Hoon Lee, Esquisse Note

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Datz Press (here). Softcover with French folds, 144 pages, with color photographs and drawings, 7.75 x 10.4 inches. In an edition of 100 numbered copies. Contains fold-out and half-pages. Design by Younghea Kim. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: One day, during a get-together with her friend Kwan-hoon Lee, the Korean photographer and publisher of Datz Press, Sangyon Joo, came across a decades worth of monochrome drawings and small color photographs sitting in a drawer of his desk. While the photographs showed cement walls and concrete pavements, piles of dirt and construction waste, dead plants and discarded objects, the drawings seemed more abstract and intuitive – unfolding in delicate lines and bold strokes, dots of black and fading brush marks, bleeding into chunky patches of grey or separated by smears of charcoal. They were at once expansive and stout; full of energy, yet bearing moments of quiet sentiment. The more time Joo spent looking, however, the more both bodies of work began to connect – and become two parts of the same vision.

Lee – who works as the chief curator of the SARUBIA project space, a Seoul-based non-profit gallery dedicated to artists of any age, training, or background, fostering experimental practices – and Joo first met in 2014, when collaborating on a project. “I have been a great fan of him ever since,” she wrote me, “I truly admire his ability to transform an exhibition space in a completely new way.” Within the Korean art world, Lee has made his name for his attuned sensibility towards space and display – considering both as extensions of artistic process and artistic environment. Amongst friends, he is also known for his extended wanderings through backstreets and alleys of Seouls downtown art district – to recharge his batteries after long workdays. What has previously gone unnoticed, however, is the creative output of Lee’s pedestrian habit.

Fascinated by the work – and Lees integrated, gestural understanding of both photography and drawing – Joo convinced him to participate in a group exhibition at the Datz Museum of Art (here), as well as to publish a book. “As a book maker, I knew that Lee’s work would make very interesting content for a photo-related book, as it carries the tension in-between both media.” Given his curatorial prominence and to allow the work to be perceived independently, both agreed to contract, and thereby conceal, his name to “Hoon Lee”.

In his book Ways of SeeingJohn Berger wrote that the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. “Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the site.” Discerning photography and drawing not as means of imitation, but discovery, Esquisse Note explores and negotiates this dichotomy.

Housed between two cardboard covers, with its handwritten title, fragmented photograph, and petite, tipped-on drawing, Esquisse Note takes the form of a large sketchbook, and lends itself the tactile immediacy of a hand-made object. The pages are rough, presenting and pairing the two sets of often-interleaving images through a range of full-bleeds, double spreads, and foldouts, to the size of small postcards and large stamps.

Taken on their own, Lee’s photographs appear to merely record visual information of neglected urban spaces: walls riddled by cracks and holes, grease stains and paint smears, are joined by corroding rods and severed pipes. The broken, crumbling pavements are as bare and literal as they come – now and then evoking an abstract ready-made from water puddle traces. Withered plants and yellowing patches of grass add to the overall desolate atmosphere. And with long-ago smoked cigarette butts and pieces of parched dog shit, peeking from corners or in plain sight, you might wonder about Lee’s motivation for being there – and being interested.

It is a cliché in the interpretation of art that the heart of the matter lies not in what, but how something, is depicted. Yet, when this how is taken for out of context and for its own, formalist sake, it turns into a similar platitude. Lee’s photographs are not important (or interesting) because of the angles, close-ups, or fragmentations of objects or still-lifes he captures, but for the offbeat reciprocity these images share with his drawings: A piece of cable shaping the meaning of a line, a crack sculpting the texture of a surface – how both can collapse and extend space, turning distance into a significant gap or a delicate breach to reveal the tenderness carried in the shape of a stem.

Using ink, water, and spit, and applying them with tissue, pieces of wood, brushes, and pencils, as well as his hands, Lee’s gestural approach toward image-making is grounded in his degree in “Oriental Painting” (that is, traditional Korean and Asian art): Which introduced him, in a nutshell, to a concept of drawing, in which lines and dots are perceived as gestures capturing the spirit or essence of a shape rather than being elements of logic and finitude – an understanding that he also applies to photography. Even though he did not pursue a career as an artist, Lee did develop his own drawing practice (comprising works on paper as well as photographs) – which he calls “eye-drawing” and describes as such:

“As I walk, I sneak peeks at things: cement walls and pavement, dead plants, trash, electric cables, a construction site, a pile of dirt, lines and objects, traces of water soaked into the ground, etc. They rush by me, one by one, and there is no end to them. With an automatic camera I randomly photograph those trivial things, wandering homelessly. Eye-drawing without any narration, encircling the collective memories I hold [ . . . ] scooping, printing, drawing lightly while, trembling, playing around childishly, bored, and then, now, slowly, rapidly, in faint, lyric landscapes . . . I go with the flow, to unpredicted imaginations, beyond. Now the drawing brushes past me. Sssk.”

In other words, Lee draws from sight and from memory, with his camera and with traditional’ drawing utensils. Both, his sketches and photographs made on-site can serve as reminders of what he has seen (each photograph bears a time-stamp, for instance) and aids for later drawings, as well as independent, immediate forms of sketching – while considering the photograph particularly as a “primitive imprint of the eye’s natural path”. This notion recalls and embraces the original meaning of the word photography, that is drawing with light.

To emphasize the equality of both mediums, Esquisse Note rarely pairs two related images, and instead mixes photographs and drawings without visual or semantic boundaries, hence without immediate local connections. In doing so, the book enjoyably frustrates the continuous battle over the mediums’ artistic hierarchies and qualifying comparisons. Here, for once, photography and drawing do not reference, imitate, or outdo one another – instead they are equal means of genuine creation deriving from imagination, or the mind’s eye. Even the title itself is a slight nudge in this direction. While “esquisse” is often replaced by the word “sketch”, the latter originally defines the outline of an object that already exists. The “esquisse”, however, materializes an idea or an image of the mind.

An undertone of melancholy, present in all of Lee’s images, drawn and photographed, derives from that same gesture, and is translated into the carefully composed and sensitively edited sequence of Esquisse Note. With its respect for the visually disregarded and its, today, almost forgotten sense of wonder, one could argue that Esquisse Note promotes a rather metaphysical understanding of drawing and photography. Both denying and confirming the images’ origin in urban objects, this surely is not a photobook in the traditional sense. I consider Esquisse Notemore along the lines of poetry and metaphor – smudging the difference between what was seen and what seeing felt like. A way of finding connections between things, of uniting something that has been separated.

Collector’s POV: Hoon Lee does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, nor does he maintain a personal website. Interested collectors should therefore contact the publisher via their website (linked in the sidebar).

Hoon Lee, Datz Press

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