it evocative, expressive power. These networks also include signs and symbols arising from his own memory and imagination, as well as ideas from other cultures. Utilizing all these resources, Ekpuk has developed a unique, personal vocabulary that embeds in his art a symbiotic, rhythmic interplay between art and writing. He has gone far beyond the Nigerian artists who preceded him in utilizing Nsibidi as part of a merging of Western modernism with Nigerian and African ways of art-making.

Love of drawing has also pervaded Ekpuk’s journey as an artist. “I am almost always painting on my drawings or drawing on my paintings,” he says, revealing that, at core, it is drawing that drives the force of his art. This fuse manifests itself even in his sculpture, which he sees as his passion for line finding three-dimensional incarnation. When Ekpuk creates his enormous site-specific ephemeral murals for which he is well-known, his command of line is such his creation virtually flows out of him as a stream of consciousness.

Victor Ekpuk, Mask, 2022. Handpainted steel. Image Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum/photo Joseph Hu
Victor Ekpuk, Mask, 2022. Handpainted steel. Image Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum/photo Joseph Hu

His drawing fluency made Ekpuk a successful illustrator and cartoonist at The Daily Times, a Nigerian newspaper where he worked from 1990-1998 upon graduating from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Owing to the authoritarian military rule that Nigeria continued to endure during these years, the illustrations and caricatures he drew for the newspaper to enliven its articles and news reports were so constructed they spoke to their readers “between the lines.” In an illuminating article on Ekpuk, art historian Amanda B. Carlson suggests that his work as a journalist-draughtsman imparted experiential depth to his artistic exploration of Nsibidi’s graphic attributes. Referencing Julia Kristeva, she also draws attention to the intertextuality informing his works – an attribute that surely drew formative sustenance from the subtle dialogic relationship between text and image that he created for the newspaper’s readers.

With the Princeton University Art Museum’s main premises currently closed for a complete rebuild, Victor Ekpuk: Language and Lineage is on view at Art@Bainbridge, a gallery project of the Museum located in downtown Princeton. Four available rooms show seventeen selections from a thirty-year career. Embedded on the museum’s website is a downloadable brochure, which is also available in hard copy at the show. This document contains a biographical statement on Ekpuk, brief introductions by the curator, Annabelle Priestley, to the artworks in each room, and comments by the artist on specific works and his practice in general. Using the hyperlink given above, readers of this review-essay might like to download the brochure or pick up a copy at the show.

An impression that you might take from the exhibition as a whole is that Ekpuk’s muti-media artworks are at once abstract and figurative. A twenty-first century artist, he has internalized the lessons of the previous century’s art. You might also note that, within his hybrid style, the impulse of his practice is to grow the abstraction without detaching himself entirely from its figurative attributes. Take a look at Prisoner of Conscience, 2002 in gallery 4 in conjunction with the brochure’s Figure 1, House with Crouched Figure Inside, which the artist made circa 1994. In the more recent image, Ekpuk has so stylized his depiction of the prisoner’s plight you feel their physical confinement and psychological pain in a direct, visceral way, and the more you look at the picture, the more its semantic value unfolds in you, including the message of the light streaming in though the tiny window. He has also substituted the hatching of the earlier picture’s substrate with his Nsibidi-based script forming a new substrate. Here he depicts symbolically the violence attending the prisoner’s capture even as it shows a solar eclipse promising hope through time’s passage. On a broader and deeper plane, it also alludes to a universe of endless signification clouded by ambiguity. The artist has said that it is not necessary for the viewer of his script-based art to read it in granular fashion but rather to sense its meaning through feeling – that is, in an oceanic, abstract way.

Most artworks on display depict the human head, in full or part. Referencing his art as a whole, Ekpuk says, “All portraits in general, whether I call them portraits, masks, or heads, bear the idea of the human head as the center of human consciousness. Through the years, I have devised ways to portray the head, to stylize the form and make it abstract, looking for the essence of the form of the head.” This is not the pursuit of abstraction for its own sake. The aim rather is universal signification.

