Yunsung Lee and NU

Yunsung Lee, Danae Blue, 2015
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538

It has been no easy task reconciling the heritage of the canonized female form which has been reenforced throughout the centuries long history of western art. This is especially true in very recent history, where the relationship between women and the gender roles customarily assigned to them, especially sexuality and femininity as a whole, have been questioned and tested. For example, the reclining venus pose, like the Venus of Urbino by the Renaissance master Titian, has since the Greco-Roman era been the model for a female nude. However, this depiction is severely dated in that it turns the female form into an object which exists to be admired, it turns the woman who occupies this pose into a coy, inactive figure who is resourceless save for her sexuality. Many contemporary artists have wrestled with how to comment on and to overcome this heritage, and have sought to reintroduce the female nude into the timeline of Western art in a way which depicts women for what they are- capable and worthy members of the human race. As is always the case, each artist is independent in their vision of how to achieve these objectives. In a

Yunsung Lee 4.jpg
Yunsung Lee, Torso 09, 2013

solo show entitled NU which opened last Thursday at the DOOSAN Gallery in Chelsea*, Yunsung Lee, a 31 year old Korean artist, made a provocative statement on the issue of female representation in Western art. Lee states that as a series NU is meant to explore western art forms and modes of expression as reinterpreted through the lens of Japanese animation. His large-scale paintings are brightly colored and the dominant subject matter is the female nude; Lee paints hypersexualized female forms where their breasts and backsides are graciously rotund but their bellies and waists are disproportionately trim. He has made their skin to look as shiny as if it were made of rubber or porcelain. Each figure wears an expression of surprise and pain on their elven faces, perhaps because, weirdly enough, most are missing arms and legs, a fact which is accentuated by the fuchsia hued blood which gushes out of these open wounds. It is, admittedly, a strange, conflicting take on the issue of female representation in art. The exaggerated features of the females Lee paints can be interpreted as his statement on how outrageous these features would be on any real woman. These features call to mind Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, and the impossible length of

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Grande Odalisque, 1814

her back as it sweeps across the canvas. In both the Grande Odalisque and Lee’s paintings, the women depicted cease to exist, only the tantalizing absurdity of their features are meant to hold the attention of the viewer. The difference between the two is that, unlike Ingres, Lee uses these features as a means of calling attention to their absurdity. It is difficult to adjust to the overtness of Lee’s artwork, and it does take some time to acclimate to not only his aggressive style but egregious treatment of subject matter. However it is commendable that Lee is bold and unflinching in his statement, and he is successful in that the means by which he makes this statement demand attention.

*Yunsung Lee’s solo show NU 

Is on view at the DOOSAN Gallery, 533 W 25th St,

From May 19th to June 23rd



2 thoughts on “Yunsung Lee and NU

  1. An interesting and well-written review, but I would respectfully disagree. For this viewer, Yunsung Lee’s work is infuriating for the disingenuous way he manages to eat his cheesecake and have it too. What he is presenting is de-humanized, hypersexualized images of women experiencing pain and fear while they are dismembered. It is perfectly legitimate to read this work as a straight-forward expression of erotic-sadistic fantasy, and I would argue that that is where its most visceral impact lies. Framing the work in statements about irony, cultural context, and the male gaze, allows the viewer to rationalize their enjoyment of the works less intellectually respectable elements. This is not a new gambit. The aristocrats of old also enjoyed decorating their homes with paintings of nude women and in order to do so needed a way around the reigning orthodoxies. They too, found the way around such strictures was to add a glaze of intellectual justification, in their case by having the artists employ subjects from mythology or the bible – think The Elders Watching Susanna Bathing. From this point of view, Yunsung Lee’s work is an updated version of an old, old, song. What would be really new would be for artists to paint female nudes and say “Guess what, I like looking at nude women, and I’m betting you do too” Interestingly, in the modern day, homo-erotic work is much more likely to pull this off, think Robert Mapplethorpe’s shatteringly beautiful homo-erotic and sometimes blood spattered work. His is work that manages to be about sex, death, desire, and beauty, yet never feels the need to cross its fingers behind its back.


    1. Elizabeth- your comment was really well thought out and I wanted to take some time to meditate on a response. While I recognize that intellectualizing demeaning representations of women to make them digestible is not a new trick, I do believe that in today’s day and age (or since women began to shed their status as subhuman) it’s an idea that’s been rejected, and if women are represented in this context, it’s done with irony. My best evidence for point is that Lee paints his women being dismembered. In the past, it was a standard convention to paint female nudes in one of two ways, either as a pagan goddess (venus), or they were orientalized (represented as someone from an exotic heritage/in an exotic location). In both these contexts, the object was to make it clear that the nude was in the category of ‘the other’, to displace the female form and obscure it. Thats not to say that they weren’t pleasant to look at, which is why these roles were so popular for so long. In fact it was because they were so pleasing to look at that they needed to be obscured, because of religious and cultural values which scorn any type of personal vanity or lust. Lee uses the converse of this tradition. Because these women are being dismembered, theres an intensely grotesque element to their representation which should make it clear that the viewer should not enjoy looking at them, just as in the past orientalization was used as a device to make it clear that it was indeed okay to enjoy looking at a naked female form. I also think that it is precisely because of this heritage of obscuring the female nude that there are so few artists who paint naked women because they’re nice to look at. There still needs to be a reconciliation with the past and a better understanding of what the naked female form means today before this type of art can take center stage. Thats why most art that deals with female nudity today is so extreme, because it is a reaction and reconciliation of past modes of representation. This is probably why it’s easier to accomplish this in a homo-erotic context, because there is much less history behind homoerotic art, there is much less history to overcome.


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