It was back in April 2017 when Mike Lee introduced his first humble attempts of working with oil and we were instantly hooked. We’ve featured him in our magazine shortly after, and he started lining up solo shows everywhere from Tokyo, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, and LA, but was patiently waiting for the right opportunity to introduce his work in his adopted hometown.
Between September 1st and October 3rd 2021 ATM gallery presented Under the Lemon Tree, both a New York and gallery debut by the California-born artist (he did a small presentation back in 2018). But besides being his first solo show in a year and half and a proper debut in the city, this presentation marked a new departure into a new direction, a revised and distorted version of his previous recognizable visual language. “In the new body of work, I am exploring the ideas of how memory is shaped from the experiences of our past,” Lee told Juxtapoz about how this change took place and what is the meaning behind the skewing, bending, and morphing of the otherwise perfect geometry-based world. “The fracturing and breaking up of form reflect the way we remember aspects of our life and the constant flux it is in relative to the present.” Coming from the world of digital animation, working with such basic shapes was the logical trajectory for the artist, but as his painting skills developed, his love for painting blossomed, he kept searching for a way to connect his past with his current interests. “Recollections from my childhood play a big part in my work and as I reach back to those memories the more I get a better understanding of myself,” the artist told us, throwing light (pardon the pun) on the interconnectivity of his focus of interest and his technical development.
And indeed, the sentimental, somewhat melancholic, and highly stylized look at his suburban upbringing as a child of first generation Korean immigrants has been cited as the main theme of most of Lee’s past shows. “I’m from a small city called Placentia in Southern California. It was like every other suburban neighborhood. I found myself being anxious from boredom so I always tried to find ways to fill my time,” he told us in our 2018 interview, revealing the importance of his past experiences on his current interests and outlooks on life. Adding a sense of suspended uncertainty to otherwise calming and non-threatening scenes, the Brooklyn-based artist seems to have maintained a direct access to his childhood imagination and emotional bank. The reshaping of mundane scenes into snapshots of subdued eeriness is done by mixing the cinematic framing and setting, the extensive use of suggestive light, and the timelessness and ambiguity of grayscale palette, qualities that got underlined with the transformed, shifted, and fractured visual language he introduced with Under the Lemon Tree.
“Photoshop is my main tool for image making and for these paintings I experimented with a looser aesthetic this digital tool had to offer,” Lee told us how this new body of work naturally developed over the course of the past 2 years. “Although the execution of these paintings still require a lot of patience and precision, I am drawn to the illusion of spontaneity it portrays.” Now working with even darker images, exaggerating the contrasts of chiaroscuro, and unafraid to bend his subjects and their setting or work with transparent elements, he is reentering the arena with a new universe of possibilities and concepts to work with. “This new direction has been incredibly liberating and allows me to abstract light and form. I’m very excited to develop this aesthetic further and see where it leads me,” he summed up his thoughts after the debut of this new direction, keeping us on toes to watch out for more transfigured impressions of everyday life. —Sasha Bogojev