Lee ShinJa: Threadscapes
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwacheon, Korea
22.09. 2023 – 18.02 2024

Lee ShinJa: Threadscapes The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwacheon, Korea 22.09. 2023 – 18.02 2024

Lee ShinJa - Threadscapes installaion view, 2023. Image courtesy of MMCA.

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA, director Kim Sung Hee), presents Lee ShinJa: Threadscapes, a large-scale retrospective of Korea’s first-generation fiber artist Lee ShinJa, from 22 September 2023 to 18 February 2024 at MMCA Gwacheon.

Lee ShinJa: Threadscapes was organized to shed new light on Lee’s (b. 1930) body of work. Introducing tapestry to the Korean art scene in the 1970s when the term “fiber art” had yet to be established, Lee played a pioneering role in the shaping and growth of Korean fiber art. This retrospective reinterprets Lee’s artistic life and colorful oeuvre through some 90 works, produced between her early years and the 2000s, along with 30 pieces of archival materials including drawings and photographs.

Lee has set milestones in the Korean fiber art scene, rediscovering diverse textile media and working with authentic expressive techniques. In place of traditional textile materials, her early works employ everyday materials that speak to the Korean lifestyle at the time such as wheat grain sacks, mosquito netting, wallpaper, and paper. In deviating from the typical framework and techniques of the craft, Lee became the subject of harsh criticism in her early years with her peers claiming that she had “ruining traditional Korean embroidery.” Unabated, Lee went on to win the Minister of Education Award at the 1956 (5th) and 1958 (7th) National Art Exhibition of the Republic of Korea (National Exhibition) for her radical attempts. She went on to become a guest artist and participated in the annual exhibition again at the age of 30. Presented in the 1972 21st National Exhibition, Korea’s first-ever-exhibited tapestry work Wall Hanging (1971) set itself apart from the monotonous concept of traditional tapestry with its unique texture and sense of volume. Her later works took on an added sense of mystique with intense, contrasting colors, and simple yet bold geometric compositions that expanded the potential of fiber art.

This exhibition divides the formative process of Lee’s artistic identity into four parts, examining by period the history of Korean fiber art in light of the evolution of Lee’s works. Showcasing the works three-dimensionally, from the front and back, this exhibition offers a glimpse into the works’ production processes while highlighting the artist’s substantiality- and detail-oriented craftsmanship.

Part 1, “New Expressions and Materials” (1955–1969), presents Lee’s relatively unknown early works that appear crude yet attest to her daring and uninhibited spirit of experimentation. Through the various methods of weaving, winding, pulling, and intertwining threads, the artist boldly simplifies internalized images of natural sentiments and scenery into cohesive compositions. During this period, Lee produced works such as Ten Longevity Symbols (1958), Image of City (1961), and Neurosis (1961), transforming the surface of raw canvas through appliqué, clay pastels, and other pigments to deepen and broaden the realm of Korean fiber art.

Part 2, “The Emergence of Tapestry” (1970–1983), explores the period before and after the 1972 National Exhibition when Lee first introduced tapestry to the Korean art scene. Building on the weaving technique she learned using her grandmother’s loom, Lee succeeded in completing the first Korean tapestry artwork using a warped loom. Forest (1972), Conversation between Circles I (1970s), and Joining (1981) depict her technique of creating lose threads, resulting in a unique surface texture that eschews the monotony of traditional tapestry. Other works in this section flaunt a relief-like sense of volume achieved by pile-weaving.

Part 3, “The Rhythm of Warp and Weft” (1984–1993) examines the period christened “the blooming of Korean fiber art” marked by a great transition in the scene. During this time, Lee freely wielded various modes of expression, expanding her scope of work to costume and stage drapery design as epitomized by Prince of the Forest (1987). She also created tapestry works such as Memory (1985), Retrospection of Autumn (1987), Prayer I (1985), and Echo (1985) that would fully capture the painterly aesthetic and narrative she sought to convey through her work. Produced in the early 1980s and in the wake of her husband’s death, these works employ a stark contrast between red and black to visualize her sense of loss and despair as well as her reverence for life and hope for reincarnation. Also featured in this section is The Han River, Life Vein of Seoul (1990– 1993), a 19-meter-long work that marked the pinnacle of this period.

Part 4, “Soft Fiber-Hard Metal” (1994–2000s) features works that incorporate metal frames and serve as windows into a three-dimensional world of nature as seen from Lee’s wider perspective. Among them, the serial work Spirit of Mountain (1990s) explores the eternal vitality of nature—the dominant theme of her life-long course of work. The artist explains, “The seascape I saw off the coast of Uljin as a child, and the spiritual energy brimming in the mountains I climbed while holding my father’s hand, were saturated with everything, from the sound of waves, to light, memories, love, and parting.”

The exhibition ends with the artist’s sketches and drawings, archival materials, interview footage, and photographs documenting her personal and public activities, for a more personal glimpse into Lee’s artistic world. This outro section also screens a video of the artist introducing her tapestry techniques and media and offers a tactile experience of the finished tapestry.

A curator discussion and an expert lecture are planned as part of an educational program in correlation to the exhibition. Additionally, a separate area prepared inside the exhibition space will be designated for audiences to share their afterthoughts on the exhibition online. These programs are free and open to any interested member of the public who has registered in advance via the MMCA website (www.mmca.go.kr).

The MMCA hopes that this exhibition sparks public interest in the life and artworks of Lee ShinJa, whose authenticity has remained underrecognized despite her pioneering presence in the craft world, as well as a reconsideration of the contemporary meaning of life and art.

More information: https://www.mmca.go.kr/eng/exhibitions/exhibitionsDetail.do?exhFlag=1

Forest, 1972, Cotton, linen thread, and wood; Tapestry, 144×63 cm, Courtesy of the Artist.

Prayer Ⅰ, 1985, Wool thread, felt; Tapestry, 318×109 cm(*Dimensions variable), MMCA collection.

Lee ShinJa- Threadscapes installaion view, 2023. Image courtesy of MMCA.

Lee ShinJa- Threadscapes installaion view, 2023. Image courtesy of MMCA.

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