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Intimacy on a large scale

Hyunmee Lee's abstract expressionist works are showcased in 2 galleries

If you're one of those who doesn't believe that bigger is necessarily better, get ready to be converted.

The abstract expressionist paintings of South Korean artist Hyunmee Lee — on display in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts through July 9, as well as Phillips Gallery through April 14 — will enlarge your vision about what great art on a grand scale can do for the soul.

Lee's exhibit at the UMFA, "Intimacy without Restraint," embraces the museum's Great Hall with remarkable confidence. Never before has this enormous hall been so successfully utilized; each of her 12 90-by-90-inch square abstracts is allowed to impress and influence viewers without interference. And each grouping of her more than 100 12-inch square paintings climbs the 50-foot wall with elegant symmetry.

Her show at Phillips, "Outside Sight," gives you another view of the expanse of her brush strokes and her swiftly rendered delicate lines.

Both exhibits are most impressive.

Lee's paintings combine a vast knowledge of and experience in Eastern calligraphic traditions with the gestural impact of modern Western painting; you could say she speaks Kandinsky, Soulages, Motherwell, Kline, Baziotes, Rothko and Twombly with an Asian accent. The result is a harmonious dissertation on space, form and line.

"The general idea of my work is sharing," Lee said, "and the method to share is based on the Oriental philosophy of Taoism. In Taoism, the main concept is being in the middle, not being judgmental, and bringing forth spontaneously."

In the 2004 catalog of Lee's show at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University, exhibit curator Frank McEntire wrote:

"Hyunmee usually begins her work by drawing on the canvas, then putting down layers of paint and scumbling and marking the wet surface — but soon shifts to the spiritual explorations that cajole her work into existence."

McEntire also curated Lee's show at the UMFA. "The exhibition title, 'Intimacy Without Restraint,' came from my first impressions of Lee's new paintings," he said.

According to McEntire, Lee's art exudes "sensitivity, empowered by the artist's unrestrained passion for her work and its expression of what she refers to as Ch'I (energy), life force."

Born in Seoul, Korea, in 1961, Lee has been working as an abstract artist for 20 years, taking her inspiration from nature and the subjective self. She received her undergraduate degree at age 24 from the College of Fine Arts, Hong-Ik University in Seoul. Lee then studied six years at the University of Sydney, completed two advanced degrees and then returned to Korea in 1991 to teach at her alma mater.

In 1997, she married fellow Korean, Kyu Lee, and moved permanently to the United States. Eventually they arrived in Utah where her husband would become a practicing architect.

Today, besides being a full-time artist, Lee teaches art at Utah Valley State College, a position she thoroughly enjoys. "She's a real advocate for her students," said McEntire.

"Hyunmee was famous in her own country," said Meri DeCaria, director of Phillips Gallery. "Her openings were main events. Unfortunately, she is still relatively unknown here."

Something these two exhibits should quickly remedy. (For an excellent recounting of Lee's background, influences and ideas, read Jim Edwards' essay in the exhibition catalog at the UMFA.)

Those who see Lee's work and are confused as to its meaning must momentarily let go of Western narrative painting preconceptions.

"Abstract art can be difficult for some viewers to understand," said Lee. "But the abstract is the only way I can express my work."

So get up close — real close — and relish how the paint rests lightly atop the goose pimples of the canvas one moment then rises, thickly and energetically the next. Stand back — far back — and drink in the design and its deceptive sense of randomness and the impact of nuance.

Finally, at the risk of sounding maudlin, it somehow feels right that as Utah has recently lost a noted abstract expressionist with the passing of Lee Deffebach, it has gained another.

One Lee has left, another has arrived.

Perhaps there is a Tao balance after all.


E-mail: gag@desnews.com