With their spring blossoms and saucer-shaped flowers, the pinkish-bronze and crimson royal azaleas—originally native to Korea, Manchuria, and Japan—that feature in Seoul-based painter Bum Hun Lee’s “Flower Dance” exhibition at once serve a poetic and philosophical purpose. Specifically, Bum Hun Lee’s luminous, radiant azaleas do not simply amount to decorative adornment but to a metaphoric mode of framing our “being in the world.” Bum Hun Lee’s "Flower Dance" ingeniously utilizes the royal azalea as an explanatory motif to capture our ongoing relations with one another. That is, the royal azaleas featured in Bum Hun Lee's paintings are meant not to merely index petals and branches that have been prudently grown, culled, and nurtured such that they bloom into a heart-like configuration in nature, swaying along a distant mountaintop or verdant field. Rather, these petals are meant to index and frame our own “being in the world,” with their collective animated dance—captured in still frames by Bum Hun Lee’s paintings—demonstrative of human beings’ figurative webs of connection and interaction. In doing so, Bum Hun Lee subtly makes us attentive to how we exist alongside one another as social animals.

Understood as a meditative metaphor or fable, these azaleas index human beings who have transformed into petals—as such, our interpersonal lines of interaction are visually recollected. This is vividly displayed by the pronounced emerald green leaves and brown branches that form heart-like figures across Bum Hun Lee’s canvases. On the one hand, mankind finds itself as having turned into its surroundings; on the other hand, we, as viewers, are able to see the physical patterns that our relationships turn into once the people who comprise them are suspended, stilted into coral-colored azalea blooms. Bum Hun Lee's painting practice is hence one of "seeing things from another's perspective," thereby prodding the audience to engage in a different intentional stance towards the objects of their perception. Thus, the works featured in “Flower Dance” are not merely decorative paintings that capture the world of outer objects and natural beauty. Instead, they operate at the register of metaphor and storytelling, distilling often imperceptible interpersonal relationships into a maze-like arachnean latticework of chromatic azaleas.

I would be remiss to gloss over Bum Hun Lee’s technical skill, as the azaleas are richly textured and highly detailed. Furthermore, Bum Hun Lee’s canvases vary in size and palette—some canvases tower prodigiously and include dark blush strokes and a maroon network of abstracted azaleas that bleed into one another, with the azaleas eventually tracing into an outspread heart-like outline. Others paintings are more understated and dainty, featuring ample negative space: forlorn and somewhat isolated, these intricate azaleas feature white blotches and are more sequestered from one another. The diversity in Bum Hun Lee’s stylistic choices speaks to the different “modes of seeing” and “mode of being” that we, as both spectators and occupants of the world, find ourselves in. One of Bum Hun Lee’s most unique and prudent choices is how he chooses to stylize the hearts. These hearts are not thick and over-pronounced, as they would then gloss over the canvas and hang as an abrupt symbol. Rather, they are faint, often reaching out in whimsical, crooning lines that eventually meet into a heart-like bow. Bum Hun Lee’s choice to underplay the heart-motif ushers us into thinking of them less in the context of romance, love, and amour. Rather, they center and structure our perceiving, as we gaze along their outline. Just as there is no way that our “being in the world” can be isolated from our historical incarnation and environment, Bum Hun Lee’s paintings use the heart-shaped motif to dovetail foreground and background, subject and object. In this way, mankind—suspended and depicted as a sprawling figure of royal azaleas—is understood as one with their “conditions”.

(Reviewed by Ekin Erkan, PhD Philosopher & Art Critic in NYC)