After visiting Paris, Tokyo, Seoul and San Diego, the drawings of Korean artist Il Lee have made their way to the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadows Park.
Using nothing more than black and blue PaperMate ballpoint pens, Lee combines lines and swirls with dense areas of ink to create dramatic abstractions on both canvas and paper.
Lee was born in Korea and has lived in Brooklyn since 1977. A graduate of Pratt Institute, he first began experimenting with ballpoint pen in 1981 when the Brooklyn Museum organized a group exhibition that called for works of art on paper.
“When I was in graduate school, there were only a few Asian students in my class. The professors, the faculty, they wanted something different from me,” Lee explained. “If I used the conventional material, the typical Western form and style, they would have never paid attention to me or to my work.”
Though the use of ink is reminiscent of traditional Asian ink painting, the unconventionality of the ballpoint pen as a medium situates Lee among contemporary abstract artists.
Tom Finkelpearl, the executive director of the Queens Museum, emphasized the cultural neutrality of Lee’s abstractions.
“Just because he’s a Korean artist doesn’t mean his work has to be about Korea,” he said. “We’re interested in diversity, but sometimes an artist has to be freed to work more abstractly.”
Arguably the highlight of the exhibit is Lee’s largest work to date, a 50-foot installation created specifically for the QMA.
According to Lee, the piece took him about a month and over 500 pens to complete. In addition to the other large-scale pieces, the exhibit features a selection of experimental studies drawn on smaller pieces of paper, some of which Lee created overnight.
“Some of them are actually works of art in their own right,” said Joanna Kleinberg, the guest curator who designed the exhibit, of the experimental pieces on display.
The backdrop for one of these experimental studies is a scrap of newspaper from the Science section of the New York Times.
“What’s interesting about this is that you get the sense that the works are obviously inspired by nature,” Kleinberg said. “First of all it’s on the Science Times. He creates his own shrubbery, woodland. Clearly a lot of the work is rooted in nature.”
Though Lee has limited himself to black and indigo for the larger works, these pieces reveal a growing interest in the color red.
“Right now in my studio I’m using the three ballpoint colors,” Lee said, “but I’ve never showed those publicly.”
According to Finkelpearl, a serene environment is key to experiencing Lee’s drawings.
“(The exhibit) is so peaceful and beautiful,” he said. “The best time to see it is when there’s no one else there. A weekday afternoon is the best time.”
“Il Lee: Ball Point Drawings” is on display at QMA through Sept. 30. Summer hours through Sept. 30 are from noon-6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The museum is open from noon-8 p.m. on Friday and closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Suggested admission is $5 for adults, seniors and children over 5, and $2.50 for members. For more information, call (718) 592-9700 or visit www.queensmuseum.org.