Art in Focus: Me in the Mirror (2018) by Miseon Lee

After a 15-year hiatus, a Korean artist found her voice in Limerick

Me in the Mirror, (2018) Oil on linen, by  Miseon Lee. Photograph:  courtesy  National Gallery of Ireland

Me in the Mirror, (2018) Oil on linen, by Miseon Lee. Photograph: courtesy National Gallery of Ireland

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What is it?

Me in the Mirror (2018) is a modestly sized, close-up self-portrait by Miseon Lee.

How was it done?

It is pretty much a traditional representational painting. That said, Lee’s focused attention to detail is exceptional, if not in itself unusual. To work in this way necessitates great skill, concentration and patience. More, though, because articulating finer and finer detail could become an exercise in futility and seem pointlessly obsessive and pictorially laboured. Rather than being a photorealist or a hyper-realist per se, Lee is one of a number of artists, current and past, whose passion for visual exactitude is essential to their artistic temperament rather than a way of showing off technical virtuosity. Every square centimetre of Lee’s paintings is charged with the energy of looking.

It was something of a leap into the unknown, and it meant learning a new language and much else

Where can I see it?

Me in the Mirror is on view at the National Gallery of Ireland as part of the Zurich Portrait Prize Shortlist exhibition (until January 13th, 2019). Lee is one of 25 shortlisted artists – she’s been shortlisted before and has won other awards. Paintings and photographs dominate the field.

Is it a typical work by the artist?

It is typical of what she has been doing for the last 10 years or so. Lee was born in South Korea and studied art in Seoul, where she gravitated towards western rather than Oriental conventions. After she completed her studies, to a post-graduate level, she made a series of monochrome paintings, expressionist studies of male figures. But, just as her career was beginning, she became intensely dissatisfied with the direction her work was taking. She moved to Berlin in a bid to renew her approach, but by all accounts that was unsatisfactory. Now married, with a baby son, she returned to Korea and settled into being an art teacher and mother.

After 15 years, she became restless. Never having been to Ireland, she read about the country and in 2005, for no particularly compelling reason, decided she would go there. Rather than going to Dublin, she opted for a smaller city, which is how she and her son went to Limerick. It was something of a leap into the unknown, and it meant learning a new language and much else, but they settled and made a life there.

She began painting portraits of people she’d come to know in Limerick. People admired her work. Word of her ability spread and that ability was even more apparent when a number of her portraits were exhibited together. The responses were enthusiastic and she found herself giving more and more of her time to painting. In due course she embarked on a series of self-portraits, collectively titled My Diary, and she has won significant commissions. Looking at her work now one feels that her expressionist foray in the late 1980s was really a diversion from her innate sensibility.

Zurich Portrait Prize Shortlist exhibition, Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Ireland Merrion Sq West/Clare St until January 13th, 2019, nationalgallery.ie

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