VictorEkpuk, In Deep Water, ca. 2012, printed 2023, digital drawing printed on canvas + two other works. Image courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum-photo Joseph Hu
VictorEkpuk, In Deep Water, ca. 2012, printed 2023, digital drawing printed on canvas + two other works. Image courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum-photo Joseph Hu

The head in In Deep Water (gallery 2) contains a dense agglomeration of signs, symbols, and scribblings, so dense that the density may itself be a key message of the drawing. Ekpuk explains in the exhibition brochure that his drawing “pictures the head of a Black person” in America so weighed down by life’s circumstances they are “still struggling for air.” At the top of the head, however, is a sun-like spiral that may signify hope. And this, indeed, is intertextuality in action in the context of abstraction, sun-like spirals being a recognizable Nsibidi symbol.

For a striking example of the power that Ekpuk conjures through both abstraction and intertextuality, linger, please, when in gallery 3 you reach the acrylic painting Royals and Goddesses. The scarlet of the striations modelling a king’s head as well as coloring the dots that form his crown is set off by the underlying dark green background, which in turn is made more intense by the grey-green Nsibidi-like symbols providing affective depth to the painting. The overall effect is one of spectacular beauty. Then when you consider that, through his imagery, Ekpuk is recalling for you the Ife bronze heads of Nigeria, the fruit of a sophisticated cultural and artistic tradition that flowered more than half a millennium ago, you might say, “This is truly awesome.”

Ekpuk often listens to music when he makes art. It’s even important to him intertextually, as the soundtrack in gallery 4 shows. Featured there is the music of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti (1938-1997), whose culturally hybrid output, especially his lyrics, augments the semiotic power of Ekpuk’s drawings, such as the work Still I Rise displayed in the gallery, as the exhibition brochure affirms.

So proud is Ekpuk of his West African cultural and musical heritage he says that in his art-making, he is realizing an inheritance that is partly genetic. We have previously noted the stream-of-consciousness mode of much of his artistic practice. So primal and fluent is his drawing, he often gives you the feeling that his art originates in a bodily drive, akin to something emerging from his unconscious. In essence, his art exemplifies Julia Kristeva’s thinking not only with reference to intertextuality, as discussed above, but also in respect of the semiotic mode of the signifying process, the mode she thought found expression in music, dance, poetry, and visual art, the very things that animate Ekpuk’s creativity. Kristeva spoke of bodily energy and affects driving language use. In similar vein, art and writing dance together in his oeuvre impelled by the personal Nsibidi-based vocabulary that he has developed.

For Kristeva, the signifying process continues to have a second mode, namely, the symbolic, which uses language as a stable sign system that includes grammar and syntax. The semiotic and symbolic are also intertwined, with each vitalizing the other. What we see at Art@Bainbridge testifies that in Ekpuk we have an artist whose work illuminates the continuum that unites the two modes. Back in 2017, when the Morgan Library and Museum organized the exhibition Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection, Jay A. Clarke of the Art Institute of Chicago suggested in a catalogue essay that “there is still a great deal to uncover in terms of the relationship between drawing and writing.” She then said that “the formal semiotics of drawing are ripe to be explored in new ways.” The wonderfully-curated Princeton University Art Museum show on Victor Ekpuk says to us: For a distinctive, cross-cultural contribution to such exploration, look to Ekpuk’s artistic achievement.

The exhibition Victor Ekpuk: Language and Lineage is on view through October 8, 2023 at Art@Bainbridge, a gallery project of Princeton University Art Museum. The gallery is located at 158 Nassau Street, Princeton, NJ. For more information, visit https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/

Abstract Comics: Rosaire Appel

by John Mendelsohn

Rosaire Appel, Belligerent Madrigal, 2022, pigment print with ink and crayon, 13x74 1/2 in
Rosaire Appel, Belligerent Madrigal, 2022, pigment print with ink and crayon, 13 x 74 1/2 in

You’ve heard it a thousand times, “The true encounter with art is beyond words.” We are left with the experience and that should be enough. But we also have the feeling that the “true encounter” includes our wondering awareness of what is happening to us as we look.

