Timothy Hyun-Soo Lee‘s work is honest, revealing, and raw, and his interview is nothing less. His willingness to admit to having an anxiety disorder deserves merit alone, but the method through which he explores and discusses every spectrum of his mind, whether dark or light, is art that makes one pause and think. Check it out:
Please introduce yourself, how would you describe your work to someone who’d never seen it?
My full name is Timothy Hyunsoo Lee, although most of my friends and colleagues just call me Timmy. I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to New York with my family when I was five. I grew up in Jackson Heights and eventually went on to study at Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT), graduating with a B.A. in biology, studio art (drawing), and neuroscience.
I’m a full-time artist, although I’d like to describe myself more as a full-time thinker and creator. It’s hard to describe my works to someone who’s never seen it before – I can say, technically, that my works largely use a diamond-like motif to create a repetitive pattern which results in a psychedelic experience. But a better way to describe my works is to relate it to white noise – something that is initially chaotic and overwhelming, but becoming soothing and almost numbing the longer you interact with it. The duality of that sensation – order and disorder; chaos and serenity – is something I’m very interested in exploring with my current works. Although my current practice uses many different materials such as gold, wood, polyurethane foam, aluminum prints and neon nights, I originally began my career using watercolor and making works on paper (which I still do).
What significant happened between the series you made in 2014 and 2015? There’s a point at which you began giving your pieces much more invested names, ‘Single-breath disaster’ and ‘A Study of Serenity, and of Death’, what precipitated this change?
Because my artistic career is still very young, I’m constantly experimenting with new ideas and materials. My greatest pet peeve with the current contemporary art world is how quickly emerging artists try to find the “thesis” for their art – for the most part, this hasty scrambling to find your “niche” results in works that are vague without intention, and often better described by the convoluted text that accompanies the work rather than the work’s actual imagery.
I am a firm believer that if you are genuine to yourself and your practice, your interests in art will reveal itself as you continue to make new work (no matter how unrelated the individual works may appear initially). My earlier works in 2014 were a part of a series I called Traces, which used this “cell” motif that I developed to create what I called “mind maps” – compositions dictated entirely by the tics and compulsions that I experience (as a result of my anxiety – more on that later) and how I respond to it through my painting. I considered this technique the rawest self-portrait possible, to allow the chaos of my mind to freely translate into a design – how would that look? I titled these works with very cryptic labels, but for someone trained in psychiatry, they would have instantly recognized that many of these works were named after index numbers of psychological disorders found in the DSM-IV (the 4th edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Psychological Disorders). For example 300.2 is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, whereas 301.4 is the DSM-IV index number for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I loved the dichotomy of these numbers: they were so vague, but those digits simultaneously held a wealth of information.
As my practice matured, as well as my outlook on why I create, my interests in art shifted from being a personal endeavor to a universal concern. I didn’t want my works to be about GAD nor OCD, and I didn’t want people to immediately develop a schema through which they saw my works – I didn’t want the perception of my art to be shaped by their titles.
So I began to title works based on the first word, or phrases, that I thought of while making it. A lot of these titles are excerpts from writings I do when I can’t paint – I call them my musings. Single-Breath Disaster is titled as such because I made a huge mistake while painting it at a certain point – in one stroke, one breath – and the rest of my time spent on that work was trying to fix the damages I had done. Or Gasp, Shit! (Composition V) was titled that way because I spilled a huge amount of red watercolor over the paper as I was moving some materials around my worktable – my first response was to gasp (super-loud) and say “SHIT!” The rest was history. To be honest, the titles don’t describe the works most of the time (or nowadays, at all). But I’m okay with that, as long as the title bears significance for me. What’s in a title anyways?
Why diamonds? Your work is built out of these shapes as though they were the basic unit of your self-expression, what about the shape appeals to you? What does it mean to you?
When I was at Wesleyan University, I worked in a neural stem cell lab for around two years. The research was focused around exploring the therapeutic potential of transplanting neural stem cells into a brain lesion, using a mouse model of temporal lobe epilepsy. All this science jargon aside, my role in the lab was to perform immunohistochemical stains on brain slices – staining the sample with various fluorescent dyes and “labeling” different proteins with colors. When I looked under the microscope, I was overwhelmed by a kaleidoscopic landscape of reds, blues, yellows and greens. It was so beautiful. And it simultaneously reminded me of snakeskin, and I love the idea of molting. To shed your experiences, become vulnerable for a moment, and regenerate a stronger character from it. So at that point, this “cell” became the unit of my visual language.
The simplicity of the shape also lends itself well as a vessel for chaos, in a sense. A lot of my artistic process involves a tug-of-war between working very tightly, and allowing myself to be loose and unpredictable. I was drawn to watercolor in that sense because it’s an incredibly fluid and unpredictable medium – you can only ease it in the direction that you want it to go, but ultimately it’s about how the water interacts with your pigment, and how that solution settles on your surface with respect to environmental factors. So you really can’t control it. And I allow this disorder – the colors of my watercolor intermingling uninterrupted – within the rigid boundaries I set in creating those cell shapes. And I think that’s a refreshing reconciliation, and not a compromise, between by two halves.
