Maia Ruth Lee’s Art of Movement and Memory

LOS ANGELES — The evolving nature of language in relation to memory is at the heart of Maia Ruth Lee’s art and life. Growing up, the artist experienced home across three transitory locales with her itinerant parents. At the age of five, she and her family moved from South Korea to Kathmandu, Nepal, where her parents, both linguists, developed a Sherpa alphabet and subsequently translated a Korean-Sherpa Bible. Mirroring her parents’ experience of creating a written language based on oral traditions, Lee crafts a visual language to communicate her diasporic experience with tension and tenderness. 

hold shimmer wind at François Ghebaly gallery offers a comprehensive look at the ongoing series at the center of Lee’s practice, including large-scale canvas paintings, the Bondage Baggage sculpture series, and the first complete presentation of a three-part video series. 

The video series comprises home videos shot by Lee’s father during the 1990s that capture their family’s daily life while living in rural Nepal, spliced and disjointed to fracture any linear narrative. In the video “The Stranger” (2018), the artist considers generational mirroring through her relationship with her mother as it reflects back on her experience of becoming a mother herself. Her father reads a monologue in Korean, where Lee describes postpartum physical and psychological afflictions, along with wishes for her future self and child. A letter to the child, titled “How to Be Sensitive,” describes her hope to encourage softness and empathy in them, embodying evolved maternal patterns. In “The Letter” (2023), subtitles transcribe letters Lee sent her friends during the pandemic that address feelings of longing and dislocation as she reminisces on shifting ideas of what home means. And in “The Line” (2024), an astrological natal chart reading, narrated in English by an unnamed astrologer, describes the inherited spiritual lessons Lee must contend with, especially in terms of fate and generational legacy. Across three different languages and homes, the videos replicate the incomplete expression of memory as it interweaves with Lee’s identities as an artist, daughter, and mother.

Lee’s artworks form an ecosystem, informing and modifying each other as she moves through life stages and sites. This presentation of the Bondage Baggage (B.B.) series, which includes both paintings and sculptures, marks a clear development in her use of scale and color. For her Bondage Baggage paintings, the artist begins by painting wrapped structures in acrylic pigment and letting the paint dry around the empty spaces of rope, before cutting the net to reveal a burst-like motif that maps the negative space left behind. For the wrapped sculptures, Lee bundles parcels in sheets of plastic, burlap, or canvas before securing their contents with a rope-like cord tied in a tight net pattern. Whereas her earlier paintings were monochrome and her sculptures consisted of monolithic objects, “B.B.Earth”(2024) sports vibrant, almost neon, shades of yellow, green, and blue, while its accompanying sculpture, “B.B.Time_Until Liberation 2” (2024), takes the form of one rectangular parcel with two spheres on adjoining ends, perhaps representing Lee, her partner, and her child. 

From the earliest recollections of baggage tumbling off the conveyor belt at the Katmandu International Airport to the recent move from New York City to Salida, Colorado, after the birth of her son, Lee’s art composes a rich tapestry of memories. The artist’s work maps her unique cross-border perspective. Through this lens, she navigates our increasingly globalized world, creating new modes of language that grapple with the tension between dislocation and self-preservation following the migrant experience.

Maia Ruth Lee: hold shimmer wind continues at François Ghebaly (2245 East Washington Boulevard, Downtown, Los Angeles) through June 15. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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