While many a Helenan has been awed by the exquisite beauty of Steven Young Lee’s porcelain pots, it seems we’re not the only ones.
A room of Lee’s ceramic vessels and sculptures is featured in Visions and Revisions: Renwick Invitational 2016 -- a highly prestigious exhibition at the branch museum of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
The four innovative artists featured -- Lee, Kristen Morgin, Jennifer Trask and Norwood Viviano -- all share “a fascination with themes of transformation, ruin and rebirth” in their artwork, according to the Smithsonian.
The Renwick Invitational, which is held every two years, celebrates "emerging and mid-career artists” who deserve national attention.
“It definitely was a surprise,” said Lee during an interview in his studio last week at the Archie Bray Foundation, where he is resident artist director.
“I actually thought it might have been a scam email,” he said, when he received the invitation to be in the show. Then he recognized the curator’s name. “I was just floored to be a part of it.”
His work had caught the eye of Renwick curator Nora Atkinson back in 2010.
“My first encounter with Steven Young Lee’s work had me entirely taken aback,” she writes in a beautiful essay in the exhibit catalog.
She was looking at one of his beautiful Asian-inspired vessels when she glimpsed it “had a contented brontosaurus happily chomping on leaves amid a traditional Chinese landscape.”
This struck her as one of “the rarefied moments of brilliance that keep you guessing with Lee’s work.”
Not only is it his anachronistic surprises a viewer suddenly spots on a traditional vase -- such as wacky Toucan Sam of Fruit Loops fame flying over a Chinese landscape, or perhaps a bison grazing in an East Asian setting -- but also the unique shape of the vessel itself.
In his most recent “deconstructed” vessels, Lee creates an intricately decorated traditional Asian jar or vase form and then makes a surgically accurate tear or cut in the clay causing the vessel to gracefully collapse, melt or fracture during firing.
The results are startlingly beautiful in their flawed fragility.
Lee described his overall work as “a collage of forms and motifs from various origins,” in a February IR news story, citing Chinese, Korean, French, Dutch, English and Minoan influences.
Lee, as a Korean American, has particularly delved into his Korean heritage and also into Chinese traditions, which he explored during a yearlong fellowship in China.
Lee learned of the Korean Joseon Period of art, a time when artists allowed porcelain vessels to have distinctive bulges and quirks, giving the pieces “their own unique voice,” he said. “That idea now permeates my work.”
“I can’t think of a more prestigious venue for the vein of work Steve’s involved with,” which is fine crafts, said Josh DeWeese, associate professor of art at Montana State University and former resident artist director at the Bray.
The Renwick “is probably the top craft gallery in the country, he said. “They have an outstanding collection of the top artists in the field. … It’s quite a prestigious honor to be included in that show.”
“This latest vein of work that he’s involved with -- this body of collapsed porcelain pieces ... has really stemmed out of his deep understanding of the original forms,” said DeWeese.
“He’s a really amazing potter. He has tremendous skill with the material and a really keen ... sense of form. It’s really amazing work.”
The luminosity and grace of Lee’s porcelain and the way the sculptures almost radiate make the works all the more beautiful.
In the West, a work that cracks in the kiln is flawed, said DeWeese, and not considered worthy to market.
But in Asia, kiln accidents are celebrated, DeWeese said. “They recognize the inherent beauty of it. He’s taken that idea and made it a sculptural statement.”
“It questions the traditional ceramic arts aesthetics,” said Wayne Higby in a Renwick Gallery video. A ceramic artist, he was one of Lee’s professors at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. "His work is rather astonishing in its material and its process and certainly intellectually provocative.”
Pulling together the exhibition was no small feat or expense. The Renwick used existing works by Lee and contacted all the people who had purchased the pieces now exhibited in the show. They then sent a professional art shipper to each home around the country to pack the artwork, load it in a truck and deliver it to the Smithsonian gallery. A number of Helenans happily loaned their Lee artworks and even came to the art opening in Washington, D.C.
The show’s curator, Atkinson, traveled to Helena for several days to interview Lee and visit the Bray in preparation for writing her essay about his work.
“The opportunity to show at the Smithsonian is what I feel most honored by. You don’t apply for it,” said Lee. “That’s what makes me feel so proud of it.” Three independent curators choose from a national pool of artists and “thought enough of my work to include me in it. That makes me feel really honored.”
“To see all the work in one place,” which had been made over a decade in different phases of his artistic life, “that was a gift.”
“I still feel like I’m so early in the development of these ideas. I’m in such an early phase of the work. I’m still thinking so much more of what’s going to come in the future.”