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Lee Sangwon

Lee Sangwon, Sungkok Art Museum


1978, Cheongyang


Painting, Media



Family, 2014

Watercolor on Paper, 20 x 30.5cm

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Pattern of Life Style

The 19th Century Russian literary critic, N. G. Chernyshevskii (1828~1889), once said, “The general characteristic and essence of art is to reproduce life”. Being a reflection of ordinary life and elements associated with it is one of the essential general characteristics of art. In fact, the artistic process functions to support society and culture. Since Gustave Courbet’s realistic perspective of painting the ordinary lives of people became a part of art history, art began to be appreciated for providing a perspective on ordinary objects and events and imparting these with an overarching theme. Today’s artists go beyond the purpose of recording the surrounding environment and ordinary life and observe personal identity on a small scale, as well as observing society and culture on a larger scale. They feel out the surrounding environment through this process. However, concentrating on ordinary lives is not meaningful simply because it allows us to judge how realistically our ordinary lives are reflected or how similar art is to our ordinary lives. Artist Lee Sangwon conveys the fundamental determinants of the lives of modern people through his work and instead of tying himself up in the microscopic perspective; instead, he takes an approach that includes the ordinary structure of the whole of society. Taking into account Henri Lefebvre’s characteristics of expressing the ordinary by making art that is at once specific yet ordinary, Lee has tried to use ordinary life as a tool in order to provide a larger picture of society as a whole instead of being content with merely drawing the surface of ordinary lives.


Through his paintings, Lee Sangwon has for a long time been observing the patterns of modern people as expressed in their ordinary lives. He concentrated especially on the common patterns revealed in how they spent their leisure time. His work starts out by collecting images of people at parks, swimming pools and ski resorts etc., where many leisure activities take place. The collected images are combined into a bird’s eye-view or panoramic view and are constructed into a huge painting or are edited into an animation by drawing the patterns of individual forms.


Sociologically, time is categorized into the time that physiology requires be spent sleeping and eating and the time that is subject to the social restrictions of having to work and participate. The rest of the time is categorized as free time in which individuals can choose what they want to do and can use their time according to their own will. Depending on how leisure time, or this free time, is formed and used, the quality of the activities that take place during this free time surpasses individual preferences and can have social connotations, including hints that reveal social and cultural background. In particular, as the time spent performing labor has decreased and leisure time has increased in our industrial society, leisure has not only become a topic for psychology and social-anthropology, but also a target for economical research and analysis or has been used to determine policy. It can be said that the common patterns that the artist Lee Sangwon has found in the leisure life of modern people has been formed by these policies. In particular, leisure activities have been molded by policies which in some cases have been coerced in Korean society, such as the curfew, liberalizing overseas travel, popularizing professional sports, leisure town policies and the five-day week adopted in 2004. These policies have provided an opportunity for the lifestyles of modern people to be changed in a short period of time. These policies have generalized, maximized and unified the leisure of ordinary people because they set out similar working conditions.


Lee Sangwon found that the visible and ironical difference between the essential characteristics of personalization, the privatization of leisure, and the popularization and unification of leisure started to express the life patterns of modern people ina playful manner. The millions of people who go jogging in parks in similar outfits or the people who go skiing and are similar in appearance have already lost their individual characteristics and represent the anonymous mass public.


The repeated actions of many people are considered to form a comprehensive movement and are seen as being public or mass actions instead of being a reflection of personal preference. Thus, even though the word “leisure activity” has the connotation of being very independent and private, as soon as it is expressed in a pattern that takes place en masse, it becomes an objective and public activity. This means that, even though it may be a productive activity for an individual, it implies its consumption by society. It seems that this is the point that Lee Sangwon has selected and tried to point out. Thus, the most distinctive characteristic of his paintings is their objectiveness. He observes the events that occur around a person without taking into account any emotions or ideas, and people are expressed as being an anonymous ‘somebody’, lacking facial expressions. Most of his paintings are drawn looking down from above making sure that the observer is kept a certain distance away from the object being observed, looking down from a different level. In one screen, each of the characters are structured from a variety of different viewpoints, applying Victor Shklovsky’s 'defamiliarization' to the paintings, making very familiar-looking scenes appear slightly special instead of being dull. Thus, there is the hidden intention of emphasizing the public spirit by looking at personal events and activities objectively.


