PHOTOS BY WILL FOSTER
Jennie Jieun Lee makes plenty of glossy, pretty pieces that would look lovely alongside other objects in your home, but there’s a real depth of feeling that distinguishes her work. The large ceramic masks she’s been showing in galleries have a visceral, unsettling quality and a sly humor. But even her more practical goods — plates, bowls, cups, and creamers — convey moodiness and urgency, something you don’t often find yourself saying about tableware. “I think it was because of all those years I was stuck,” she says. “It was dying to come out.”
For more than a decade, Lee suffered a creative block. After graduating in 1999 from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she majored in printmaking and ceramics, she ended up working in fashion, “learning a lot, but not necessarily liking it.” It was only a couple of years ago that she returned to her own practice, drawn back by the “hypnotic” act of throwing clay on a wheel and the release she found in the medium. Born in Seoul, Lee immigrated with her family to New York when she was four. “One of the reasons I started making the masks is that when I first moved to America in the ’70s, my mom took me to a ceramics class. I remembered how fun that was, so I tried to recreate that.” Her friend, artist Eddie Martinez, encouraged her to “make more, and make them big” for a group show called “Bad Fog,“ which he curated at New York’s Martos Gallery last January. “That’s when it gained momentum and people responded.”
Masks, of course, are loaded with symbolism and though Lee turned to them to recapture a childhood joy, they also became about her struggle with agoraphobia, feeling frustrated, “and the strange faces we need to present in life as adults.” Freelancing as a casting agent once on a project for a major department store, Lee watched would-be models “put on these smiles, and I knew some of them were not very happy. This one kid, I could hear him breathing through the smile. He was trying so hard and it was like he was stuck in this purgatory.” That tension and heartbreak became the theme of her solo show “Smile Purgatory,” which opened this summer at Lefebvre et Fils in Paris and runs for a few more weeks.
This past year has been a super productive one, perhaps because it took such a long time to come. We caught up with Lee at her Brooklyn studio to get a better sense of how she got there and to catch a glimpse of what’s next.
Jennie Jieun Lee forms blobs of clay into attractive vessels full of good humor, and masks that do the same. Lee allows the clay to crack and warp and the paint to drip and drop. Pieces are named Eddie's Mug, Salome, Suzanne and—Mr. Vukelich—A jar and lid based on a true man who sat in a classroom behind me. Make sure you check out her instagram, so many more goodies. Lee lives and works in NYC.
If designers are especially complicit in adding things to the world — and for stoking our desire for more and more stuff — they also get first dibs on the act of destruction. “I smash my own pieces all the time,” says Los Angeles-based ceramic artist Heather Levine. “You have to make quite a bit to get what you like, and I don’t keep all the tests. I’ll destroy them or try to make them into something else. I don’t want to see things in the world that I’m not happy about.”
The artist William Hundley — known for photographing plumes of fabric hovering enigmatically in mid-air and strange objects balancing atop cheeseburgers — recently began experimenting with self-portraits. Which wouldn't be out of the ordinary, except that Hundley happens to hate letting people know what he looks like, so he obscures the photos of his face with collages of weird body parts and other incongruous images. He’s also been playing with masks, shooting the results of elaborate tribal-inspired face-painting sessions with his fiancée. “There’s this perception that I’m this badass artist who doesn’t give a fuck, this imagined character,” says Hundley, a boyish Texas native who lives deep in the suburbs of Austin. “But I work at a hospital in IT. So that’s why I don’t like putting images of myself or a biography out there — I mean look at me, I’m all-American white-boy looking. It would ruin the illusion.”