Lee Yunsung’s Paintings Lie Somewhere in Between Classical Myths and Anime

August 22, 2022

A Team

Main exhibition image of "LEE YUNSUNG: SD ZODIAC" at Edit, Seoul. August 16 - August 27, 2022. © Edit.

LEE YUNSUNG: SD ZODIAC, Lee’s (b. 1985) solo exhibition is taking place at Edit in Hannam-dong from August 16th to 27th, 2022.

Lee reinterprets and anthropomorphizes the icons that appear in Western art history in the form of Japanese mangas and animes using painting techniques. His solo exhibition features a series of paintings that depict zodiac signs as super-deformed (SD) characters—an artistic style in anime in which characters are rendered in short and round forms that resemble a tiny cute toddler.

Since 2018, Lee has been working on the “Zodiac” series—a group of paintings that depict 12 personified zodiac signs centered on Helios, the god and personification of the sun. The SD characters in this exhibition are derived from this series.

Lee Yunsung, 'Zodiac,' 2019, Oil on Canvas, 130 x 130 in (330 x 330 cm).

Close-up faces of cute, girl characters are depicted on square canvases. Each character has its own features that reveal its characteristics, such as different hair colors, clothes, and accessories. One has goat horns, another has fin earrings, and yet another has a hairdo in the shape of a water droplet. The brush marks on the surface indicate that the work is a painting—not a digital rendition. To make the painting look like manga or anime, the artist adds vibrant colors and swirling decorations, and uses black outlines, cartoon-cut frames, and divided images.

Undoubtedly, Lee is greatly influenced by Western art history and Japanese popular culture. Until the mid-1990s, Japanese culture was taboo in South Korea owing to the history of South Korea’s colonization by Japan. However, things radically changed after the so-called policy of Japanese cultural deregulation in 1998 that accepted various elements of Japanese popular culture into the country. In common with many children born in the 1980s, Lee Yunsung grew up experiencing and absorbing Japanese pop culture.

Lee Yunsung. 'Helios innerspace,' 2017. Acrylic on canvas; 24 × 28.7 in (61 × 73 cm).

Lee’s major in painting has inspired him to create a new perspective of various narratives and iconographies of Western art history. Since 2010, he has painted icons from the Last Judgment of the Bible, the Annunciation, and Greek and Roman mythology figures, such as Venus, Laokon, Kronos, and Danae. Notably, Lee grafts into his work “moe anthropomorphism,” which means feelings of affection given to non-human beings in Japanese manga or anime.

Just like figures of beauty were depicted in oil paintings in traditional Western art, Lee expresses various figures and icons in the form of Japanese animation. Through this approach, he tries to express an image that transcends the present and penetrates the universal thinking of mankind by crossing the boundaries between classics and contemporaries, high culture and popular culture, oil paintings and digital art forms, West and East, as well as the objectified female body to express contemporaneity.

Lee Yunsung, 'Danae Cut-in 02,' 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 57.5 x 45.3 in (146 x 115 cm).

Lee, who mainly paints but also experiments with sculpture and NFT-based digital art, has held a number of solo exhibitions, including NU-TYPE at Makeshop Art Space in Paju, Korea (2014), NU-FRAME at Doosan Gallery, Seoul (2015), and NU at Doosan Gallery, New York (2016). He has also participated in group exhibitions held at Chaos Lounge in Tokyo, Tastehouse in Seoul, Lee Eugean Gallery in Seoul, Ligak Museum in Cheonan, Space K in Daegu, Sejong Center in Seoul, and Alternative Space Team Preview in Seoul.

He won the Grand Prize of the Seoul Digital University Art Award in 2013 and the DOOSAN Artist Award by the Doosan Art Center in 2014.