Lee Sangwon has recently embarked on new experiments to expand the boundaries of his work. He uses painting as the basic foundation but concentrates on making a moving picture on this basic flat surface. For example, in his work “Run Project”, he collected the images of people jogging in the park and repeatedly drew each person who was jogging. It is almost like looking at wallpaper full of patterns because he repeats the same drawings of many anonymous characters. He edits the painting to make the overlap of these images make it look as if there is one person jogging, like looking at one video image. In other words, painting which is based on a flat surface is expanded into installation and video work, and is combined with other possible genres, opening up limitless possibilities for exploding boundaries. The recent work introduced in the “Piri&Painting,” which is a performance by the National Gugak Center, was a fresh attempt to paint a moving picture by harmoniously combining music, art and performance art, revealing the potential of formulating a complex artwork. Lee Sangwon’s attempts to expand the boundaries of his work are also closely related to the materials of daily life that he concentrates on. He transforms the life patterns of modern people that are revealed by their daily lifestyles so that they can be found in the environments around them, and this makes it possible for people to appreciate pictures not only in specific culture spaces, such as galleries, but also in the streets of cities, parks or sports shops.


Lee Sangwon has the unique ability to observe and analyze the patterns of modern people and abstract them from ordinary lives. He lays out ordinary actions, and this can be understood as an attempt to have individuals who are members of society look at society from a more objective perspective, and an attempt to make individuals reflect more objectively on society. This has won the artist Lee Sang Won a place as an artist who opens up new possibilities by endlessly pursuing new avenues and conducting experiments to communicate in other areas, using art as the basic foundation. 

Kim Sunghee (Professor of Hongik University Graduate School of Art)


Find the way of his own view

There are variant ways a painter looks at the object he would introduce in his paintings. Sometimes he simply looks at it in a realistic spirit, and sometimes expresses metaphorically or abstracts the inner quality and meaning. In a realistic expression, too, there are two ways: detailed depiction centering on a specific part, approaching to the object; expressing the impression of the object at a certain distance with an artist's own plastic language.

Lee Sangwon observes the crowded places to find the objects. The crowds in a swimming pool or on the beach escaping the heat of the midsummer, people strolling in the park, skiers in the skiing ground are the main motifs of his paintings. From these crowds, he said, not only the exhaustion in ordinary life but also the rest and leisure to resolve it can be found.

In the history of art, the observation and the depiction of the life of urbanites started to appear regularly when the impressionism entered into the scene. Their favorite subjects were the production facilities and the leisure establishment concentrated as results of the industrial revolution, and the optimistic attitude and the environment of the people working and resting in those institutions. Monet painted the street of the city, Degas the spectators of the theater, and Renoir the outside dance party. Every living beings including human instinctively tend to live collectively in the optimum environment. For this characteristic human called a social animal. Since the industralization, human life is leaded mainly in the city, and the urban population has kept increasing. The concentrated city of numerous situations and contents intertwine the lives of people to form a vast life of the city itself, which evolves, creates, consumes and extincts like an organism.

Individuals crowding in a place interact each other. The human beings are no exception. People in the paintings of Lee Sangwon, too, gather and talk twos and threes, conflict each other and cooperate to compose the entire plane of picture. To contain so various stories of so much people in a single picture the artist either had to enlarge the canvas or to reduce the scale of the individual figures, and therefore the bird-eye view is inevitable to observe the whole state of things. For if it was observed on a standard level of eyes, the figures can't help being overlapped and becoming ungraspable.

Looking into the paintings of Lee Sangwon, you get to feel like to hear the whisperings, clamorous noises, cries for companion, screams in danger, whimpering and laughing of baby. The spectators wonder what these dialogues and cries are. If we can feel familiar and pleased in front of the canvases of Lee Sangwon, then that is because they unfold the relations and communications among people as if they are seen from above the sky, and also because there are the traces of the artist's gaze and touch observing and describing the ordinary details warm-heartedly. 

HA Gye-hoon (Art critic, Professor of Dankook University)


After Modernism and Life-style

Figures in the painting of Lee Sangwon are our painted group as a distance view as ever. This attitude is often used not for a description of his own sentiment but an objectification of human cultural assets, like Hieronymous Bosch, Uccello or Bruegel in the past. A human being is objectified solely for expression of the fear of war and starvation, of a satire and a precept, or overlooking for men. In another way, men is placed emphasis as a king or authorities in the middle of plate to endow them with mental images and sentimentalism as well as the spotlight of romantic theatricality. Therefore, I think of it now that Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer and Raphael couldn’t help being more popular than Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel.

To ask a question of Lee Sangwon why he has to take the way of former instead of the latter’s, is the best way to understand of his painting, in spite of that the latter is better way to survive in the tendency of commercialism now. Lee’s narrative departure is to inquire for the meaning or value of this era. The first question is that nobody is curious about history, ideal or ideology. This trial with questions is very severe process to understand both myself and the context of surroundings of oneself. That is the so called Big "I". Big "I" as ‘Idea’ or ‘Ideology’ became bygones of reality and romanticism. On the other hand, people in the present live as a life of small "i". We try to find ‘i’nformation in ‘i’nternet to appease and live in music of i-pod or, in images free ourselves from the Idea. Consequently, we find our biggest satisfaction not from our work but our life-style. Two wheels of the wagon of this life are time and hobby. Because the power of the wagon is definitely financial power, everyone gives vent to their energy to get it. Sangwon Lee is almost the first artist to take ‘life-style’ as new landscape for art genre in Korea. What is the chic and wealthy life rather than the life worth and valuable life is appeal to everyone now. However, this term was started by the artist’s tongue.

