For over a decade, Jennie Jieun Lee has challenged conventions of ceramic sculpture, embracing the inherent vulnerability of a medium that has long been tamed by its practitioners. Across busts, vessels, and painting, Lee’s works accumulate indices both deliberate and accidental, grafts that both decorate and distort. Firing works in various states of uprightness and collapse, Lee also imparts ceramic’s requisite hollowness in another reflexive maneuver. References to gestural painting abound in Lee’s work: the artist covers her busts and vessels in liberal pours of glaze, in addition to working in two dimensions. Transferring the immediacy and authenticity conferred upon gestural painting to sculpture, Lee disrupts a medium typically associated with the domestic.
Jennie Jieun Lee (b. Seoul, Korea) lives and works in Sullivan County, New York. Recent solo exhibitions include Cooper Cole, Toronto, Canada (2021); Halsey McKay Gallery, East Hampton (2020, 2018); and Martos Gallery, New York (2022, 2019, 2015). She is the recipient of several grants including Art Matters (2019), The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2017), and the Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant (2016) and Artadia (2015). She has been a lecturer of ceramics at New York University, Princeton University and currently is a Professor of the Practice at SMFA/Tufts in Boston, MA.
Artadia: You received the New York City Artadia award in 2015. Can you tell us what receiving it was like?
JJL: It was a dream. When I graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, I stopped making artwork for 11 years. I started again because I found this space in Greenpoint called Clay Space 1205. I was so excited to be making work again. I didn’t think about selling or anything like that – I was just really happy to be getting my hands dirty. Then I had just opened my first NYC show, Mrs Thompson’s Mirror at Martos Gallery and it coincided with the Artadia open call. I had the jurors come and meet me at the gallery for my studio visit.
Receiving the award enabled me to buy my first kiln which shifted the way I made work entirely. I was working in a communal space but then I switched over and started working by myself. I had a kiln in the basement. It quickened things up and made making work much different. Receiving that award advanced my practice.
A: What was your practice like at that time of the application?
JJL: I had a 2×3 ft table and a few shelves to work out of. I did a work exchange in exchange for space because I had such little funds. I was making glazes, mopping floors, and doing whatever I could to make it work. At that point I was so overjoyed to be making ceramics and making art again that I was like, “Oh I can’t lose this. I’ve lost this for like over a decade and I can’t lose this again.” I had to make it work by any means. I was trying to bridge into working for myself only, and I didn’t know how that was going to happen, so luckily the grant helped a lot.
A: What drew you to ceramics?
JJL: I came into the School of the Museum of Fine Arts as a painter. I was printmaking, etching, painting with acrylics and oil – I was not very good. Then I found a ceramics department in the basement. When you’re a painter, you have to buy all this paint, medium, everything. It costs a few hundred dollars to start. But with ceramics, they had three different tubs of clay – Sculpture clay, Throwing clay and Porcelain. It’s all covered, as well as the firing cost, and the glaze is all there. It becomes this aspect of accessibility. It felt very abundant and it felt like it was okay to make mistakes.
A: How do you see the differences between your three-dimensional vessels and “two-dimensional” pieces? What was the impetus to go beyond a traditional ceramic “vessel”?
JJL: It really depends on what I’m feeling that day – it’s like, “Do I want ice cream or do I want pie?” I generally use the wheel because it’s a form that’s been used for centuries. To make things to drink out of, put flowers in, carry water. Something happens in your hands when you’re making a piece on the wheel where you realize this is something that’s been done for so long.
The way that I glaze taps into a different part of my brain and soul. When I’m glazing the work, I’m thinking about how I can carry the quality and aesthetics of the vessel into the flat form while incorporating painting. With painting, what you see is what you get. But with ceramics, there’s a certain degree of letting go. The joy of ceramics is collaborating with fire in the kiln. You place what you want on the piece and then the second half is just done by the heat and the alchemy that’s inside the firebox. I wanted to restart my painting practice and career by mixing in ceramics.
A: What is your process of layering color/glaze like?
