Behind the Sculptures of Lee Ungno

A new method of expression

People (1979) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

Behind the sculptures

Lee Ungno produced various sketches to produce the perfect form of sculptures and the objects. From the sketches with various materials, one can see that Lee drew numerous drawings to complete a single work.

People (1979) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

At this point, drawing works as an esquisse that needs to be completed in a planned manner. In particular, the importance of drawing will be emphasized if a piece is made wood which needs to be cut without error.

People (1979) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

Lee Ungno produced various drawings with ink, pencils and colored ballpoint pens, based on which he produced sculptures and objects of 'people'.

People (1979) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

You can focus on the differences of the works which comes from the variety of materials, compared to the works painted in ink on Korean paper.

People (1979) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

In this work, the black-painted shape also has a hole in the middle, which makes it look like an organism. It is a drawing that shows the characteristics of a sculpture of Lee Ungno, which absorbs the space outside of the work and also penetrates air.

A pedestal is drawn under two abstract forms that also look like a human being, indicating that it is a drawing for a sculpture.

Untitled (1979) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

This is Lee Ungno’s drawing of <people> sculpture painted in red and black pen. It features the person with an open arm, a figure with his(her) arms on the side of his face, or a figure that looks like (s)he is greeting others are depicted.

The signature is on the right side of the bottom, which makes it looks like part of the work.

Composition (1984) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

During the 1970s and the 1980s, Lee Ungno’s approach to sculpture became more adventurous in a manner coinciding with his abstract painting series, such as Abstract Letter and People.

People (1981) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

They were connected both stylistically and semantically.

People (1981) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

At the time, Lee was attempting to create, in three-dimensional forms, the abstract language he achieved in his paintings.

People (1980) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

As a result, his sculpture is directly informed by the signs and images in his calligraphic abstraction. Lee’s sculpture does not simply reproduce the forms of an object.

Composition (1980) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

Lee’s sculpture does not simply reproduce the forms of an object.

Mask (1965) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

It is a kind of three-dimensional abstract calligraphy: the forms it creates are both cut out of space and assembled from it.

Composition (1980) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

Overall, his three-dimensional work embraces space with the same rhythm and power found in his abstract calligraphic painting.

Composition, Lee Ungno, 1979, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Untitled, Lee Ungno, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Composition (1981) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

Lee Ungno's sculptures

City (1974) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

From the late 1960s to early 1980s, Lee Ungno produced a multitude of sculptural works, in-the-round carvings, and reliefs using a variety of materials, including wood. He used not only paper and pigments but many other materials easily accessible to him in his daily life to materialize his desire for artistic creation, resulting in the production of works that were all quite consistent in terms of artistic sensibility, regardless of the materials he used.

In the work shown here, Lee used tiny pieces of wood of different lengths to portray a forest of skyscrapers in a large city. Each of the rectangular wooden columns of different heights is nothing but a tiny unit; when packed together with numerous others, however, they create an imposing landscape of a megacity.

This sculptural work reminds some viewers of Lee’s calligraphic abstract paintings, where the element of abstractness is uniquely amalgamated with that of figurativeness, while others see it as a prototype of the paintings of Lee’s later years, which depict large crowds of people, each of whom were created with only a few simple brushstrokes.

Composition (1980) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

This wooden sculpture, entitled 'People', made in the 1980s seems to depict the dynamic brushstrokes of a calligraphic work in three-dimensional form. The details of the work are suggestive of characters or letters entangled with each other or the movement of a group of people depicted using written characters. For some, it presents a fundamental form that exists in nature, expressed through the unrestrained combination of lines, planes, and spaces.

Mask (1965) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

This wooden sculpture, titled Face, made by Lee Ungno in 1965 features an uncomfortably grotesque form with a rough surface that seems to exude an expressive intensity. The severely distorted eyes and mouth are reminiscent of the masks used for some Korean folk theater performances or traditional African masks. The drastically simplified and boldly distorted face creates an atmosphere of fear, terror, and magical force, although some find the overly exaggerated eyes and mouth somewhat amusing. Distinguished by its monstrous face, which shows the marks of rough chiseling, this sculpture is totally different from the beautiful and elegant faces created in the Classical Age.

Mask (1985) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

Compared to the work of the same title that Lee produced in 1985(this sculpture), which features a comparatively well-defined form, this work from 1965 is remarkably bold and even destructive in its artistic experimentation.

Mask (1965) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

The influence of the Art Informel movement, which had a major impact on the art of Lee Ungno in the 1960s, is especially evident in this work.

People (1980) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

This unique sculptural work was created by shaping a form using paper scraps tempered with sticky cooked rice and painting it with ink. Lee started producing the works of his “Starchy Rice Sculpture” series, such as the one shown here, in 1967, when was imprisoned for two years for his involvement in the Dongbaengnim (East Berlin) Incident, causing him to lose access to materials for his artistic activities. Finding that the versatility of cooked rice and paper made them suitable as materials for sculptures, Lee Ungno continued to use the materials and techniques he learned in prison even after his release, leading to the creation of many similar works, including People and this work, entitled Composition, which was completed in 1980.

A closer look at the work reveals traces of the artist’s finger work with paper dough and the ink-brushed part of the surface to infuse life into the finished work. Lee’s sculptural works, such as this one, are sometimes compared to papier collé of the early 1960s, a type of collage in which paper is applied to a flat mount and painted.

This particular work features a rough, untrimmed form that is open to the outside world and sometimes compared to a certain living creature or even a human being with open arms. Lee Ungno once said that when he worked on paper sculptures, he often thought about his mother working with starch and paper to make large bowls. This work is a fine example of Lee’s artworks that combine materials and aesthetic experimentation to create a perfect artistic whole.

Composition (1980) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

While imprisoned for his involvement in the East Berlin Affair, Lee Ungno painted using almost every material around him that he could find, in order to overcome his inability to paint there. He collected veneers to make sculptural forms and used soy sauce, which was served at mealtimes, as pigments.

Since he noticed that some inmates at the An-yang Prison used rice paste to make jang-gy (Asian chess) pieces, he started to collect discarded rice from his or other inmates’ meals and sometimes got rice from the prison messenger in order to make models.

Made of rice paste, an evidence of the artist’s passion for art, this work evokes his Abstract Letter series. The abstractive forms are built flat but the whole construction exudes a sense of volume.

Composition (1974) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

This wooden in-the-round carving sculpture looks like a form created by piling up brushstrokes taken from Lee’s calligraphic abstract paintings to create a three-dimensional figure. While the basic principle governing Chinese characters, pictograms and ideograms is the expression of three-dimensional figures as simple two-dimensional symbols, that of the abstract sculpture, such as that shown here, is the representation of two-dimensional symbols as three-dimensional life forms.

This sculpture, while made of hardwood, features a form that reminds viewers of the two-dimensional brushstrokes of East Asian calligraphy, which tend to continue to run though looking perilous. The elegantly curved lines outlining the shape of the sculpture run in a natural, organic manner, as if they are an integral part of the wooden structure.

The work features a large, seemingly heavy part supported by a smaller, and thus lighter, bottom part with three short legs that appear vulnerable. However, the harmony between the elegance of the curved lines that form the masses and the empty spaces that exist among them helps create a remarkable sense of stability.

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