Archives for posts with tag: My art

YL_Stranger AP mag 2

My piece, Slippage, in The Stranger‘s Art & Performance Spring 2016 magazine (above, right)

Some days you think you’re going to go wrangle with the electricity company over a billing issue, and then something entirely unexpected and magical happens. In my case, I received a text notifying me that my art was in the latest issue of The Stranger, a popular weekly paper in Seattle. I thought, “Well, fuck the double charge on that bill—they can triple-charge me, for all I care. Right now I’m off to get a paper!”

Then I sprinted down to the coffeehouse in the lobby of my office building, grabbed a paper, and retreated to a quiet place to look through it. The artwork in question was in the periodical’s quarterly Art & Performance magazine. The guide provides a comprehensive list of all arts events going on that season; the Visual Arts section alone contained more than 200 exhibitions and shows.

Right there, on page 23, was my piece, Slippage. I felt almost numb with disbelief. There were only five image slots available in that section; three of them promoted museum shows, including that of international art star Kehinde Wiley, and another showed the work of local legend Norman Lundin. Then there’s this unknown artist, Yoona Lee. The one squarely outside the Seattle arts community, the one who toiled in relative obscurity for 16 long years to get the show of her dreams.

That was my painting right there, and the caption made me gasp. “Why you should see it: Because [Yoona] can transform everyday materials into smart meditations on racial politics.” They understood me. They got to the heart of what I was doing.

Slippage itself was created by cutting a slit in the cellophane covering a store-bought stretched canvas and pouring Sumi ink into it. The piece is about the infiltration of the Other’s, or minority’s, perspective into a previously white and sacrosanct canon—a phenomenon as unstoppable as ink across a blank canvas. I last showed it at the 2015 Arts & Social Change Showcase.

My upcoming show at Ghost Gallery will include this work and others. Titled Run Race Ragged: Three Takes on Racial Politics in America, the show will feature a wide breadth of work: big, visceral abstract paintings, smaller conceptual mixed-media collage, and at least one figurative drawing. It will open May 12, the night of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Art Walk. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll drop by. Details below.

Run Race Ragged: Three Takes on Racial Politics in America
Ghost Gallery
Opening May 12, 5 to 9PM
On view through June 6
504 E. Denny Way
(corner of E. Denny Way and Summit/Olive, entryway to right of Hillcrest Market)

My website:

Denatured (2015) and Code Switching (2012) 

My show, Disconnects: The Linguistics of Race, which opened at Zeitgeist Coffee two weeks ago, features abstract paintings from the past decade. Most of them took months, if not years, to complete. The one exception is Denatured (above, left), which was done in one intense sitting.

Zeitgeist 1
Pieces ranging from 2005 through 2010

The space
The two walls of the show space, seen together

Back in the mid-2000s, I began a series of monochrome paintings, called Epistemes, that flirted with epistemology, or the study of knowledge and its acquisition. The paintings’ stark black structures symbolized the mental constructs and girders that we hang our perceptions on. Here are some pieces, now being shown at Zeitgeist, from that body of work.

Interdiction, acrylic on 30″x40″canvas, 2005

The first of the Epistemes series, this painting arose out of the sound of constant construction outside our apartment for several years. (It’s no surprise that the structures resemble cranes and scaffolding.) I knew the painting was finished when it became a quiet, still sanctuary that I wanted to ensconce myself in. The piece has a bleak, elegiac quality that I find somehow comforting.

Superstructure, acrylic on 3’x4′ canvas, 2009

This piece was more of a struggle than the others and took about three years to finish. Here it is in an earlier stage:

(Gack! Not working.)

At that point, I realized that it needed more “oomph,” so I decreased the number of structures and fortified the ones that were left. I wanted an architectural majesty that would evoke the heroism of Franz Kline—who is an obvious influence on my work.

Convergence, acrylic on 3’x4′ canvas, 2010

This was another painting that took at least two years to finish. Like the others in the series, it features the conflicted interplay of black and white paint. If there’s one painting in the show that talks about the fractured language around race in America, it’s this one, with its ruptures and tenuous connections.