In the case of Rosaire Appel’s art now at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, we have the encounter and the self-enquiry, in spades. The pieces are in two formats: long panoramas, and vertical scrolls. They have in common a plethora of visual incidents, and an intimation of an acutely inventive mind at work. That consciousness invites us into an antic world of fragments, a broken graphic reality that evokes comics in their broadest scope.

Rosaire Appel, Detail, Belligerent Madrigal, 2022 pigment print with ink and crayon, 13x74 1/2 in
Rosaire Appel, Detail, Belligerent Madrigal, 2022 pigment print with ink and crayon, 13 x 74 1/2 in

There are echoes of the anarchic energy of Krazy Kat and other classic comic strips, underground comix from the 1960s and 1970s, graphic novels, and more. The hint of these sources lies in the benday dots, the shards of outlined figures, the panel structure, and the rapidly shifting scenarios. Even more telling is the frantic humor – the sense of the tragic of the everyday, seen as a kind of situation comedy that is always falling apart.

That feeling is most clearly present in Belligerent Madrigal, with its parade of blocky, abstract personages standing their ground and facing off against each other. They communicate via the musical notations that they direct at each other, and are arrayed in an atmosphere of markings that suggest their thoughts and obsessions. Costumed in individualized, multi-colored outfits, they seem like robotic fashionistas. They are mysterious presences, and as in these works overall, the cryptic rules, with no story to decipher. We are left with the intuition that like Talking Heads, we must “Stop Making Sense”, when existential reality is so sharply apparent as otherwise.

Part of the mystery of this work is how it is made – not much information has been provided. But it seems to be both hand-drawn and composed via digital graphics, printed out, and then enhanced with color and ink. Beyond the comic sources, we can speculate on some other antecedents for Appel’s Comic Abstraction of the exhibition’s title: the imaginal dream characters of Paul Klee, and the imagistic Pop overload of Öyvind Fahlström, the Swedish artist who lived in New York in the 1960s and 70s. He wrote of his desire to “create a world of situations and actions in a contradictory and disconcerting time-space”.

In Rosaire Appel’s work in drawings, prints, and books, we have the template of her taking a graphic structure, such as writing or musical scores, and creating an abstract language of movement and oblique emotion. In this exhibition, which features a number of her intriguing artist’s books, and throughout her extensive oeuvre, the touch of the artist translates fugitive awareness into visual actuality.

Rosaire Appel, Backtalk, 2023, laser print on acetate with acrylic backing, 2 panels 32.5 x 11 in. each
Rosaire Appel, Backtalk, 2023, laser print on acetate with acrylic backing, 2 panels, 32.5 x 11 in. each

This is particularly evident in the vertical works in the show, with their myriad graphical devices that define an enigmatic scenography. As in Backtalk, with its two paired sheets, these pieces are replete with gestures, diagrams, partial images, all suspended in white space. The effect is by turn spare, dense, and explosive, as if the library of the comprehensible has been blown to smithereens. In Backtalk, dark dividing lines suggest the panels of a comic strip, and the scrolling frames of a film. There are layered passages that look like animated language, recalling the artist’s involvement with asemic writing, and writhing silhouettes – once viable images that have been stripped down for parts.

Rosaire Appel, Detail, Backtalk, 2023, laser print on acetate with acrylic backing, 2 panels 32.5 x 11 in. each
Rosaire Appel, Detail, Backtalk, 2023, laser print on acetate with acrylic backing, 2 panels, 32.5 x 11 in. each

One quality to note in Appel’s work, in the exhibition and over many decades, is its continuous flow of creating in many mediums, including photography, over 30 visual books, and recently, pieces that responds to sound. This is a model of ever-expanding exploration, continually discovering new territories of sensation and realization.