I begin on a wood panel. I premake ceramic elements and segments that I later collage. I put a layer of paint down on the panel and then arrange the ceramics in a certain way before I fix them on with a resin that is permanent. My technique is to look and feel which colors make me high when I look at them together. Colors have the power to do this. They elicit joy, serotonin, endorphins, elation, dissonant chords in the soul. I check out what is available commercially and then make glazes of ones I don’t see. I also do tests of layering consistently. I always say one day I will spend one year on ONLY glaze chemistry, mixing and experimentation. Hopefully that will happen soon.
A: Can you speak about the blades of grass in your house piece for “Sizzling Gouba and Long Beach”?
JJL: The blades of grass on the facade of the house were initially sparked when I was in an “Art of Emotions” class during grad school and I read Upheaval of Thought by Martha C. Nussbaum. She spoke of the emotional intelligence gained when one loses a parent and navigates through life.
I lost my father when I was 15 years old to cancer. He was the only person in our family who knew how to use the lawnmower, so after he died there was no one to cut our lawn. Patriarchy is such an intense thing in the Korean family and frankly we didn’t know how to live without him. The rapid growth of the grass contributed to the confusion and embarrassment of not knowing how to survive because of his sudden death. The grass on the outside was a barometer of the pain felt inside the house as my mother, my sister and I mourned. I covered the front of the house with the grass as if to portray what it felt like to be completely overwhelmed in grief.
A: Can you tell us about your work “Marie”?
My recent show Marie was based on a road trip I took with friends to New Orleans, Louisiana during a summer in the early 90’s. Marie Laveau was a black Louisiana Creole vodou priestess from the late 1800’s who granted wishes by performing special rituals using gris-gris. She would combine both vodou and Catholicism. Legend has it that she initially worked as a hairdresser and was able to gather intel from her clients, which she used to shift and affect politics during that time.
My friend Brendan brought us to St. Louis Cemetery No.1 to shoot a Super 8 horror movie and when I saw Marie Laveau’s tomb, I was struck by how incredible the various markings on the monument were but also how communal and how powerful her grave was by the loading of wishes and dreams on a destination. I was in awe of the force of what I saw. Lined all around the tomb are gifts, knick knacks, pennies, coins, flowers, beer cans, a gathering of all this material from different people.
A lot of my work is about my own memory, and what I was going through and how different the perspective looks from where I am now. I wanted to create this tomb from my memory in 1993. The reason why I surrounded Marie’s tomb with all these pieces from my past is because I have all these boxes of things I’ve collected over the years. They carry whatever memory was embedded during that time when I collected it. I finally found a place to put them – around this tomb. This tomb is not only a place for people to come and make a wish at, a collective space for hope, but it’s also a conglomerate of my life over the last 30 years, and all the emotional intelligence I’ve gained throughout that time. When I went down to the tomb originally, I was an art student. I was confused. I didn’t know what I was doing – I truly did not have much hope. To find a space like that in Louisiana was extremely special and I wanted to somehow carry that into the present.
Supposedly now you can’t visit the tomb without a tour, because 10 years ago it was vandalized by someone who painted her tomb with pink latex paint. When they were trying to restore it, it pulled off a bunch of the plaster and original tomb. I`m not sure if you can mark it up anymore. That made me very sad and that made me think of many memories, where you realize later on that life is different now, that we’re never going to go back to that point when it looked like that and we could feel like that and we could visit like that. I really wanted to capture that moment in time as well as bring that essence and joy and hope to the gallery space. That was the decision to let people mark it up themselves.
A: What’re you working on now?
JJL: I’m going to Korea for the first time since 1988. I applied for this fellowship at Tufts university and I was awarded travel money to go to Korea. I teach ceramics but I know so little about my own culture – being Americanized and whitewashed. And as I live in America, I pay attention to American ceramics foremost. I really wanted to become more educated and aware of Korean ceramics because it goes back so many centuries. And, in turn, learn more about my heritage. I’m planning to visit with ceramic artists and hopefully that will be the beginning of many trips.