The Thin Years, acrylic on 3’x4′ canvas, 2008

This painting is the only one whose name is less conceptual and more autobiographical. “The Thin Years” refers to the fact that, in beginning this piece, I realized the economy was tanking and my job was in jeopardy; therefore, I needed to save money by thinning my paint. The result yielded an open, airy painting with luminous spaces. The only problem: I was using a brand of cheap paint, and it felt like painting with seagull shit. The medium was oily and not even truly black. But still, it’s one of my favorite paintings.

Code Changing with patron
Code Switching (with visitor), acrylic on 30″x40″ canvas, 2012
Photo by Maria Martinez

This piece took at least two years to finish and was the first in the series to incorporate mixed media—more specifically, foil, paper towels, and a random swatch of cloth from my husband’s jeans. Code-switching is a linguistic term that refers to alternating between languages, or language styles, in a single conversation. As such, it’s a means of negotiating racial and cultural identities. Working in mixed media is its own form of switching between visual languages.

Denatured, acrylic on 3’x5′ loose canvas, 2015

And then there is Denatured, which was a breakthrough that happened in January. Like in the Epistemes series, disconnects occur in the dialogue between black and white, except that the architectural structures of the earlier work become subsumed in emotion. This violent, uncontainable spillage echoes the volatility of racial discourse in America.

There were many ways to hang this piece, but I decided to simply nail it to the wall, which has an immediate, visceral effect. You could go further and read into Michael Brown (whose denatured body lay in the street for four hours) attaining a Messianic quality—I wouldn’t argue with that.

A black-and-white closeup by Tim Prioste

In response to the cultural zeitgeist and my own identity as an Asian-American female, I feel compelled to continue in this direction. I need to use the language of abstraction to somehow express the messiness of race relations in the United States. So my goal for this year is to gain access to a large enough space to produce in and thereby work toward my next show.

Show information:

Disconnects: The Linguistics of Race | abstract paintings by Yoona Lee

Zeitgeist Coffee
171 S. Jackson St., Seattle, WA 98104
Mon – Fri: 6am – 7pm | Sat: 7am – 7pm | Sun: 8am – 6pm

Now through April 1.

(This drawing, published in Philomel Magazine in 1997, wasn’t included–though it could have been, with its themes of gay/interracial relationships and AIDS.)

Last Tuesday, January 27, I presented some of my visual art at the juried Arts & Social Change Showcase, a booking conference that is part of the Arts & Social Change Symposium, in Bellevue, Washington. I was one of nine featured visual artists, who ranged in style and subject matter. In addition, there were 14 live performances, ranging from Guinean dance to Taiko drumming, held in the same room—which kept things lively (and loud). The event was attended by arts professionals, bookers and funders, including members of 4Culture, Washington State Arts Commission and other organizations.

I was surprised to find that much of the featured visual art was created by “diverse” artists but did not necessarily have a clear social message. My pieces were some of the more pointed there—no surprise when you include a drawing of a petroleum conglomerate’s CEO ejaculating oil. Then again, the event was organized around the idea of social change, not social justice. (Further clarification of this kind of terminology can be found here.) So I understand that showcasing artists of different ethnic backgrounds helps inform the public and shift cultural perceptions, which can contribute to social change.

I showed the following pieces at the conference.


Atrocities V, 2001
Compressed charcoal on newsprint
18 x 24 in

The drawing above is part of a series on the ravages of war (which can be found here on my website). This and the drawing below, of BP CEO Tony Hayward, were published in The Slog, the blog of Seattle’s weekly paper The Stranger. You can see Jen Graves’ original post here.

3_BP Wet Dream
BP Wet Dream
, 2010
Compressed charcoal on newsprint
18 x 24 in

The drawing that follows was published as the cover illustration of the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, an interdisciplinary journal that comes out of the Seattle University School of Law. It was a tribute to Robert Frank, whose unflinching outsider’s eye exposed the hypocrisies and existentialism of American life in the twentieth century.

