For a Western audience, Jaehyo Lee is easy to place; he makes good sense among sculptors who work closely with natural materials, such as David Nash and Andy Goldsworthy. At the same time, Lee’s extraordinary gift with sanded wood, as well as his penchant for charred wood covered with bent nails, seems oriented toward a sensibility that differs slightly from the organic sculptures created by his Western counterparts. Lee’s sense of finish and his nearly obsessive treatment of the surface help him focus on exteriors that nevertheless radiate inner energies. One approaches his large, uncommonly shaped works with a sense of wonder. How does he do it? Where does he get his ideas? The spheres of polished big cone pine, larch, and chestnut act in unison, embodying both natural and manmade forms. They enhance the natural possibilities of the wood, a material with suggestively lyrical qualities. Lee not only makes projects about nature, he also works within nature, so that his sculptures both describe and exemplify the natural world. This combination makes his work hard to categorize, partly because it reveals aspects of the wood that have little to do with him as an artist, partly because he possesses a highly finished sense of design, which also tends to favor materials over handling.
In fact, Lee is so dedicated an artisan that his hand comes close to being anonymous. It is not so much that he is absent from his art as it is that he projects a thoroughgoing craft that builds on itself. Allowing the materials to speak to him, he builds self-contained worlds that mysteriously communicate with their outer surroundings. One of his most striking images is a photograph of a boat-like structure placed in the midst of a stream whose banks are covered with trees. Clearly a manmade sculpture put out into nature, the work contrasts with and succumbs to its surroundings. In the photograph, self-sufficiency is enhanced by the object’s position in a beautiful scene; the poetics of the sculpture lean on an environment that frames its polished surfaces, conferring a further dignity on a form in keeping with its forested setting. Texture is deeply important to Lee, who emphasizes the façade of the wood, crosscut and planed to reveal the character of the grain. The surface thus reveals the character of its making, becoming indicative of the creative process and holding interest by itself. The double character of Lee’s work—the expressiveness of its exterior and its profound connection with the wooded environment from which it has come—tells a story in which the human element of art is more or less excluded. Suffused with brooding otherness, Lee’s sculptures do not engage in dialogue so much as they simply exist.
Wood, 350 x 350 x 350 cm. View of work at Sculpture in Woodland, Ireland.