Review of Master Lee Sun Don, "The Mind in Freedom" at Gathering of the Tribes Gallery, Dec. 13, 2007-Jan. 20, 2008. Apropos the new exhibition at Tribes of paintings by Master Lee Sun Don, who, aside from being an artist of merit, is head of the Forshang Buddhist denomination, let me mention some comments my wife, Nhi, made when viewing the portrait of Lee that graces the show's accompanying catalog. In the photograph, Lee wears neither robes nor tonsure but is in a black turtleneck and has a full head of hair. Nhi, who is friends with many monks and nuns, said, "In Vietnam [where she grew up] the monks walk around and beg for food. That's how they eat. All they do is spend time chanting, nothing else. But the new trend is for the monk to do business."
In talking of new trends, what she is referring to specifically is two monks of our acquaintance. When we met them, 10 years ago, both lived in temples and devoted all their time to worship. Nowadays, one, who has moved back to China, owns a condo in Beijing, part of which is used as a Buddhist study hall, and part of which is rented out to rich tourists. The other works in a law office. But Nhi might just as well have been referring to Master Lee, who, according to the press release, along with being an author, painter and monk, is an entrepreneur and founder of "GP DEVA Frontier Art, a corporate enterprise devoted to social responsibility," which among other things, promotes and merchandises alternative fuels.
I bring this out, not to pass any judgment on the connections between religion and commerce, for, as Nhi says, "The world is accepting this new thing," since temples (at least in New York City) are prospering. I point to this because I believe a central trait of Lee's art is that, while rooted in spirituality, it is deeply worldly. Its central thrust seems to be to make, without diluting its message, Buddhist thought palatable, even whimsically humorous.
How else explain, for example, his work Accordance of All Dharmas? An impassive Buddha stands beside a venerable monk, in front of them .... a bat and baseball. Where is the dharma in that? But reflect further. There is no field here nor are the figures portrayed engaged in athletics, rather the exaggeratedly large sports equipment floats before them as if a disembodied metaphor of some connection between monk and Buddha. The suggestion is that, embedded in American sport, viewed via one of its primal aspects, that of bat reaching for ball, can be seen as symbolic of a Buddhist truth of the synchrony between master and pupil with both (when in harmony) moving toward the moment when the bat whacks the ball out of the park, which may represent the bump-up in consciousness at the moment of enlightenment when the believer advances to a new level of discernment and care.
Many of Lee's paintings reconfigure the link between monk and Buddha, often with the whimsical overtones of Accordance. In Ha Ha Ha! a monk reads what could be a combination missal and limerick collection, since he looks up from it, exploding in joyous laughter. Lifting one arm, as if to bring it down to slap his knee, he touches the hand of Buddha, seated behind him. The vibrant colors of the piece: a bright yellow background, the figures in a warm brown, a few written ideographs in quiet blue, themselves add immeasurably to the gaiety.
The paintings are not detailed, verging on late Matisse (an obvious influence) in how they highlight shape and brilliant color effect to carry the theme. However, unlike the works of the French painter, Lee uses imperceptibility for key effects. In the strong To Surmount All Evils, a Buddha-like character grasps a religious staff that horizontally crosses the picture plane. Two things are given realistic details: the staff and the arm that grips it, leaving the face and body of the man to fade into the vivid, red background, which snaps with white curlicues of a spirit script. As with the ball and bat painting, this piece, by what it gives in detail, emphasizes the moment of transcendence, in which the grabbing of the spiritual "weapon" appears to draw the man's still largely submerged body out of the consummately lovely but also effortlessly delusional world of the senses.
Emptiness is also put to good use in such works as Dream Love -- Appointment Across Time, where, in a piece which illustrates the love for someone long gone from the scene, a couple face each other. They are seated, hands reaching: one is almost invisible, the other, a ghost. Emptiness is also important in the powerful Over a Sip of Tea: Drink in Heaven and Earth. In this work, a teacup and teapot, knocked together in barest outline, interact in mid space, suspended over a knobby, grassy field, in a sky shot through with dashed-down mystic writing.
This work establishes yet again one of the abiding motifs of Lee's work: Even the humblest implements form relationships that are imbued with spiritual value. This is something I found, in a different way in the works of Richard Brown Lethem, reviewed on this site, and which is a truth and mystery Less makes clear, using his formidable skill and fluency with color and composition.