Abstract Comics: Rosaire Appel at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, 208 Forsyth St., New York, NY from July 5 to August 4, 2023

An Artist Rediscovered: Peter Clapham Sheppard (1879-1965)

by Roy Bernardi

Peter Clapham Sheppard, Caledon Farm, 1935-36, oil on canvas, 73.7 x 101.6 cm
Peter Clapham Sheppard, Caledon Farm, 1935-36, oil on canvas, 73.7 x 101.6 cm

Peter Clapham Sheppard had lain in an unmarked grave for over fifty years in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery until 2018 when his name and dates were finally inscribed on a headstone. The arc of his story is a narrative of time and the persistence of art to survive it.

Unlike his more famous Canadian contemporaries, the Group of Seven, renowned for their dramatic landscapes of Ontario’s northern hinterland, Sheppard painted the great urban centres of Toronto, New York, and Montreal.  Early 20th century modernism in Toronto was a variant of European Impressionism and Post-Impressionism applied to the Canadian experience. While his aforementioned peers drew inspiration from the too familiar landscapes of the Scandinavian avant-grade, inspired by a trip to the Albright-Knox exhibition of 1912, Sheppard aligned himself with the collective in New York City known as The Eight (later The Ashcan School) during the 1910s. As in the second-half of the 19th century in Paris, modernism was essentially an urban experience and Sheppard’s powerful canvases of docks, rail yards, bridge building, circuses, rural settings etc. reflected the dynamic growth and industrial expansion in Toronto at the start of the new century. It is not certain how long Sheppard’s sojourn lasted in New York City but his work there clearly attests to a relationship with painters like John Sloan, George Bellows, Edward Hopper known as the Ashcan School. As well brief encounters with American artist Julius Rolshoven. 

Peter Clapham Sheppard, The Waterfront, New York City 1922, oil on canvas, 89 x 122 cm
Peter Clapham Sheppard, The Waterfront, New York City, 1922, oil on canvas, 89 x 122 cm

Sheppard’s monumental composition, The Waterfront (New York City) 1922, (above) for example, is a boldly painted canvas that evokes the smell of the sea along the New York dockside, with the city scapes behind.  His Engine Home of 1919, (below) a work of bravura color, was unlike any work being created in Toronto at the time and to the eyes of a conservative, reactionary public it would have been considered hardcore Impressionism.

Peter Clapham Sheppard, The Engine Home, 1919, oil on canvas, 84 x 91.4 cm
Peter Clapham Sheppard, The Engine Home, 1919, oil on canvas, 84 x 91.4 cm

But here is where destiny and a compelling human narrative reclaim Sheppard from an undeserved obscurity. It is the story of three lives and of three different generations beautifully intersecting one another through art over the span of three centuries – a rich and “embroidered ribbon” that unspools artfully as a novel or a work of cinema with “wonder and woe, glory and grief”. It is both a reflection on the forgotten as well as the ecstatic recovery of lost treasures beginning with Peter Clapham Sheppard whose life at age sixty unfolds into a new destiny when he meets Bernice Fenwick Martin in 1941. She, in turn, meets Louis Gagliardi in the last chapters of her own life to transform all three lives, completely, with joy, purpose, and resolution. A synopsis would go like this:

In 1941, at the funeral of artist and teacher, J. W. Beatty,  the aging Peter Sheppard met Bernice Martin, also a former student of Beatty’s and a painter herself who is a generation younger. The two would spend the next twenty-four years inextricably bound by a shared commitment to art at their very cores, companionship, and  love. At the end of his life, Sheppard is placed in the care of the Salvation Army Lodge with the added consolation that, he was literally only steps away, that is, across the street from the home for which Bernice his last friend and support, lived in. When Sheppard died, he left Bernice the only asset he had: all his artworks, a lifetime of his artistic legacy, wherever they might be found. 

