Arthur Kwon Lee is out to impact the world by exploring within. His artwork, dense but centered, encapsulates his findings into canvases whose content and execution mirrors their creator’s own learned values. A Korean-American artist and three time national Tae Kwon Do champion currently based in New York City, Lee’s blend of exploration and discipline arises from his many hyperfixations. It’s earned him the title of 2020 Artist of the Year from the Eileen Kaminsky Family Foundation, the 2014 Fine Art Faculty Award from George Washington University, and acclaim across publications like The Washington Post, The Korea Times, and White Hot Magazine.
Last week, Lee celebrated the opening of his latest solo exhibition, Million Masks of God, at Trotter&Sholer on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A press release from the organization states, “This exhibition explores Lee's enduring interest in mythology and the confluence of disparate theologies and philosophies.”
Each work featured throughout Million Masks of God honors mythological figures across cultures. The paintings also unite distinct schools of artistic thought, rendering defined figures in a somehow abstract manner borne of frenetic brushstrokes. Lee’s experience with independent study and psychedelic exploration aid his preexisting proclivities for color theory. Each brushstroke resounds a vibrant fever pitch -- as a whole, they harmonize into one songstress of an canvas.
Two of Trotter&Sholer’s three co-founders, Jenna Ferrey and Angie Phrasavath, graciously allowed me to set up shop in the gallery’s office on opening night to speak with them about the exhibition. While attendees exclaimed in revelry just outside the door, Lee told me that he began working with mythological themes in 2014 while assembling his thesis show at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and completing his B.F.A. in Painting at George Washington University. “I was playing with ideas of ego death,” he recalled. That contemplation led him to the work of Joseph Campbell, a writer and scholar of comparative mythology and comparative religion. Lee began using symbolic language "because it's a better carrier device than explaining and ranting.”
Lee’s prior work focused on single figures, painted preeminent but not entirely present. “It would basically just be people, any human, but disintegrated into the background,” he explained. Lee’s older work resembles the Magic Eye posters my algebra teacher had in her high school classroom, albeit with infinitely more heart. He eventually tired of this abstract approach. “Let me just paint this shit right, and they can see it up front,” he thought to himself. “Why not be blunt and direct?”
The works in Million Masks of God elaborate upon Lee’s efforts in this direction, emphasizing the importance of symbols by choosing those with the most power: the divine. Iconography from Greece and India deities hangs throughout the gallery.
The title Million Masks of God riffs off G.K. Chesterton’s poem Gold Leaves.
But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod,
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.
“When we look at water and see a wave, and you wouldn't say, ‘look at the individual wave,’” Lee explained. “You understand it's a part of this whole body of water. That's the same thing with human consciousness.”
Lee said his willingness to cross cultural boundaries began with an exploration into his own co-existing dichotomies. “I had a Korean household and American public domain… I noticed the dissonance. I was exploring that sociologically and psychologically, but now I'm exploring that more spiritually, and archetypally. What you come to see is that all these cultures that never communicated with each other (before they became cosmopolitan, that is,) all have the same stories, regardless of externalities.”
Have you ever noticed how most cultures boast their own version of the dumpling? Polish people have pierogies, Latinx individuals have empanadas, and no one can forget the dumpling itself, present throughout Japanese and Chinese and Korean cultures. These shared impulses betray a celestial commonality connecting our entire species.
Lee noted that while work in this new series was created within the last year or so -- half of them were produced during COVID’s collective isolation. “I used this situation as an opportunity,” Lee stated. “I'm a believer that a setback is a setup for a comeback.”
At the onset, he told himself, “Okay, everyone's freaking out. But really, this means that we're all gonna be quiet. if everyone's gonna be quiet, I can go deeper inside. If I can go deeper, I can animate these ideas that are latent.” He put in time, painting twelve hours a day. “When I make an individual work, I'm totally there. It's tunnel vision,” he said. “I'm exploring this theme, so I'm going to read the books about this, I'm going to meditate on the subject matter, and I'm going to make sure that I understand the subject matter too, so that I'm not doing anything sacrilegious.”
Lee’s extensive martial arts training helped hone his creative discipline. He’s noticed the physicality of this athletic art form bleeds into his painting practice. “If you look at a beginner artist, they use their wrist,” Lee said. “As they get more experience, they use their shoulder. They stand up and eventually use their whole body. It's almost like you're fencing at that point.” He finds the act of painting dynamic and involved. “It feels like I'm sparring, actually, the mental idea of it,” he realized.
Ferry first met the artist at a jazz show — they both showed up late and stood in the back, by the bar. “I didn't realize he was an artist, but we knew some of the same people,” Ferrey recalled. “Over the pandemic, we met on a Zoom chat that we were both invited to by a mutual friend. We were chatting about how it's funny to encounter each other again that way.”
Ferrey is continually impressed by Lee’s technical skill. “I think because it’s so heavy in terms of content, and then the way he uses lots and lots of brushstrokes, you end up with all these little details,” she stated. “Each time you come back to the painting, there's something new to see.”
“What I like the most about his work is that there's just so many contrasts,” added Phrasavath. “He starts in black and white with each painting and then builds color onto it.” While his work possesses spontaneity in its evident, energetic brushstrokes, she intimated that, in reality, they’re meticulously planned. The blueprint lies just beneath the surface.
The Laotian-American manager, curator, and gallerist also added “I really liked the eastern and western approach.” A first generation daughter, Phrasavath didn’t communicate directly with her cultural heritage until moving to New York. “This type of art was never introduced to me,” she continued. Growing up, her parents displayed cultural talismans in their home, but a youthful Phrasavath found them intimidating. “There's this one painting [of a tiger] in the exhibition that is the exact mask that was hanging in our living room, and I was absolutely terrified of it.” Lee told her the relic’s ancient intentions. Phrasavath said, “That made me understand why my parents had that. I thought they were doing that to terrify me, but it actually was supposed to guard our livelihood.”
Ferrey contemplated how other viewers might perceive this work. “I think the feeling would be one of excitement or awe,” she decided after pausing a moment. She relayed that multiple viewers have already been “drawn in by the color and the bigness and brightness of the works… they’re exciting and approachable.”
“I felt that we live in a very irreverent time. We lack reverence,” Lee said at the end of our interview. “One of my mentors once told me that the functionality of galleries before commercialization was to create a catalyst for important conversations.”
“I'm kind of traditional in that regard when it comes to art,” he continued. He wants to create reverence. He wants viewers to drop whatever they’re holding upon encountering his work. “But,” he qualified, “I want to also do that while instilling positive archetypal imagery. I’m trying to be righteous with my brush.” Viewers who can make it to New York are advised to examine these works for themselves, and advised against bringing beverages into the galleries lest they stain their shoes. Million Masks of God is on view and eager for eyes at 168 Suffolk Street until Dec. 6th, 2020.