Let’s schematize to understand this ‘life-style’. ‘Art’ was very limited. The term of ‘Culture’ was more universal. The domain of Culture means that of semantics and, it is effort as a hypothetical form to make this world more meaningful. ‘Art’ and ‘ritual’were main axis. Furthermore, these were so called, ‘resistant’ against the fear of death or tragedy. Science was a means to unify for nature and religion was a chase to combine various cultures each periods. Religion never accepted the objection which tried to spoil the unity. Since then, Auschwitz and imperialism in the West society and Asia incapacitated their own religions. They did not recognize the culture in religion anymore and they destroyed the criterion and modality. This new trial was called Modernism. Modernism reveled against the bourgeoisie and it was same with the creative slogan in the West and Asia in the 20th century. The criterion as a subject matter can be summarized three features. One is rebounding from the standard of bourgeoisie, and the second one is destruction of psychological distance in terms of style, the last one is pursuit for media itself rather than depth and form. Bourgeois criterion is the category of Roman Art based on predominant Hellenic(Greek) civilization. In addition to, the style consists on context and form, which dramatize every Art aesthetically based on common sense of this criterion. Logically, psychological distance occurs between common senses and we need time to think and study. Oriental culture also, was from the process of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, so it is similar with the process of Western culture. The irony of the victory of Modernism was caused by the authorities’ acceptance for what it is it’s worth. The sovereign, speaking gently, the elite could not afford to make their new thought. However, they get their own back on Modernism. It does not mean the better thought or better style of Art. They achieved by cramming the economical and commercial hall with Modernism. "life-style" was to live without care a rush for rules and to live with absence of worldly desires like Modernists. This attitude was disseminated throughout the young artists, they developed newly and dramatically with two extreme way of riding or opposition. To step back from others means that. Additionally, the only way not to be alone is to make economic power. This social aspect makes people strange, even artists.

We have believed and studied the term of Post-Modernism. However, nobody knows about whether or not it is real something. It may be incoherence of a counteroffensive and re-counteroffensive. It has been nothing but the permeation of ‘globalization(globalism)’ into the culture world, which is praise of a free economy. Like "The stock exchange is a poor substitute for the Holy Grail" by the economist Joseph Alois Shumpeter, every ideology and emblem flows into the monster, named ‘Economy’ and, ideology and belief are also displaced with the monster. The topic of art is also economic word, ‘globalism’. It cannot be said Modernism or Post Modernism. Even aesthetic value and criterion do not have their birth place. There are only the stock options. Because of that art market was unified. Actually, in terms of art, the problem of form and subject reveal their limitation. Niklas Luhmann, a progressive socialist, also stipulates Art as an accomplishment of communication in the dual code which is ‘beautiful’ or not ‘beautiful’. It means that classic value like the Goethe’s time is not in common anymore. Now, we just follow our taste.

Once art becomes autonomous, the emphasis shifts from hetero-reference to self-reference which is not the same as self-isolation, not l’art pour l’art. Art has no ambition to redeem society by exercising aesthetic control over an expanded realm of possibility. The function of art is to make the world appear within the world.

Definitely, Lee Sangwon did not keep in mind when he worked. I just hoped to share with his viewers the joy from his paintings which is good suggestion for social circumstances and the meaning of Art today. Lee is totally free and different from the three notorieties which are attachment for media, counteraction /re-counteraction for the elite and self-control of direct appeal by the elimination of psychological distance. At the same time, he meditates contemporary life-style. We do not need to think and question for each other at the mountain, sea, swimming pool, a ski resort. It might be a new peaceful world that former generation dreamed, but Lee produced the shadow of monster, ‘globalism’.

It may just me but I read about Sangwon’s concern that he is becoming exhausted by the intergradation toward isolation from ‘I’ to ‘i’ and form ‘E’of Ego to ‘e’ of ‘e-money’, ‘e-capital’ and ‘economy’. Generally, a long distance point of view and small painted people in paintings make me think about something a lot. Always the painting of Hieronymous Bosch has been read for that it is the warning of God and he is an admirer for Devil. Pieter Bruegel’s works interpreted to two possibilities which are a satire on human society and the ridicule for the divine right of kings. The battle pieces of Uccello have double read on the fear of war and the description for the king as the god of war. Like these durable reading, I also think about the peaceful and cheerful scene as well as the affliction of more intensive next generation at the same time.

Lee Jin-myung (Aesthetics, Curator, Art Schola Shanghai)