Peter Clapham Sheppard, Lower New York, 1922, oil on canvas,  122 x 89 cm
Peter Clapham Sheppard, Lower New York, 1922, oil on canvas, 122 x 89 cm

In 1987, Louis Gagliardi saw a painting in a gallery which he purchased. “It just spoke to him” as the saying goes. A name and address on the back impelled him to get into his car to meet the artist. It led him to a Salvation Army Lodge and to Bernice Fenwick Martin. She was a petite woman in her eighties who carried herself with an old-world dignity.  Gagliardi could not know it then, but this countenance belied her tragic ruin and fall from “riches to rags”. Having been defrauded and dispossessed of her home, her wealth, and all her possessions years before, she was now given charitable shelter.  The poignant irony to this chapter is that, located in the very small bedroom to which her world had now been confined, a window looked out to the very house and happy life she once knew and lost, a cruel and painful daily reminder, there across the street.

This is a story of humanity and kindred friendship, despite the many years that separated Bernice and Louis in age. They shared a bond of the highest and rarest kind— the love of art: one having lived the active life of creativity; the other committed to the pursuit of knowledge.  Over time, as Bernice recounted the dispossession of all her property and life savings years before, she told Louis how she wept most despairingly for all of the Sheppard paintings once entrusted to her safekeeping. She was powerless to stop those strange men, the movers ordered by the bank, whose job it was to load trucks of the great stacks of canvases that were all that remained of one man’s prolific life.

Peter Clapham Sheppard, Snowstorm Montreal, c. 1921, oil on panel, 21.6 x 26.7 cm
Peter Clapham Sheppard, Snowstorm Montreal, c. 1921, oil on panel, 21.6 x 26.7 cm

Sheppard and Bernice’s loss inspired a purpose that would occupy the rest of their lives. Bernice and Louis set about to reclaim whatever artworks by Sheppard they could locate, although hundreds of sketchbooks, oil panels, and canvases had been lost, stolen, and sold off in bulk containers at garage-sale prices. It was at one location, on such a quest of her direction, that their hopes were initially dashed until, by dint of physical exertion on the part of Gagliardi, a cache of wondrous artworks by Sheppard revealed themselves in the dank and dingy darkness of a common storage space. The expression of speechless joy on Bernice Martin’s face when they looked at each other by the light of a handheld flashlight will be one of Louis’ imperishable memories. In that instant Bernice was reunited, not only with the man she loved and admired, but with the legacy he had left her, out of love and friendship and gratitude. It was as though all the preceding years of waste and loss were suddenly redeemed and fresh hope restored. Bernice Fenwick Martin passed away on September 15, 1999, just months before seeing the new millennium and two years shy of reaching her hundredth birthday.  

From left: Peter Clapham Sheppard, Country Idyl, Erin Ontario, oil on panel,  21.6 x 26.7 cm, and Near Erin, Ontario oil on panel,  21.6 x 26.7 cm
From left: Peter Clapham Sheppard, Country Idyl, Erin Ontario, oil on panel, 21.6 x 26.7 cm, and Near Erin, Ontario oil on panel, 21.6 x 26.7 cm

Gagliardi continues his quest to honour the memories of Peter Clapham Sheppard and Bernice Martin. In 2018, he published a monograph, Peter Clapham Sheppard: His Life and Work and had the artist’s name inscribed on a stone by a resting place long forgotten.

Stephanie S. Lee’s “Ouroboros” at the Flushing Town Hall

by Jonathan Goodman

Stephanie S. Lee, Beautiful Lady Smile & 아름다운 아가씨 웃어요, 2020, Color pigment and ink on linen, 25 1⁄4" H x 17" W x 1 1⁄2" D each
Stephanie S. Lee, Beautiful Lady Smile & 아름다운 아가씨 웃어요, 2020, Color pigment and ink on linen, 25 1⁄4″ H x 17″ W x 1 1⁄2″ D each

