Under the Tree of Knowledge: Ke-Sook Lee at Paragraph Gallery
By Steve Brisendine

Even those of us who style ourselves open-minded and culturally sensitive can't help but see things through the prisms of our own ancestries and upbringings.

That's why it's hard, at first glance, to forge a mental link between Ke-Sook Lee's Tree Woman and the word "comfort".

It's even harder at second glance. There's an unmistakable likeness between the figures Lee has painted on found pieces of tree bark and depictions of the mandrake root -- which, according to magical lore, emits a deadly scream when pulled from the ground.

Lee, however, was not inspired by Western esoterica when she created Tree Woman -- and its companion piece, Tree Woman Leaf -- for the second installment of the Charlotte Street Foundation's Happy Tree Friends group exhibition.  She drew on a far more ancient tradition, this one rooted in her native Korea.

"While I attended a modern public school influenced by Western culture, she writes, a more than 5000-year-old shamanic culture was still practiced in the country. Many times, I saw the "Mudang" (female shaman) shaking her body under the big tree to connect to spirit world. The trees were sacred and respected."

The Korean War took its toll on the country's trees as well as its people -- so after the 1953 signing of a cease-fire agreement (which appears more tenuous now than it has in years), South Korea held a national tree-planting day.

"Eventually", Lee continues, "the mountains were once again covered with green leaves and trees. The country became cleaner and happier... These memories came to mind when I thought about Happy Tree Friends". I also thought about my grandmother and mother, as if they were "Mudang" female shamans, who shook their bodies so hard, to help my father who became disabled during the Korean War, keeping the house warm, nurturing the family and supporting their children's education, no matter how little they had."

Seen in that light, then, the imagery doesn't change ... but it's possible to draw a different meaning from it. The branch-fingered, root-toed  figures dangling from thin threads become hovering protectors, rather than dangerous ingredients for arcane formulae.  The work shields, rather than looms.

And the prism shifts a bit ... for good.

Review online