Wooju Lee

Artist Catalogue

Virtual Exhibition

When a Smile is Not a Smile…

Surrealist art appeals to me because of its emphasis on creative freedom. Freedom itself happens to be the underlying theme in my artwork, the freedom to just be myself while too often having to experience discrimination related to my Asian identity. As a contemporary surrealist artist, I am able to use both physical and digital tools to highlight the discrimination and isolation I have experienced. Like most surrealist artists, I use dream-like imagery, though not based on actual dreams and not by releasing the unbridled imagination of the subconscious. I use simple graphics and everyday imagery. Then like symbolist painters, my art is a synthesis of form and of feeling, of both reality and my own subjectivity. Beginning by making collages and then painting with oil on canvas, I often connect the human figure, representing myself, with the space where I experienced this discrimination and isolation. As a motif, I use a smiling emoji, or else yellow colour elsewhere in the art, to represent stereotypical Asian skin colour.

The smiling emoji is, in fact, a kind of poker face, hiding my real emotions which are not those typically associated with a smile. When finding myself as the object of scorn, I smile not because I am happy, but because it is my only available ‘weapon’ for diffusing a tense situation. In some of my art, I appear half-naked, stripped of dignity by the unfriendly glances or insulting comments. The intense yearning to escape abuse or to find rest is always clear in my artwork, whether it be my human figure running on water, trying to ascend a stairway to the sky or lying on the floor as a shadow. A chess board also becomes a stage, where two different sides of myself are engaged in a lengthly struggle as to how to deal with the abusers. Also, dressed in black, I mourn my situation in a lonely desert where yellow rain is falling. Even in my only sculpture, the cry for freedom and rest is clear. All of my artworks represent not merely a psychological mood, but a bigger picture that considers relationships and the kinds of situations that everyone should be able to understand. My art aims to speak to the imagination and to the heart and to increase understanding of the complexity of social identity. Sometimes a smile is, in fact, something one learns to do when other responses are futile, something that masks the true feelings of helplessness and sadness.