Sujin Lee - Catalogue Essay
Originally published in the catalogue accompanying Sujin Lee’s eponymous debut solo exhibition at Saatchi Yates (London, 2nd February - 26th March)
2nd February 2022

Upon entering artist Sujin Lee’s debut solo exhibition you immediately feel the eyes on you. Unsettling unwavering stares, vacant glazed over gazes and steady sideways glances all appear to follow you as you move around the gallery space. Piercing painted peepers reminiscent of the exaggerated eyes of American artist Margaret Keane, social media photo manipulation filters or anime in the lineage of Manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka (an ocular trait also often evidenced in the Korean comic equivalent Manhwa). You are also entering a setting seemingly devoid of men, one that echoes well-known women-only worlds such as Wonder Woman’s homogenised homeland of Paradise Island, a segregated nation-state where men are banned under penalty of capital punishment, or Whileaway, the fictional utopia of Joanna Russ’ acclaimed feminist science fiction novel The Female Man (1975), in which all men have succumbed to a gender-specific plague. However, the sole focus upon female representation amongst Sujin’s artworks results from a much more innocent explanation, the South Korean artists’ desire both to paint her own lived experiences and to experience life through her paintings. 

Almost entirely self-taught, Sujin originally studied visual communication and flirted with a career in commercial illustration, before she became frustrated with the constraints placed upon her creative expression and instead turned to painting as a source of liberation. While working as an artist’s studio assistant Sujin began to pursue a painting practice predicated upon observation, learning by looking. Her earliest works, therefore, are notable for their grounding in reality, showcasing snapshots of urban life in paintings such as Girls on the Street, a city scene populated by figures appearing to follow contemporary fashion trends, or depicting domesticity in Hair Cut, the interruption of an intimate moment. As is often the case, Sujin initially drew from her immediate surroundings for inspiration, where source material was available in abundance and accessible instantly.

Eventually, such fervent observation begins to look inward and tends towards self-reflection. Unsurprising perhaps given Sujin’s preference for painting what she knows, as the young artist strives to truly know herself her work developed an air of possible self-portraiture, all the while resisting representational portrayals, rather opting for a more emotionally engaged likeness or more intimate artistic impression. When unsure of how to express herself, Sujin paints as a process of self-discovery. When reflecting upon outside influences - stimuli such as movies, television shows, literature or social networking sites - Sujin exercises empathy, imagining herself within each specific scene or scenario, predicting each potential reaction to elicit an honest emotive response. Rather than being indicative of any extended or continuous narrative, each painting exists in its own present, every persona portrayed with heightened emotions right at the surface, their heart on their sleeve.

Throughout, heads rest upon shoulders or nestle into necks, cheeks press against cheeks, hands hold, intimacy encapsulated and a closeness of contact much missed in recent pandemic plagued times. However, a sense of sanitisation prevails as reality is, metaphorically, airbrushed to allow for an aura of cleanliness, consistency and conformity. Gone are the nosebleeds, bloodshot eyes, cold sores, plasters and bandages present in Sujin’s previous paintings, instead, these are perfection personified. Only momentary mask-slips - a strand of bedraggled hair for instance - hint at life’s truthful imperfections, here mostly hidden.

Spectral orbs float before certain figures, akin to photographic backscatter, blown bubbles or heavy, swollen teardrops. They serve as speech bubbles’ emotional equal, indicating that ephemeral moment of fleeting feelings forming, of swiftly shifting sentiments. Pure and raw, undistilled yet undefined. Emotion made ethereal, unable to be held back, repressed or dismissed. Sujin’s latest works also introduce more scenic, surrealistic backdrops of bowed branches, flowing fronds and towering tree trunks, dreamscape set-dressing for her monumental, staged society portraits. Here, paintings of posed, poised all-female Addams-esque families appear powerful yet with an underlying unease. Stiffened figures don ‘norm-core’ attire, elegant yet demure in muted coloured clothing from an indistinguishable era, each topped with stylised, stringy tresses. Elsewhere, Sujin situates her self-portrait stand-ins against stark monochromatic backgrounds in playful paintings with considered, comical compositions. In Jenga, Circles and Repetition respectively, heads are stacked totemically or splayed circularly, while twins appear so close as to approach conjunction.

Janga, Maze and Dummy evoke a neoteric nostalgia, posed like the fictional friends of Friends or Charlie’s titular Angels these groupings recall the Spice - or Powerpuff - Girls, cultural icons that promoted feminist ideology and female empowerment. Similarly, each individual exhibits a unique and immediately identifiable personal style or appearance, a trope frequently found in contemporary K-pop within girl groups such BLACKPINK, Red Velvet, TWICE or Stay C. Friends, meanwhile, echoes certain K-pop stars' penchant for matching uniforms, as well as the Korean custom of ‘couple looks’ or twinning with your significant other, here however with added eerie Kubrickian traces of those ghostly Grady Twins. Prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness, is the cognitive disorder of facial perception that leaves sufferers relying upon secondary signifiers for recognition, namely clothing, hair colour or voice. The uniformity of facial features and blank expressions of Sujin’s figures leaves us too searching for similar clues, save for voice and with the addition of their surroundings, as to their individual identities or personalities.

It is said that you cannot dream of a face you haven’t seen before, and if that is the case then these are those fleeting faces. Those visages unwittingly witnessed, of passersby and fellow passengers, that mass of anonymised appearances that leave unregistered yet lasting impressions upon your subconscious. This is perhaps Sujin’s true skill as a painter, to create depictions that embodied empathy by portraying everyone and no one, all at once.

Purchase Sujin Lee, Saatchi Yates, Exhibition Catalogue