What different parts of you are expressed in your painting versus your sculpture? Your most recent paintings use a lot of blue, red, and purple, and fill the entire canvas, whereas your earlier work used a smattering of color but used a lot negative space. Is this a difference in what you are trying to say? Is this a reflection of something new in your personal perspective?
To be honest, I’m not even 100% sure right now what parts of me are expressed through my works. I work with different materials, from painting to sculpture, because they allow me to be expressive in different ways. My paintings are expressive in their illusionary capabilities, whereas I think my sculptures are more expressive in how they are handled and shaped.
My earlier works used a lot of different colors because I wasn’t so much interested in being specific about the hues, but rather the resulting composition. The negative space only existed because I would have to stop painting when my visceral reactions told me to – that was the purpose of my Traces series. But as I started making more works and exploring my interests, I realized the ambiguity of my color choices may mislead my intentions, so I tried to narrow my palette to using only purple – which started with my Trinity triptych in 2014. But I wanted to give my paintings more depth – to make the dark purples really sink into the paper. So I used a lot more Prussian blue until it was pure blue. And that chromatic sensation was incredible, and so blinding. It represented a sad serenity, if that makes sense. So I started working entirely in blue, and focused on creating a field of experience with my paintings rather than leaving any negative space.
Tell us about your sculpture, what about faces, and more specifically eyes, inspires you? Your sculpture uses figurative painting and you’ve diamond shaped holes in the canvas, why have you used these two techniques only in your sculpture and not in your paintings? What would you say is different in the meaning and message of your sculptures and your paintings?
Haha, unfortunately this is me being lazy and not updating my website in a timely manner. There’s been a lot of recent crossover between the techniques employed on my paintings and those for my sculptures. I’ve been staining my paper with Prussian blue watercolor and cutting out my cell patterns, after which point they’re stretched over a frame like you would with canvas. I’d like to say my paintings and sculptures (and any other works) are different expressions of the same intention. I’ve added a picture of my studio so you can see the different things I’m working on.
But in terms of eyes, I’ve always been drawn to them whether it was conscious or not. I used to look in the mirror a lot when I was a kid – too young to understand racial politics – and wonder why people treated me differently because of the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes. Why there were certain societal assumptions or expectations, and moreover, why I was called a “chink” even though I was not Chinese. But later on, I started looking at the mirror for a different reason – when I was having an episode of anxiety. To confront myself and look at the physical manifestation of mental conflicts – I try to embody that look of surrenderance into my portraitures and my eyes.
There’s a cliché saying that eyes are the windows into the soul. I guess I’m trying to figure out if that’s true.
You studied neuroscience, drawing, and developmental biology at Wesleyan, do you still work with science? What does your scientific background mean to you, why is it important to you? How does it influence your work?
Well, I came so close to going to medical school, and a lot of that desire came from a mixture of societal, personal, and familial expectations. But in my final year of college, I realized that it wasn’t a hospital I was meant to be in but a studio – and I know that sounds super lame. But that realization helped me find the courage to redirect my path and secure a studio where I could begin working. And I think it’s been the best decision of my life.
I don’t think my work is about my scientific background, but it’s definitely been influenced (and continues to be) by it – after all, the cell motif was a direct result of working in a neural stem cell lab. A lot of my training in the sciences easily integrated into my studio practice – particularly the scientific method of questioning, researching, making a hypothesis, experimenting, finding a result, making a conclusion. What I’ve done is to take the scientific language and translate it into a visual one.
But in more practical terms as well, my scientific background – and surprisingly my studies in general chemistry – have come in handy. I work with a lot of chemicals, solvents, substrates, and compounds, and a lot of them undergo the chemical reactions that I learned in school. So it definitely helps me troubleshoot a lot of problems that come up, particularly when working with plaster and silicone molds.
It’s courageous for you to openly admit that you have a panic and anxiety disorder in your bio, how has this influenced your work? How has it influenced your perspective of the world? Art provides a great method to address and discuss personal issues, how has your work provided a release or outlet for you?
Thanks, I appreciate the support – mental illness continues to be fanaticized in media depictions and stigmatized by society. It’s a topic that most of the general population has a perverse perspective on, but are largely ignorant of. After years of hiding it from friends and family (particularly because mental illnesses are traditionally seen as weakness in character in many East Asian cultures), I finally decided that a social stigma stops only when it is confronted and talked about – which had to begin with me. There is a great in-depth interview I did recently with Nomadic Press that came the closest to describing my view of the world, how my anxiety has tinted it, and how my works came out of that confrontation.
What is the most recent thing that amazed you?
I went on a trip to Jordan last month, and one of the best moments of that experience was hiking around Petra. Rather than walking on the main road, I found a side trail that went up the side of the mountains – at the very top, you could see an unobstructed view of all these incredible tombs carved into the rock. It was incredibly humbling to be walking around the archaeological sites to some of humanity’s earliest civilizations, and it was so rich in history! My biggest regret leaving Jordan was not being able to visit Syria while I was in the area, in light of all the conflict, but one of my life goals is to visit and explore Damascus.