“Ouroboros,” the solo show by Korean-born, New York-based artist Stephanie S. Lee, can best be described as an amalgam of influences. The Ouroboros, an image of a snake swallowing its own tail, dates back to ancient Egyptian and Greek mythologies. It symbolizes eternity and is wholly associated with Western culture. At the same time, Lee regularly uses the minhwa, or folk art, associated with presenting traditional Korean narratives, wishing and sharing good fortune and well-being among commoners in everyday life. In such work, traditional animals – tigers, dragons, and magpies – appear in the midst of modern New York City. Lee, a highly active resident in her community, to the point of having her own gallery called The Garage Art Center (www.garageartcenter.org) (her garage transformed into a showing space!), shows artists from around the city. Besides curatorial, design, and teaching Korean folk art, she paints regularly and considers herself an active artist. This show, very nicely installed within the spacious Town Hall gallery, indicates Lee’s sense of received form and an ongoing belief in doing good things, as demonstrated in her involvement with other artists and the community.

In this show, Lee combines Korean and English letter forms with images such as traditional animals, diamonds (a symbol of pure goodness that overcame hardships), or Ouroboros (the symbol of eternal destruction and reincarnation).

This series depicts her journey to finding happiness and hope while going through repetitive everyday life as a mother, wife, and middle-aged female artist. A good deal of the work in this show consists of diptychs with Korean characters, usually expressing Confucian terminology in one painting, which is then accompanied by a second, often spelling out the meaning of the Korean language in English. Other works of art include characters depicted on black diamond-shaped faux leather canvases or hanging scrolls. In her wish to merge imagery, textual references, and a nearly palpable sense of moral integrity, Lee is pursuing a language that owes its depth to Korean thought despite having lived in New York City for two decades.

Ouroboros, Solo exhibition of Stephanie S. Lee, 2022, Flushing Town Hall, Flushing, New York
Ouroboros, Solo exhibition of Stephanie S. Lee, 2022, Flushing Town Hall, Flushing, New York

Korean life in New York City, both in Manhattan and the outer boroughs (especially Queens), often determinedly remains Korean. Yet, inevitably, the city’s social structure and international culture makes its impact on all foreign cultures, no matter how insulated its immigrant inhabitants may wish to be. Certainly, this does not describe Lee’s own outlook. Instead, she embraces the diversity of New York City, even as she relies on the suggestion, sometimes overt and sometimes not, of Confucianism and Christianity for an approach to life and art. Lee studied graphic design for her BFA in Brooklyn and Museum Studies for her MS in Manhattan at Pratt Institute and learned folk art painting at Busan National University. Her work in school is reflected in her art; her paintings are exquisitely designed and are usually rendered in the naive style of the folk art she follows. In her ‘Munjado’ (Pictorial Ideograph) series, English alphabet and the Korean lettering is beautifully expressed, being indicative of the calligraphy of both culture she experienced.

Given that her art, inspired by folk tradition, reintroduces a historical Korean tradition, Lee’s work travels a long distance, both geographically and culturally. But Lee’s message is hardly antiquated; her work shows a very good sense of contemporary design and thought. On one wall, facing the viewer walking into the show, three pieces occur: in the middle, we see a large hanging scroll created in 2022. Its twisting, vertical shape establishes the symbol of infinity, with its mouth grasping its tail near the top of the hanging canvas. There are the words “useless” and “unproductive” in Korean on each snake, representing unanswered questions to herself on why she keeps creating artwork despite hardships. The symbol’s center is an open sphere created by the curves of two thin, interwoven Ouroboros, held together in the middle by a horizontal circle. On either side is a black diamond, serving as a background for single words. On the left, we see the neon-lit word “Value” in a script, and on the right, we come across the word “Art,” also in neon and written in script. When Lee presents the word “Value” on the left work, she clearly intends for the word to be understood in a non- commercial sense. (But Americans, accustomed to the economic worth of things, may take the term differently.) Her use of the word “Art” is universally understood in a moment. As for the Ouroboros, the snake symbolizes infinite possibility–from a Western point of view.

