Universal Childhood Figures Become Personal

Kyujin Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1972 and moved to New York City in 1994.  She has been teaching art to 7th and 8th grade students in Washington, DC during the past 16 years.  This is her third solo exhibition. Her first was in 2014 at Artspace in Richmond and her second was in 2015 at 39th Gallery in Maryland.   

Figurative Gestures by Lee brings characters and themes every person knows from their childhood into intriguing, striking images of water color and acrylic paints. She uses Pinocchio and the Little Mermaid to display past traumas and leaves these images to the imagination.  

Lee uses a Surrealist automatism to first create random images by splatter painting with water pigments and brushing over her canvas or paper. After that she would stare at and determine what images are within the splattered work. Lee would then deliberately define the images she saw within the randomness of her piece, having in mind what she would like each piece to include.

She uses Pinocchio and the Little Mermaid because it is difficult for them to reach their full potential. “I am interested in creating visual narratives that deal with emotional turmoil that one goes through when s/he pursues his/her unobtainable ideals or dreams,” said Lee.

These images represent the difficulties of moving to a new country and getting to know another culture. “I use two well-known characters from children’s stories in my visual narratives to fabricate and convey the stories of hope and despair,” said Lee about her choice of representatives.

Pinocchio is a very prominent theme and he appears in every piece of Figurative Gestures, but very notably in “Fold Your Sorrow” and “Hide and Sick.” In the children’s film, Pinocchio is known for lying, his nose growing and wanting to become a “real boy.” Pinocchio represents an oppressor and the person that instigates the trauma against Lee. At the same time, this could also represent how Lee wanted to become a “real citizen”, to know the ins and outs of this culture and to push her dreams into reality.

Another theme is mermaids. Mermaids and sirens have a sexual allure to them and this is displayed in Lee’s works. The images of mermaids take the lead in her works of “Miss.Fit” and “Missing You, Losing Me” among many others. What is striking here is that it feels as if rape culture is playing into this and victim blaming was part of Lee’s story.

We, the visitors of her works and the seers into her reality, can tell immediately that many works are busy but this is a look into the anxiety behind the images. In “Bugged Out, Bogged Down,” the mermaids are seen as drowning and this is how anxiety feels. People with anxiety are frozen in this surrounding of stress and unhappiness. Lee’s work is fascinating and her portrayal of Pinocchio is represented in so many of her pieces of work.


Pictured: “Hide and Seek,” courtesy of kyujinlee.com.

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