 1_SJSJ cover

The United States of Inequality, 2010
Cover illustration for Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Fall/Winter 2010
Mixed media on paper
8.5 x 11 in

The next two drawings come from a conceptual collage series I created around racial politics and the minority experience. (You can find more here on my website.)


Slippage, 2012
Ink on canvas
10 x 8 in

During production, I poured Sumi ink through a slit in the protective plastic wrapping of a blank canvas to suggest the infiltration of the postcolonial “Other’s” perspective into a previously white canon.


Camp, 2012
Mixed media on bristol
14 x 17 in

Composed of shreds of black paper left on Scotch tape loops, Camp represents containment and internment, compromised identity, and the tenacity of survivors.

Overall, the work I showed at the Arts & Social Change Showcase elicited a positive response from viewers. It helped that the attendees and presenters were already thinking of how an aesthetic medium can be used to produce transformative social change. There are myriad ways to do it, and it will take me a lifetime to figure out the best, most generous way possible. But for now, I am taking one step at a time to get my work out there—both visual art and writings—to help effect some of these changes.

Over the holidays, I laid a large piece of raw canvas on the floor of a friend’s art studio and slashed and hacked away at it with a housepainter’s brush. Sure, it was action painting—nothing nobody wasn’t doing in 1951 (wait, does that triple-negative still make a positive?). However, old methods can convey new messages, including one that represents the immediate, electrically charged present.

This was the result:


Every single inch of the 5-foot-long canvas is affected; even the seemingly blank areas are activated by small splatters. In this way, this painting acts as a metaphor for race; that is, there is nobody in America that is not affected at this cultural moment by the discourse of race and difference. Ferguson was the watershed, the explosive catalyst. Eric Garner, like a wide receiver, carried the message farther.

I titled the piece Denature because it talks about how Michael Brown, and many others before and after, was stripped of his dignity that tragic day. It talks about the denaturing and pervasive effect of systemic racism.

Denature closeup
Paroxysms of paint: Denature, 2014 (closeup)

Working spontaneously on a large scale was extremely cathartic for me; a lot of grief and rage bubbled out. It was all I could do to follow up with methodical refinement. Right now this piece and another larger painting, titled 12:01 to Eternity (referencing the time of the shooting), are in an incubation period. I’ll leave them alone for a month or so before revisiting them for additional revisions. Because, as with emotion itself, time provides some perspective. But in the end, this perspective may only open up more questions than answers, not unlike race in America.

12PM to Eternity closeup
12:01 to Eternity, 2015 (closeup)

For contrast, a painting from 2008, Convergence 

The Visitor

There are times when you want to forget it all: global upheaval, the structural inequality of America with its systemic racism, and all the myriad injustices that pervade 21st-century life. So how to escape and instead engage in the gentlest theft of all?

I do it by arming myself with a sketchbook and finding a scene, person, or object to document on a page, usually for a half hour or less. The process of capturing the lines and shadows of your subject—of stealing a small moment—is the best way for me to connect with the present. It feels meditative but also vexing; sketching is not an easy process, particularly in an unforgiving medium like pen, which can be as precarious as a tightrope act. (One stray mark can wreck a drawing.)

These quiet sketches are the underpinnings of my life. They are a validation of, and a reconciliation with, the world. In this way, they provide a tonic to the anger and revulsion I tend to feel toward current events. Sometimes what is in front of you is a marvelous event in itself. For example, a velvety midsummer peach.

G_The Promise

Or a reading woman visited by a sparrow. A scattering of autumn leaves on the sidewalk.

Harvest or Loss

A vanishing neighborhood.

Vanishing Capitol Hill

The mere practice of observing objects or people in detail is an empowering, enlightening one. It makes you realize, “Hey, look at this world around me—I’m so lucky to witness this beauty and to move amidst it.” Focusing on the micro makes the macro, as problematic as it is, suddenly and surprisingly worthwhile. The art that comes out of it is merely a fortuitous byproduct.

Snatching these moments is the only kind of thievery I know of that offers its own redemption.

