Eunsil Lee (b. 1983)

“Layered on egos”


Released on 8 Sep 2023
Featured in ep. 1 


EUNSIL LEE’s distinctive Korean traditional paintings have garnered substantial acclaim for their audacious and animalistic portrayal of human desires. Recently, her interest has pivoted toward a wide range of themes, spanning from space and time dimensions to various psychological states of contemporary individuals. Her paintings have been featured at various prestigious venues, including P21, Seoul (2022); UARTSPACE, Seoul (2019); SongEun ArtSapce, Seoul  (2019); Doosan Gallery, New York (2016); Leeum Musem, Seoul (2014); Project Space SARUBIA, Seoul (2010); and Alternative space pool, Seoul (2009).  

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In 2022, you participated in the group exhibition Korean Traditional Painting in Alter-age at the Ilmin Museum of Art. I recall that your work was shown amid many other young Korean ink painters, who were mostly born in the 1990s. I’m curious to hear what your impression was.

I found their work intriguing since they appear to be more 'unruly’ in their own unique way compared to the previous generation of artists. I view this as a positive development,  signifying the diversification of methodologies and artistic practices within the realm of Korean painting. Various traits they have displayed in the exhibit illustrate the potential for further growth and evolution.

The composition of your two recent paintings, The root of suffering (2022) on view at Ilmin Museum of Art (2022) and Unstable Dimension (2022) on display at your solo exhibition, UNSTABLE DIMENSION at P21 (2022) is intriguing. They seem to be a culmination of the themes and motifs you have so far explored, including architecture, male genitalia, and waterfall. Could you please elaborate on these two works?

These two pieces delve even deeper into the complexities of mental disorders that afflict modern individuals within intricate social structures. They touch on themes such as stress, anxiety, vaping, bipolar disorder, lethargy, depression, nervous breakdowns, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and multiple personality disorder. Within these works, one can recognize imagery that conveys the tension caused by these mental afflictions; they are presented in a state where one does not have any clear solutions, while facing pressures both internally or externally from family, and so on. In this context, the disassembled and floating body parts depicted on the canvas symbolize the intricate psychological states of distorted humanity, pain, trauma, and rage.

The cross-section of the dissected brain serves as a representation of the contradictory and dual nature of the human mind. I aimed to depict obscure and complex emotions and circumstances. The images of portals leading to other dimensions imply the existence of alternate realities. The psychological states of compulsion and mental division also undergo transformation into altered architectural structures. The unfinished architectural elements symbolize the imperfections that characterize our lives.

I noticed that you have been consistent with using jangji* as a main material throughout your  entire career. Is there any particular reason behind it?

From the very beginning, I've been immersed in the world of jangji, and in many ways, my artistic themes align perfectly with this medium. I also believe there's still countless techniques and expressions yet to be explored with jangji paper. While some may consider sticking to just one particular material somewhat dated, I haven't fully mastered even this single medium. That is why I prefer to continue using it.

*Jangji refers to a form of traditional Korean paper made from bark of the mulberry tree as its base ingredient.

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Your paintings feature layered imagery that often appears in intertwined, penetrated forms. Is it possibly due to your use of jangji paper and Korean ink? How does your choice of materials contribute to the overall composition of your work?

That particular aspect of my work is tied to the concept of dimensions. Given the inherent complexity of visualizing the fourth or fifth dimension, I wanted to show how dimensions can transcend these conventional limitations. Often, the images of dimensions that we encounter are often products of our minds. Even from a scientific perspective, visualizing dimensions as concrete images remains a challenge. Therefore, I prioritize creating a sense of transparency on the surface, which aligns perfectly with the medium I employ, enabling me to create layered images. The technique of layering is linked to the passage of time and an exploration of an incomplete existence, where the self is torn apart by desire.

Your earlier works often implied the theme of patriarchy, tradition and conservatism. Do these subjects continue to serve as important sources of inspiration for your current work?

The disparity between the education I received and the actual reality of Korean society has always had a foundational influence on my work. Although I still closely observe and engage with the social structure, I would say that my perspective has evolved over time. In the past, I had a strong desire to scrutinize the society around me and shed light on issues that arose within.

My current focus revolves around the study of human psychology, stemming from this initial interest. While I initially chose to depict the problems I could visually observe, I now prefer to look deeper into the root causes of these issues. In my upcoming works, I hope to capture the concept of intangible elements, including mental illnesses, that are often challenging to portray visually. 

Another intriguing aspect of your work is your interest in architectural motifs, including architectural framework in general, as well as Korean traditional houses. 

Yes, that is true. From the very beginning, my work has been influenced by architecture and the surrounding environment. I have always enjoyed reading books about architecture. In fact, I used to be so immersed in architectural books that I often preferred them over books about painting. I believe this fascination naturally led me to express certain ideas through the framework of architecture and the environment.

Certain elements of traditional Korean houses, originally designed to symbolize conservatism and pre-modern remnants, serve as both metaphorical and symbolic objects in my work. At one point, I noticed the similarities between societal structures and the characteristics of space and architecture. This realization prompted me to incorporate these parallels into my artistic endeavors. My ongoing research into the structure of space and architecture aims to convey what lies beyond the visible external world.

In addition to the figurative paintings we've discussed so far, your body of work also includes abstract paintings. Do your work processes tend to differ depending on the type of work?

When I work on abstract paintings, my primary focus would be channeling various energies I feel, such as air or auras, for example. It’s about feeling the spiritual essence and dynamics of energy and perceiving the space I belong to. In contrast to figurative paintings, I find abstract works to be more challenging since it’s often unclear when I should stop or finish. Nonetheless, I generally enjoy working on them. While a significant amount of time is dedicated to wrestling with the initial sketch for figurative paintings, I find that I can enjoy the pure act of painting itself more with abstract ones. It's a process of rejuvenation for me. 

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Your first few exhibitions took place in rather 'unusual' spaces that were quite different from the typical white cube. For instance, the office of the company's building for your solo exhibit Coincidence in 2013. Are there any specific factors you consider when selecting a venue?

It wasn't necessarily a deliberate choice, but it may have seemed that way because my early exhibitions were held in various alternative spaces. However, the solo show in 2013 did hold a special significance for me in terms of the venue. I had to personally seek out a new exhibition space because the originally scheduled place became suddenly unavailable. As a result, the venue itself became a source of inspiration that influenced the composition of my paintings, incorporating a diverse array of scattered motifs.

I decided to rent a conventional office space in downtown Sogong-dong to create an entirely unfamiliar setting for the show. At that time, most of the visitors were my beloved friends and acquaintances. The interactions and conversations we had during that period still personally hold a very special place in my memory.

Eunsil Lee is currently participating in the group exhibition EROS on view at P21. The show runs through Oct 7, 2023. For more information, please visit:

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