Not sure if it’s just us or there is a genuine revival of landscape painting taking place in the Covid era of self isolation, lockdowns, and quarantines. It could be the longing for nature imposed by the pandemics, or the influence of digital aesthetics on our general perception, or the combination of multiple elements, but there is a significant number of young artists proposing new ways of looking at the traditional genre. And one of the artists tackling this historic motif in a contemporary manner is Sarah Lee who is currently having her NY solo debut at ATM Gallery.
On one hand paying tribute to the monumentality and magic of the outdoors scenery through the use of classic motifs such as lakes, snow-covered trees, or forest, Lee is also introducing new ways of looking at that same beauty through a lens of a 21st century painter. “I used to be a heavy airbrush user from 2012 to 2018. It was a perfect tool for me to explore glowing lights on the canvas,” the artist said in a recent conversation with the ATM gallery assistant, Brynn Hanson. “Part of my style came from me trying to mimic the airbrush effect with oil paint and a brush which requires a lot of smudging and refining.” Effortlessly mixing the elements of traditional landscape art with subtle, mirage-like presence of figures, the Seoul-born and NYC-based artist tends to envelope her scenes in a surreal atmosphere which often pushes the works only step away from abstraction. “The parts of nature that inspire me are often non-visual and volatile, such as temperature, smells in the air, sounds, or the feeling of humidity on my skin. These fragments inspire me to create an imaginary landscape,” the artist explained the suspended and otherworldly ambience of her visuals.
Although evoking the quietness of untouched nature, the way Lee is formatting the work, putting her focus on unexpected details, and placing the light source from unnatural angles, removes these views far from Earthly domain. “I am trying to depict an alternative universe somewhere between dusk and dawn that is mysterious, possibly dangerous, and melancholic but somehow peaceful,” she said about her own vision of the setting she’s portraying. And such a poetic way of experiencing the surrounding comes to the forefront in these stylised yet highly atmospheric renditions of extraordinary locations. “When the outside feels dangerous but I know that I am safe inside, I feel strangely peaceful,” Lee compared experiencing stormy weather from the safety of indoors as an analogy for the emotional duality she’s creating within her dreamlike, idyllic, and highly suggestive scenery. Using moonlight shine as a recurring element in almost all seven paintings, either peeking between the tree trunks, piercing through the clouds or mist, or reflecting on the surfaces, the presentation captures a particular interval during twilight known as The Blue Hour. —Sasha Bogojev