ONE HUNDRED FACELESS WOMEN
Psychoanalysts have said that grandchildren often work out the secrets of their grandparents. What has been repressed or hidden by one's ancestors ultimately clamors for expression, and takes form in strange and interesting ways.
In the art of Ke Sook Lee, the voices of her Korean grandmothers float through her installation "One Hundred Faceless Women" along with the whispers of countless anonymous females of all ages. One can almost hear the polyphonic utterances of those who fashioned the delicate, hand-made handkerchiefs Lee uses as the background for her own stitched and painted artworks. Lee has painstaking searched for and collected these handkerchiefs over the years. They come from different continents. Many of them are decades old, and most of them sold for a pittance.
Some would see these hankies as mere discards. Lee sees them as treasures, each one unique and exquisitely hand-wrought. As a child she sewed handkerchiefs with her mother and grandmothers, and well remembers the level of craftsmanship and patience required to execute an acceptable example.
Lee's work resonates with both earlier and contemporary examples of feminist-based art. Linda Nochlin's seminal 1979 book Anonymous was a Woman: A Celebration in Words and Images of Traditional American Art and the Women Who Made It highlights the kind of handwork that women of other eras crafted, and that Lee uses as a base in this particular series. Miriam Schapiro's "Femmages," also from the 1970s, combined textiles from different countries with patterns of her own making, embracing historic aspects of female labor as well as subverting the traditional Western "high" artforms of painting and sculpture.
The growing DIY (Do It Yourself) movement, which includes both men and women, also fosters handmade artworks and recycled wares, both central to Lee's oeuvre.
Lee says her minute, termite stitches are her form of drawing. On each of the small white squares of cotton, she has embroidered cryptic, semi-abstract narratives that relate to her life and that of women everywhere. A number of her central images are insect-like, with scores of appendages, versions of multi-armed Hindu goddesses. "That is because women must have many arms and legs to do all they have to do," she explains; "they must cook, clean, garden, take care of children, and work. They are struggling hard to do everything."
Other motifs are more like flower buds or seed pods. A number of these represent women, Lee says, "who had so much potential but never bloomed, or they're waiting to grow, or they're sprouting and flying." Several of the tiny works evoke mythic imagery; these represent childbirth or child-rearing, in its most painful and positive forms.
A gentle humor prevails in some pieces. In one, a peculiar organic form has a cord that disappears into an empty circle. "It's a well-educated brain that's been put in a sack," Lee states, "for women who aren't allowed to think for themselves." A bulging pole of stacked forms, Lee relates, "is like a cactus which is like a woman. A cactus shrinks when it's moved and then expands when it adjusts. They grow no matter what or where."
Lee could be speaking about her own life. She was an accomplished graphic artist and painter by the time she arrived in the United States in her early twenties, but when her children were born she stayed home for 18 years and focused on homemaking. Upon returning to art full-time, she chose to focus on textiles as the backbone of her work.
"It was a long process of searching to find the media that I am now comfortable with," Lee remembers. Ultimately she decided to focus on her personal experiences and that of other women who traditionally worked at home.
"Tiny stitches of thread started to show here and there in my work beginning in 1982 and gradually, thread became my primary media for drawing. I am attracted to fiber because of its historical elements. It bridges the gaps between generations of women. So much of our experiences as women are found in textiles."
For "One Hundred Facelsss Women," Lee hung 100 handkerchiefs on multiple clotheslines inside a gallery. The air circulation in the room caused the individual pieces to gently swing, recalling, she notes, "the memory of laundry day on a fine sunny day."
In these handkerchiefs, Lee says, "I like that they belonged to certain women and were used many times to touch faces. For me that is spiritual."
The background for most of the works in "One Hundred Faceless Women" is a beautiful pale blue. Lee uses that color because "so many women were kept at home day and night. I want them to be outdoors in the blue sky."