In a New Exhibition, a Designer in Conversation With His Artist Mother

The intimacy and complexity of family bonds are a boundless source of artistic inspiration, but New York–based designer Minjae Kim and his mother, the South Korean artist MyoungAe Lee, have taken it a step further with their a collaborative show now up at Matter Projects. When their respective work in placed conversation, the result is both intriguing and poignant. Lee’s shaped paintings and canvases of abstraction, color, and texture interplay with Kim’s sometimes anthropomorphic, often surreal pieces that live at the border where manmade materials and forms meet those that are more organic. Quilted fiberglass, aluminum, plaster, fabric, and wood form the basis for his new chairs, floor lamps, an armoire, and benches included here along with a dining set Kim created with Matter’s Jamie Gray and the Matter Made design team. Just as Kim’s in-demand work blurs the lines between furniture and sculpture, the staging of this joint installation softens the boundaries between gallery, home, and studio, between work and life.

This is Kim’s second show since leaving his job at Studio Giancarlo Valle and launching his solo practice last year, and it’s Lee’s U.S. debut. While his 2021 exhibit at Marta in Los Angeles, I Was Evening All Afternoon, explored cultural identity and influence — and the dislocating effects that often arise — the show at Matter follows those same themes to a different end, eliciting a sense of place, belonging, and kinship. Kim grew up surrounded by his mother’s paintings. He not only learned a visual language from Lee but witnessed the effort and intricacies that go into the creative process, watching her struggle to get a work just right, lessons which were brought to bear when putting this show together. Making the fiberglass chairs, in particular, Kim says, exemplified this: “They forced me to work beyond construction, function, or representation and step into complete abstraction and visual exploration which is where most of my mother’s work operates. I expected that I would have to bring my works into this realm if they were to truly engage with her work. I never spent so much time just staring at the work I was making or made so many drastic adjustments as I went. There are layers of altered decisions all built into the pieces and when I felt stuck, I was able to project my mother working through the same challenges in her career. I was always very shy about using color, or giving superficial treatment to my work, but this exercise allowed me to feel more comfortable with focusing on the visual weight.”

Kim notes that the idea of introducing his mother’s work to the U.S., through whatever career path he might take, had been there since he first came to the states to study (Kim eventually got his master’s in architecture at Columbia). At Matter, he’s had the opportunity to realize that vision, an experience that’s been both gratifying and a reminder that even when your mother is a respected abstract painter, she’s still your mom.

“Over the past couple of years as I began developing my own practice, there were a lot of questions coming from my family, and some of them were of concern,” he explains. “In large scale, they worried about the risk of leaving the safety of an office system, and in smaller scale, they worried about how durable or functional my work was.” Though Lee was fully on board for the show, and had already shipped her work to the U.S., Kim says she still “had a lot of lingering questions” before traveling from Seoul to New York for the opening. “But I believe that her seeing our work together in my studio and at Matter and seeing the support that I was getting from my contemporaries, friends, and the community was very comforting for her. I’m hoping that on her flight back, she will feel more at ease, and moving forward, she’ll stop asking if the new chair I’m making can actually hold the weight of a person.” The show runs through July 29.