Jin Han Lee: Martha’s Curved Violin

Jin Han Lee

Artwork’s Title: Martha’s Curved Violin

Materials Used: Oil and oil stick on linen

Studio Based: East London

Jin Han Lee, Martha’s Curved Violin, 2021, oil and oil stick on linen, 200 x 180 cm

What is painting to you?

Painting, to me, is a theatrical interface in which I, as a painted protagonist, narrate my experiences of miscommunication and being lost in translation—literally and tragicomically eluding the authority in language.

It’s like performing a monologue under the brightest spotlight. When the spotlight turns on, I become blind by it. Gazing somewhere in the pitch-black auditorium, I start my performance. This enables me to release my feelings freely. The invisible, or perhaps imagined, audience is chasing my moving body. They gaze at what I am looking at and imagine what I am feeling. I am conscious they are watching me. The audience becomes conscious that I am conscious of them. Here, my performance is private but shared with the public

How would you define your work in a few words (ideally in 3 words)?


How did you come up with this new painting idea? Is there any story behind this work?

When the American conceptual artist Martha Rosler visited the Slade, someone asked, in a soft voice, whether she still wanted to ‘feel’ in front of the artwork. With a smile, Rosler replied by pretending to play a violin. Everyone laughed.

I did not know what her gesture meant; I could sort of imagine what she might mean, but I wasn’t sure. So, I googled her actions when I got home that night. Mimicking playing the violin can be a form of sarcasm, indicating that someone is telling a rambling sob story or whining excessively. It is a mocking gesture.

However, this explanation didn’t quite correspond with my memory of the event. I felt some warmth between the discussants, who, it seemed, still believed in and supported the romantic idea that an artwork can make people feel emotions. Here, there was a shared set of questions and concerns. The people attending the event were all interested and invested in research related to art and what it can or cannot do. We all—including the questioner—laughed together. Here, I did not feel sarcasm but friendship. This is my understanding of what happened.

That moment stuck with me, and when I asked my friend who was also there if she remembered Martha’s gesture, she said ‘Oh yeah! She played the tiniest violin!’ Her description of ‘playing the tiniest violin’ reassures me in my impression that Rosler was being humorous rather than sarcastic, affectionate rather than dismissive. To me, the event was a manifesto of friendship, and Rosler’s gesture was a warm and humorous joke between friends brought together through art.

… Or, maybe not. Surprisingly, the worry that Martha Rosler might have actually been sarcastic did not really disappoint me. I continued to wonder what she had meant, working through the question by making a number of drawings, paintings and even a paper mask. After much maneuvering in an attempt to get closer to understanding Rosler’s intention, I finally came to a point where I didn’t care what she really meant by this gesture. I just wanted to paint what I had heard and what I felt. I came to be certain that I in fact have a very good understanding of that moment. I painted the tiny violin on her shoulder; in my painting she is pictured playing a most beautiful, romantic melody. Through making sense of what doesn’t make sense , I painted not what I heard but what I felt. I felt liberated.

What kind of new artworks are you showing at your new online solo show with PM/AM gallery?

I began realising a number of paintings which aimed to express the thoughts and ideas synthesising my long-time interest in the untranslatable with this newly attained perspective to articulate time passing during the pandemic. You can see this new body of works at my new solo exhibition available to view at PM/AM online viewing room.

Do you always come up with a particular concept or narrative in the very beginning?

The paintings I made from 2012 all have a story behind them, or one that precedes them, so that I produced the works following particular encounters or experience, among them struggles with language, adventures with novels and engagement with theory.

These stories are stories of arrival. They involve experiencing something that I cannot express in language—not in English, and not even in my first language, Korean. Any attempt seems somehow excessive, or ambiguous, and at the limit of what I can say. Its meaning cannot be pinned down and fixed with words. I used such experiences, encounters and difficulties as opportunities to imagine a number of possible meanings. These are what I expressed in the paintings. They were created quite quickly, directly, literally and irreverently.

Is there any particular theme that utterly triggers you to engage your art with?

As a Korean artist based in the UK, I just live with a heightened awareness of language all the time. My painting practice therefore builds on an everyday experience of translation between languages and the consequent gaps opened up by what is untranslatable. The question of language always initiate and permeates my painting practice.

How do you deicide when painting is finished?

I finish painting when all that was left of my voiceis in the material of the paint.

Can you mention any artists you, lately or generally, take inspiration from?

In looking at the work of Laure Prouvost, I examine her use of mistranslation as a tool for the imagination to combine existing and imagined personal memories, as well as artistic and literary references. Looking into the relation between painting and writing established by Amy Sillman, I am interested in her presentation of writing alongside painting and how this imbues her process-based painting. I also value the physical sensation found in Dana Schutz’s early paintings. Helen Johnson’s anti-colonialist histories and narratives are looked through analysing the formal qualities of her layered and detailed paintings. Lastly, I love the paintings of Yun Suknam, who was one of the first Korean feminist artists to employ painting as a fictional space of travel between subjects, and between artist and subject. 

Additional Paintings

Jin Han Lee, Letters and Parcels, 2021, oil stick and acrylic on linen, 200 x 180 cm
Jin Han Lee, Sniff, 2021, oil and acrylic on linen, 200 x180 cm
Jin Han Lee, Scrolls and Swipes, 2021, oil, oil stick and ink on linen, 220 x 160 cm


All images courtesy of the artist & PM/AM gallery

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