Stephanie S. Lee, Ajumma & Mother, 2022, Natural mineral color pigment and ink on linen, 46 1⁄2" H x 24 1⁄8" W x 1 1⁄2" D each
Stephanie S. Lee, Ajumma & Mother, 2022, Natural mineral color pigment and ink on linen, 46 1⁄2″ H x 24 1⁄8″ W x 1 1⁄2″ D each

Lee is giving the nod to different traditions as she works. It can be asked if the incorporation of Western mythology with the Asian folk imagination is a bit awkward; my own feeling is that, in the case of the work discussed in this show, Lee’s strong skills in design allow her to make use of the different cultures. She incorporates the imagery that is familiar to her into a vocabulary of her own making. The piece called Ajumma (2022) of the Korean characters

meaning ajumma, which in English can be understood as a married or a middle- aged woman. In Ajumma, Korean writing is intertwined with a snake made out of gems, while on the periphery of the image, several peonies, in dark or light blue, ornament the composition. In the painting Mother (2022), the word “mother” is presented in capitals and is less difficult to see. On either side of the English word, two white snakes, vines circling their bodies, mirror each other’s curves to form the shape of a uterus. On the lower half of the snakes’ bodies, luxury jewelry in reds resembling the color of blood is hanging, while at the top, a crown of brown thorns is also decorated with them. Religion is strongly followed within Korean life, and the artist agrees with both Christian and Confucian thought.

Stephanie S. Lee, Traditional Wish, 2015, Natural mineral color pigment and ink on Hanji, 48" H x 36" W x 2" D
Stephanie S. Lee, Traditional Wish, 2015, Natural mineral color pigment and ink on Hanji, 48″ H x 36″ W x 2″ D

Animals like tigers take up Lee’s imagination, as the artist remains devoted to the minhwa style and themes she admires. They represent strength and power and are perceived in a supernatural fashion as a guardian spirits. It is exceedingly hard to take a folk art theme and contemporize it in a way that does not do damage to the subject’s original implications. Sadly, we are living in a time when human overpopulation and subsequent development of natural lands are depriving wild animals of their habitat. But the large cats remain large in Lee’s imagination, often standing for human virtues that remain as guides to bravery or even a heroic stance. In the tigers I have seen portrayed by Lee, their fierce vigor is softened to some extent by the artist’s affectionate presentation. This does not mean that Lee is giving up on the tiger’s reputation for ferocity, only that within the folk tradition she is following, the animal is usually represented as less wild and friendly. So Lee’s representation is gentle and humorous rather than fierce. In her tiger paintings, she may be closest to the Korean imagination.

Stephanie S. Lee, Traditional Virtue - Filial Piety, Fraternity, Fidelity, Reliance, Propriety, Righteousness, Integrity, Conscience, 2019, Natural mineral color pigment and ink on linen, 33 1⁄2" H x 12 1⁄2" W x 1 1⁄2" D each
Stephanie S. Lee, Traditional Virtue – Filial Piety, Fraternity, Fidelity, Reliance, Propriety, Righteousness, Integrity, Conscience, 2019, Natural mineral color pigment and ink on linen33 1⁄2″ H x 12 1⁄2″ W x 1 1⁄2″ D each

There is a question implied by this show: Can Lee’s audience, either Korean or non-Korean, be able to effectively appreciate the painter’s merger of cultures? Can a crown of thorns coexist effectively with a folk rendition of a Korean tiger? Is the Ouroboros an image dispersed widely enough that it would make sense to Lee’s Asian followers? These questions might come close to taking over the real achievement of the art. Yet Lee’s visual skills, her adept use of both Korean and English words to complicate her message (in a useful way), and her unspoken insistence on principles provide her with the means to surpass the difficulties of a hybrid existence. In the poster announcing the show, the words “Mother, Wife, and Artist” are prominent, indicating the several roles someone in her position plays. Here the language is not politicized; rather, it is descriptive of a modern woman’s life. “Ouroboros” is of high interest not only because Lee merges influences but because she has dedicated herself to image-making despite the pressures of her daily activities. It is a good thing she pays so much attention to her art, which rewards its viewers with both visual elegance and honorable consideration.