In order of appearance:
The Visitor, 4×6 in, pen and ink, 2011
The Promise, 4×6 in, colored pencil and graphite, 2010
Harvest or Loss?, 2.75×3.6 in, pen and ink, 2012
Vanishing Capitol Hill, 2.75×3.6 in, pen and ink, 2014

All pieces are available, from December 11 through February 12, 2015, at Ghost Gallery in Seattle, WA.

POC Power crop

I batted around many ideas for my submission to Art Bash 2014, the annual charity auction held by the American Advertising Federation in Seattle. The theme this year was “Throwback Thursday.” The Mona Lisa taking a selfie? Too glib. A stark horse skull remembering itself as a handsome stallion? A little macabre. Plus I’d have to incorporate a cartoony thought bubble, which seemed wrong. (But at the same time kind of awesome.) It all seemed like too much work. “Why don’t you just paint a nice picture of an apple or an orange?” my mom rather unhelpfully suggested.

I had just gotten a piece of my art into the Korean-American show at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Ferguson was in the news, this time because of the unwelcome involvement of the KKK, which added its own vitriolic brand of fuel to the fire.

The goal of Art Bash 2014 itself was to level the racial playing field by raising money for the AAF’s Western Washington University minority students scholarship fund.

For these reasons, I felt like I needed to produce a piece defending and promoting minorities. And what better artist to exemplify the power of POC (people of color) but Jean-Michel Basquiat?

Though a controversial figure riddled with his own problems, Basquiat embraced a range of media to explore racial politics, class struggle, and street culture. His paintings emanate heat; his writings as a member of graffiti crew SAMO are epigrammatic and thought provoking. His photogenic presence graced indie film Downtown 81, cult TV program TV Party, and the New York City nightclubs as a member of art-rock band Gray. He was the real meal deal, and he didn’t last long. Whether by heroin OD or speedball, Basquiat died at 27, following a dizzying, meteoric rise to the top of the art charts.


Basquiat: Polar opposite of Warhol, but a de facto heir (with the hair)

I found an image of Basquiat looking inscrutable and undeniably cool in his shades, and reproduced it within a couple of hours. Rather than try to imitate Basquiat’s graffiti-inflected style, I chose to create a portrait of him in the style of a street memorial mural. Those murals, found in any poverty-ridden neighborhood, may not be the most technically accurate depictions of the deceased, but they project heroism and an indelible soulfulness. I was also inspired by Sophia Dawson’s most recent mural, Every Mother’s Son–a tribute to minority mothers who’d lost their sons to police violence–on the Lower East Side.

To prevent my painting from being sold to some douchey, clueless art director who only knows Basquiat as some “badass black dude,” I added a few hashtags at the bottom (alluding to #TBT, the show’s theme): #radical and #pocpower. Obviously, the painting is welcome to anyone of any race, as long as they are familiar with the minority struggle. And yes, “POC” may be an in-group term used in racial discourse, but it precludes Basquiat from being hung like some mounted deer head in some dude-bro’s rec room.

Most important, the painting attests to the power of both sociopolitical firebrand Basquiat and people of color, especially the radicals. The still life with apples will have to wait until next time.


Basquiat’s Exu (1988) may as well be a portrait of present-day Ferguson

basq whitebrd

My earlier tribute to Basquiat, done in marker on a whiteboard at work

bojagi art show

I’m very proud to have a multimedia piece in an upcoming show at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle–an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute. The show is called Bojagi: Unwrapping Korean American Identities, and it opens November 14 and runs until June 2015.

As a Korean-American artist, I constantly deal with hybridized identity in my work, which can be found at The piece that will be displayed at the museum is called Displacing Rage: The Education of a Cultural Hybrid, and can be found on my site at

Here is a still from the presentation, where I confront a racist classmate in grade school–one of a vast number of racial microaggressions (all part of the minority experience!).

1 displacing rage

If you’re in Seattle, swing by the Wing Luke; it’s a very worthwhile place.

Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience
719 S King St, Seattle, WA 98104
(between 7th and 8th Avenues)
Phone: (206) 623-5124
Hours: Tuesday–Sunday, 10am–5pm
Monday closed