The Gaze for Jouissance
Lee Jin-sil  (aesthetician / art critic)
Pictures make us look at the world in an unfamiliar way. In reverse, there is no picture that does not enable us to view the familiar world in a strange way. Even meta-realism paintings or miniatures, so far as they are pictures on canvas, make that certain piece of reality even less familiar. Perhaps that is why the artist’s eyes are originally those of unfamiliarity, the gaze that discovers hidden cracks in the joints of reality, which appears to be smooth. The reason the views of Lee Eunkyung, who examines everyday objects on her canvases, seems strange and novel is primarily because of her microscopic gaze. In her two-dimensional works it is difficult to find panoramic landscapes, spaces of bold scale, or human figures. As if on a voyage through the micro-cosmos of things, she captures the images of small objects on her large white canvases. These pictures, however, are the results neither of an inquiry into the gap between visual experience and reality, nor of a focus on the sharp or marvelous representation of the object. They are rather a certain moment of a glance or a pause–a direct transfer of the contact point where the thoughtlessly projected gaze meets with the object. Thus, her paintings feel like photographs capturing the moment–not clear photographs, but photographs taken with the wrong exposure or B cuts of a photogram placed on a photographic plate. That is because in the center of these paintings there is not a realistic representation or frame provided by the artist, but omission, vanishing and absence. This is the second point of strangeness presented by Lee’s paintings.


Over Contrast

Perhaps that is the reason why Lee Eunkyung’s paintings give us the feeling of photography, even though they are not executed with an overly detailed technique. Her recent works in particular resemble photographs of everyday objects that have had their contrast pushed to the limit. Due to the excess of light, the gloss on the surface of the object, or the forms of transparent glass, collapse as the boundaries with the background vanish. Moreover, the light penetrates into the forms of the objects, cutting and eating away at their shapes. Thus, on account of this light, which is the premise of the visual possibility to see the forms of the objects, but which also blinds us, the form of the object is compromised. On a stage where this light is expanded to the extreme, parts of the objects are revealed in detail, while others fade away. While the shapes of the objects are suspended in stationary appearance like over-exposed photographs, the motifs, which appear in the objects like sequential rhythms, overflow into the empty marginal space
as they create variations. The dynamic rhythm of the motifs, such as the polka dots on socks, the glitter of cooking foil, a net pattern or a fish design printed on a cup, seem to gain new vitality as they are deconstructed into the only living and moving elements within this moment of pause.


Transparency and the Vanishing of Borders

The artist calls such re-composition of form “refinement.” The question of what to filter out and what to hold on to as solid content is a game as well as a never-ending battle for her. If there is a single consistent context in Lee’s work, it is the materiality of “glass” and the visual unrest caused by that material. The still life works presented in Something is Missing in 2012 were paintings of objects such as glass cups, flowers in a glass vessel, fruit and ribbons. The reflective light of glass shimmering on the canvas, the boldly omitted forms of the glass, and the sense of volume in the fruit, sometimes clear and sometimes indistinct, exposed a cheerfulness and experimental spirit completely different from the still life paintings charged with allegory made by Dutch artists. In her 2014 exhibition, The Fragile, Lee used very ancient and “feeble” materials such as egg tempera and hand-made gesso to paint contemporary commercial images and patterns on round canvases, thus “coolly” presenting the process of their cracking and becoming damaged. The artist has conducted multifarious painterly experiments related to the easily breakable and transparent material properties of glass, interpreting them through shimmering light, distortion of form, and weakness of the image. In her recent work also, the starting point of the form she intends to “refine” is indeed related to the materiality of glass. That is because to express transparency or white light against the white background of the canvas is no different than experimenting with the boundaries between background and figure, or between object and absence. At a point where the artist’s desire to express such visual boundaries hyper- realistically–and her capability to do so–must have reached a high, to our surprise, she is nullifying such borders or replacing them with simple lines and colors, assuming an attitude like that of an ascetic priest inflicting pain on himself. As the borders between object and absence, being and nothingness are now reduced into two extremes–empty backgrounds or explicit two-dimensional color masses–resulting from the transparency of the glass, which creates shimmering illusions of light and distortion of form, they are turned into completely mysterious forms. In other words, she is rebuilding new forms as she deconstructs her desire to revive the visual illusion of transparent media through absence of shape and disappearance.


The Gaze Off Target

To try to hypothesize on the prototype of these mysterious forms, or to re-compose the forms of objects as mysterious figures, is to summon the circumferential sight or blind spots, and to let go of the clear vanishing point on the retina, as in the case of the “magic eye.” That is to say, it is a series of deviations, giving up solid shape and capturing unknown forms scattered about and floating around. This is only possible with the strategy of “gazing,” which is different from the usual “seeing,” considered as symbolic order. All humans learn languages, and are included into the so-called symbolic order (Lacan). To enter this symbolic order is to give up jouissance (enjoying oneself) and to follow one’s father’s words (the existing order and system); it is to internalize the desires defined by others within us. (After all, you did not want a Chanel bag from the time you were born.) Our visual senses are always focused on where our consciousness is directed. In fact such consciousness is nothing but a tendency heavily influenced by the symbolic order. Hence, at every moment, things that are visible but cannot be seen, drop out of our familiar line of sight. In order to escape from this orientation of sight, this entrapment by semantic network, we must undertake the adventure of letting our senses wander into uncertainty. In other words, the possibility of encountering not desire but jouissance, the pleasure of meeting the “real,” is only open to such a distorted gaze, the execution of dislocation.



What draws our attention constantly in the distorted gaze is not the clear texture or shapes of the objects, but rather the omission of outline, the empty holes. Our eyes rest upon where the gloss of the pear has been penetrated as an empty hole (Hole), the rim of a tea cup, which has disappeared against the delicate details of the tea spoons (For Two), and the moment of extinction, where the leaves and grass have blown away in the wind (Garden in Brockley). In Chalk, the sense of velocity and movement given by the extended streak of quince-yellow gives a cheerful feeling; however, the point we have trouble looking away from is the small stain, the rotting part of the quince. The contacts of blessing touched by the light, the parts in which the reality of living is revealed most explicitly, are transformed into extinction and absence without hesitation. We witness the sameness of the most shining moment and death. The creation of the world began with light. “Let there be light.” This was the starting point of creation. The artist’s gaze, gone wide, reads this light as nothingness. Like the beliefs of Malevich, who was absorbed in Theosophy and pursued the zero degree of painting, or those of the cabalist mystics, perhaps we also must go through this “emptiness” and “nothingness” in order to reach the real.