A good photograph captures an instant of life within a fraction of city space. The oft-awesome paintings of Yoon Lee — on display earlier this year in a solo show at the Luggage Store — condense seconds, days, and weeks of urban life into images of striking movement and color. Blurs from passing cars; a person glimpsed from the corner of one's eye; the liquid shifts of Vampire Princess Miyu anime dreamscapes on a TV screen — these are a few of the everyday materials within Lee's alchemy. Glimpsed as scaled-down versions on a computer screen, her pieces seem purely digital or neo-geo, but in person there is no doubt that her paintings are the result of a lengthy, meditative, and labor-intensive process.
"I know some artists who take a whole year to produce one piece, and I'm not up to that point," Lee says over hot drinks at Farley's on Potrero Hill. Her comic strip T-shirt and black leather motorcycle jacket reflect the mix of commercial color and rougher, real-life currents within her paintings. "My 8-feet-by-20-feet scale works usually take about six months. I start gathering images in my head and take photos. I make little sketches. I take things from comic books, newspapers, anything — I'm just an image scavenger."
From there, Lee uses Illustrator or Photoshop to play with images and forms. "I use it as a mixing board to bring everything together and then edit, real fast," she says, adding with a laugh, "in the old days you had to use canary paper and transparencies, then mess up and start all over again." Actually, Lee's "real fast" edits can last a month or two, but they are indeed quick in comparison to her painting process, a complex, kinetic, and at times astonishingly layered use of Golden acrylics. It's there that she transmutes her gadget-fiend tendencies and love of shiny plastics into work that swirls with fierce ambivalence about those aspects of modern life and more.
For Lee, the frustration that comes from trying to translate computer compositions into flesh-and-blood paintings isn't just worthwhile — it's exactly what she's seeking. "Sometimes I have to really invent a new process," she says. "Every time I do a piece there's something completely different I have to introduce or change so I can produce an effect that's similar to the original sketch." That kind of challenge has led Lee through many areas of study (philosophy and computer science, to name two) and fields of employment (she's sold cars), though all the while she's never lost focus on painting.
Someday a writer might explore and explain why op art has played such a major role in San Francisco art at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. Though Lee is part of an upcoming exhibition of San Francisco artists in Leipzig, Germany, curated by "Pierogi" Joe Amrhein, it's debatable whether she is even influenced by the legacy of Sol LeWitt — or has a kinship with the LeWitt-loving Mission School artists who favor certain rainbow gradations. If her work shares some of their color schemes, its scale and sense of movement explode into a realm apart from the smaller cubic formations and prisms associated with recent Bay Area art. A casual viewer might note as much action as in a Jackson Pollock painting, a kid on the street might recognize an accidental kinship with graffiti. The artist herself names Julie Mehretu and Benjamin Edwards as partial guides.
Lee's art is slick — but only in a literal sense. To put it another, more paradoxical way, her paintings are deceptively slick on the surface. Beneath the attractive gloss, that shininess that she enjoys and wants to share, are layers that you can get lost in — that is, when you aren't arrested by the intensity of her observation. (Johnny Ray Huston)