Asian Influences

Sungmi Lee's drawings and installation art at C. Grimaldis Gallery suggest landscape painting, ceremonial rituals and other Eastern processes

Arts

May 25, 2006|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

The centerpiece of sculptor Sungmi Lee's lovely show of drawings and installation art at C. Grimaldis Gallery is a life-size maple tree constructed entirely out of sticky cellophane tape and wrapping foil, its bare branches delicately suspended from the ceiling by nearly invisible clear plastic cords.

The first thing one wonders on seeing this utterly delightful and charming piece is: How in the heck did she get it in here? Followed by: And how's she ever gonna get it out when the show is over?

That last is a particularly disconcerting thought, if for no other reason than that one almost wishes Lee's elegant sculptures and drawings could remain on view indefinitely (though after Sungmi Lee: The Space Between closes, some of the works may reappear in a coming exhibition at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York).

Lee started out as a painter, but somewhere along the line during her studies at Maryland Institute College of Art she switched to sculpture. The decision was a leap of faith that now seems to have been more than amply vindicated.

All of the works seem inspired in one way or another by the traditions of Asian landscape painting, calligraphy and the ceremonial rituals of various religious practices.

Lee's circular-form Sumi ink drawings, for example, which evoke Taoist notions of infinite spaces and absolute voids, are actually a kind of process art, a form in which the physical act of making the artwork is as much a part of its meaning as is its nominal subject.

In these drawings, Lee pours ink onto the paper, then swishes it around by lifting and tilting the surface until the patterns she desires emerge.

The technique, similar in concept (though not in practice) to that employed in the making of Japanese raku-glaze ceramics, unavoidably involves an element of chance, and the "imperfections" of the irregular patterns that result can often be the source of new and completely unexpected visual pleasures.

Lee's drawings using incense smoke as a medium operate on a similar principle. The paper is held above the burning incense and moved in various ways until the fumes discolor the paper in formal patterns that seem to evoke the spirit, if not the specific pictorial content, of traditional Asian landscape painting.

The show also presents a number of low-relief sculptures fashioned from shattered pieces of found glass that the artist collected near her Brooklyn, N.Y., studio. These works, which recall the fractal forms of topographical relief maps or satellite photographs of coastal regions, also somehow manage to evoke the classic imagery of Asian landscape.

These truly are objects to be contemplated and savored at leisure. They invite one to return again and again to contemplate the many visual and conceptual beauties they embody.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

"Sungmi Lee: The Space Between" runs through June 3 at C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St. Call 410-539-1080.

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