Kang Seung Lee’s two part exhibition at Commonwealth & Council reflects in part on photography’s documentary capacity by re-examining and reproducing photographs. Lee’s project grapples with the indexical nature of photography, but moves beyond merely exploring concerns surrounding what Roland Barthes called photography’s “evidential force.”
In Part I of the exhibition, titled “Absence without leave,” Lee selected eleven photographs made in the 1970s and 80s and reproduced each in graphite. The figure is a central theme of the resulting collection of drawings, which Lee in turn reproduced as medium and large scale prints and other objects, in that the body is the inextricable conveyance of Lee’s concerns. Yet the body itself is contested territory, and Lee is interested in how racialized bodies and queer bodies are represented and perceived.
Untitled (Leonard Fink_Pier 48 Interior_1980), 2016, black and white engineering prints on wall, approx. 13 ¾ x 9 ¾ feet. Courtesy the artist and Commonwealth and Council.
Untitled (Leonard Fink_Pier 48 Interior_1980) (2016) elides the three figures seen in the original silver gelatin print by the late amateur photographer Leonard Fink. (Fink’s photography, though not exhibited during his lifetime, documented interactions and encounters among gay men in Manhattan beginning in 1967.) A slight ghostly trace of each figure remains as a blurry presence in Lee’s drawing. The mechanism of obscuring or otherwise removing aspects of the figure permeates each of Lee’s reproductions, which he begins by altering the source photograph digitally, and then meticulously drawing the composition at a very intimate scale—about 4 ½ x 6 ½ inches.
Lee suggests the body through the smudging of graphite in puffy, smoke-like circlets in Untitled (Robert Mapplethorpe Self Portrait_1978) (2016), his adaptation of Mapplethorpe’s whip-accessorized S&M inflected self portrait. The effect of searching for what we intuitively expect to see—Mapplethorpe’s ambiguous presence (Is he leering? Is he gauging viewer response?)—knowing the original photo, arouses a kind of cognitive dissonance, like expecting a final step on a staircase and, in its absence, lurching forward from the loss of balance. In less familiar images, erasure generates a kind of art historical game of hide-and-seek.
Lee’s interest in drawing is in an embodiment of the image through the labor of reproduction. It becomes a means of reproducing information from an archive rather than an interest in the aesthetics of drawing, or in demonstrating virtuosity. Reimagining the contents of the archive through the body, or through the process of drawing, transmits information, but in an altered way, allowing Lee to reconstitute and comment critically on the figure.
Thematically, Lee is dealing with death—a state that Barthes also connected with photography. A number of the works he selected depict artists who died of AIDS—Leonard Fink, Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong. Equally, he is observing, especially in this political climate, a society that refuses to see the lives of gay men. Significantly, Fink’s work, and that of other artists Lee selected refer to a moment of openness and freedom for gay men along the piers in Manhattan shortly before the AIDS epidemic began to take its toll. Entire bodies of work come into focus through Lee’s manipulation of these images.
At the same time that we understand a connection to previous corpuses, we also feel the absence of the figures in our own bodies. Various pictorial elements betray the figures’ repeated absence—Mapplethorpe’s shadow on the wall, the inexplicable trace of a quilt pattern extending into seemingly empty space in Untitled (Martin Wong by Peter Bellamy_1985), or the isolation of Fink’s three figures that in Lee’s reproduction evaporate into emptiness. Even more haunting, Lee digitally printed Untitled (David Wojnarowicz by Peter Hujar_1983) (2016) on a blanket, coated it with resin and shaped it to resemble a chair. The empty chair powerfully evokes the deaths of both Hujar and Wojnarowicz as we imagine the bodies that aren’t there.
Likewise, in Part II, titled “Leave of absence,” timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles uprising, Lee reproduces photo-journalistic images produced during the city’s upheavals following the Rodney King verdict. Lee’s initial drawings produced from these images are slightly larger, all around 5 ½ x 8 ½ inches, but still remarkably intimate, which defies their subject matter.
The terminology Lee appropriates for the titles of his exhibition is strangely militaristic and bureaucratic. It can be interpreted as critique of organizational culture’s dominating influence, but it is vague enough to allow us to identify with the emotional impact of each statement. The phrase “Absence without leave” offers a state of mournful reflection, while at the same time recalling the state’s power to punish. “Leave of absence” suggests temporary disembodiment, yet in organizational-speak it describes someone who is temporarily relieved of their duties or is simply not on the job. This latter meaning can be understood as a direct commentary with respect to the city and the police force’s abdication of duty during the civil uprising—though, this reading, too, is too straightforward, given the multiple, relatively autonomous actors.
“Leave of absence” imparts a sense of communal grief over the destruction endured in the neighborhoods that immediately surround Commonwealth & Council. Untitled (Aftermath) (2017) reproduces a photo taken just a few blocks from building that housed Lee’s exhibition at Commonwealth & Council. It too produces a palpable sense of disembodiment. Smoke rises in the background from fires, while residents appear as puffs of smoke in the fore- and middle-grounds. Lee’s drawings also refer to the multi-ethnic conflict that polarized Koreatown with Untitled (Korean Merchants on the Rooftop) (2017).
Lee’s reproduction of these particular histories through the mechanics of drawing bears a resemblance to the photographic process and at the same time emphasizes his own subjectivity, much like Barthes’ assertion that “the photographer bears witness to his own subjectivity.” The entire endeavor presents a compelling mental maze of photography’s indexical nature—twice removed here, but complicated by the introduction of Lee’s hand. But Lee’s drawings, based in embodied experience and developed through his labor, remind us of the profound displacement of bodies marked as “other,” bodies marked as queer, or described by race or ethnicity.
Christopher Michno is a Los Angeles area art writer and the Associate Editor of Artillery. His work has also appeared in KCET’s Artbound, the LA Weekly, ICON, and numerous other publications. He is also an editor for DoppelHouse Press, an LA based publisher that specializes in art, architecture and the stories of émigrés.