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Child's play: portrait of the artist as a young father: recent work by Yiu-Keung Lee.

THE TENSION BETWEEN DUTY AND FREEDOM, DESIRE and love is irresolvable. That we attempt to resolve it is, all the same, inevitable. The objects on display in Yiu Keung Lee's recent exhibition at the Clay Gallery in Ann Arbor reflect the artist's recognition of that impasse. But if resolution is impossible, Lee finds moments of equilibrium in the struggles that serve as their own kind of consummation. It was Huizinga who attested that culture itself arises within the shared tension between the rules and freedom inherent in play. Much earlier, Plato had suggested that we recognize truth only in beauty, while we recognize beauty in that it "delights us". Child's Play seems designed to illustrate both the ancient and the modern tenet. Lee's objects give a deceptively simple articulation to complex themes, suggesting that it is the interplay of these opposing factors that gives rise to both identity and authenticity. The work is at once about the elusive nexus of time and memory, the catalytic interplay of 'Self' and 'Other' (for which the relation of the artist to his audience is one metaphor) and, finally, about individual freedom versus social obligation.

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Lee literally picked up the idea for this work off of the floor, as he tidied up the room where his young daughters had been playing. There is a tense, yet playful, sidestepping dance between the detritus of scattered toys and the serene, cyclic symmetry of the plumeria flowers. Like all good ideas, this one's great value is not that it is new but that it gives expressive form to the kind of deep-seated thoughts and feelings that amass without the our being fully aware of them. If the pick-up sticks, pinwheels, and teacups represent Lee's children and the messy generativity of the now; the perfect plumeria flowers reflect his sense of his connection to his past. More particularly, the flowers connect his mother's role in his past to his wife's in his present. He has noted in passing that he probably would not have kept making plumeria had his wife not loved them. These small, multitudinous blossoms come to convey both the idealization and the sense of loss which are paradoxically implicit in all of our remembrances of times past.

While this work draws on whatever awareness the viewer can bring to it, one purpose of Lee's variations on his daughters' enigmatic 'contraptions' is to use our own curiosity to nudge us gently into taking our present awareness a few steps further. As viewers, we are drawn to the playful directness of the objects but it is the underlying seriousness of their maker that brings us back to look at them again--and then again.

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The growth that thus results from his and our engagement with this work is central to Lee's sense of the relation of the artist to the viewer and, thus, to the task Lee sets himself. He notes his belief in the need for art to entertain in some way. We see here that the entertainment he has in mind is neither mindless nor passive. Yet, while so much of recent installation art is almost unintelligible (often deliberately so), this work is a pleasurable puzzle. We do not get that sightly humiliated, slightly angry feeling that too often arises in encounters with the solipsistic opacity of so much contemporary art.

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Lee offers us clues. The historical preciousness and physical fragility of porcelain to represent the throwaway becomes revealing in its unsuitability as a medium for making toys. The firing cracks and intentionally patchy joins in some places contrast with the finicky perfection of craftsmanship in other places on the same piece. The way we look for meaning in these contrasts becomes part of our grown-up children's game of aesthetic hide and seek. Lee is emphasizing the value of imagination itself--in all of us. We, too, are invited into the game, invited to help in making up its rules. It is marvellously democratic--not dumbing down to the lowest common denominator but offering common purpose in seeking a higher one.

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Lee's experience of the reciprocal pleasures and obligations of parents and children parallels his sense of the reciprocity between the artist and viewer. Children's drawings are often gifts to parents, whose pleasure in accepting them affirms the child in her role as creator. Lee offers his work to his audience with something of the same tentative hope. The work here is both serious and silly, elegiac and celebratory. It manages at once to evoke the isolation of the individual subject as well as a profound awareness of the tender connections between the generations. At the same time, it reminds us of the tentative and exquisitely painful hopefulness we feel when what is most private can still be shared, be understood by someone else.

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In this way, of course, the 'child' in this body of work is somehow universal, the engaged, responsive human thing acting on the world that acts so inexorably upon us all. But Lee's work explicitly references real, particular children. The lustre drawings on several pieces were appropriations of his daughters' drawings. He is subtly insisting that the unique, historical contingencies of each life are the origins of meaning. He insists as well on the unique person as the source and owner of meaning. But it is an ownership that can and must be shared to reach any kind of consummation. Lee can appropriate his daughters' drawings. We can appropriate his pleasure in doing so. The gift he recovers here is the intensely private (yet communicative), all-powerful (yet vulnerable) power of invention. Did God look at the newborn universe and heave a sigh of relief that it was 'good'? We know he felt lonely till he created people to share it with.

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No amount of explication can rescue art that does not meet the sensuous and intellectual challenge of the viewer's eye alone, yet knowledge of the medieval sense of God unquestionably expands our sense of wonder as we loiter in the medieval re-creation of His universe in Chartres cathedral. A simpler, perhaps more crystalline example of this phenomenon is Winslow Homer's painting, The Veteran. Here, you see only a man's back as he rests, a scythe at his side, facing out into the field he has been working toward harvest. He stands in the middle of a rectangular picture plane trisected into three bands: the foreground on which the figure stands, the scythed field and the broad empty blue stripe of the overhanging sky. The painting is deeply arresting. Yet learning that the painting was done just after the slaughter of Gettysburg sent shivers down my spine. You could love this beautiful, peacefully bucolic painting without ever knowing that. But knowing implicates you in the deep sense of the tragedy of what it means to be human.

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While Lee's flowers and playthings place us on a domestic rather than a grand historical stage, the imagery has a similar indirection and resonance. Like Homer's painting, these ceramic works stand on their own visual and tactile qualities: tactile because this is not just ceramics we are talking about, but porcelain--brittle, fragile eternal porcelain--invented in the ancient world of China and reinvented by an kidnapped alchemist held in durance vile. The alchemist's accidental discovery of the secret of porcelain (he was after gold) becomes emblematic of the Enlightenment's transformation of Europe into ground zero of the modern world. Lee's anomalous, perplexing forms suggest the relation between the contingencies of world history and the contingencies of personal history as integral to the meaning that we find in art.

There is no question that this show is a kind of self-portrait; uneasy, yet secretly ecstatic. But, the Lee we 'see' here only appears in (or has disappeared into) these 'contraptions', these assemblages of thought and fragments of play. Then there are the flowers. Their immaculate symmetry stands in marked contrast to the messy and fragmentary. It is Lee's plumeria, like Proust's madeleine, that becomes the sensuous trigger for an explosion of sensual and emotional memory. The recollection of his own childhood in Hong Kong fuses somehow with his current simultaneous experience of delight in the inventiveness of his children mixed with the frustrations inevitable in care taking. His use of this contrapuntal imagery suggests a painful awareness of different kinds of growth. The work implicitly contrasts the ecstatic license of pure invention and untrammeled acting on the world with the equally profound growth that comes only from accepting the heavy, often burdensome, obligations of responsibility to others, even deeply loved others." The messy, chaotic but generative artefacts of play against the pure, completed flower forms suggest the pleasures and ambivalence of all ultimate commitments and, more particularly, of Yiu Keung Lee's commitment to a life in art. Being homo ludens is serious stuff.

Article by Frances Wilson Shackelford

Frances Wilson Shackelford is obsessed with the relation between imagistic and verbal thought, seeing metaphoricity as primary catalyst which transforms unconscious into conscious thought. She sees her own work in clay as a way of thinking metaphorically with her hands. She moves back and forth uneasily between the Mississippi Delta, where she grew up and Ann Arbor, where she lives now.
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Author:Shackelford, Frances Wilson
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Jun 1, 2010
Words:1544
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