Arthur Kwon Lee’s 2020 exhibition at Trotter & Sholer, Million Masks of God features an array of vibrant paintings, with names like ‘Wisdom is Sexy,’ which is an enormous, lush green backdrop emblazoned with a neon orange Buddha in its center. “I’m making the sacred accessible,” Lee said when I spoke to him over FaceTime. Lee wore a lilac-colored sweatshirt and delicate feather-like earrings. “I’m painting these celestial figures with colors you’ll see on a Skittles bag,” he elaborated. Lee’s art brings to mind the luxurious jewel tones of the West Coast art scene, but Lee prides himself on sticking out in the muted colors and angular lines of East Coast cities like New York or Washington, D.C, his hometown.
Lee described his first interest in art as an “introverted predilection” from a childhood raised by a composer and a professor of comparative religion. Spirituality through the lens of comparative religion fuels his work in Million Masks of God. Coming from a Korean-American background, Lee said, “People who grow up with more than one culture have an advantage of being able to think comparatively.” Lee’s aesthetic sensibilities aren’t just a vague statement on religious unity or a new-age caricature of faith. His art comes from a nuanced understanding of how symbolism plays a role in spirituality, and how spirituality plays a role in all of our cultural understandings of our own lives.
Lee’s aesthetic sensibilities aren’t just a vague statement on religious unity or a new-age caricature of faith. His art comes from a nuanced understanding of how symbolism plays a role in spirituality, and how spirituality plays a role in all of our cultural understandings of our own lives.
“The greatest illusion is separation, and I’m trying to show that in my art through high drama. I play this game of hide and seek by using contrast to make everything look as different as possible, when in reality it’s the same root,” Lee explained regarding his artistic philosophy. “Imagine three concentric circles — one represents symbolism, one represents color theory, one represents gestural mark making. Once they’re all stacked on top of each other, that’s when I know a piece is done,” he said. He wants to make his art “deep but fun,” and noted, “I don’t make a distinction between entertainment and education. They’re cousins.”
‘Agony & Ecstasy’ combines images of the Virgin Mary with images of dragons iconographic to East Asian mythology. In Korean folk mythology dragons, called yong (용), are mostly benevolent protectors of rivers, rather than the western idea of the dragon as a tyrannical force. These figures all glare out of the canvas in a flurry of crimsons, azures, and oranges. The dragons seem to leer at the viewer, while Mary turns her eyes away. This particular piece illustrates Lee’s “illusion of separation,” as both of these are cultural symbols of benevolence, though depending on which context the viewer comes to it from, one appears foreign.
This particular piece illustrates Lee’s “illusion of separation,” as both of these are cultural symbols of benevolence, though depending on which context the viewer comes to it from, one appears foreign.
The Virgin Mary is typically depicted in blue garments that represent her purity and closeness to Heaven. Meanwhile, East Asian art worships a specific blue deity, the “azure dragon” or cheongnyong (청룡) in Korean, a heavenly being which represents spring. This is just one of the historical connections one can make from looking at any of Lee’s paintings, which feature a diverse set of iconic figures such as Confucius, Greco-Roman deities, the face of the philosopher Aristotle, the pyramids of Giza, and Bengal tigers.
Lee’s work might call to mind ‘acid’ aesthetics, but he stated he is “done with psychedelics” in his personal life, at least for now. “It’s the whole notion of once you get the message, you hang up the phone,” Lee explained. But that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to push the boundaries of symbolism and archetypes in his work. Controversial guru Osho Rajneesh appears several times in his paintings. “Osho woke up and got a huge following, but his followers interpolated their egos onto it. There are all these spiritual people who say no sex, no food, no pleasure. But his idea was with wisdom, you can enjoy these things.” He expanded: “I was thinking about how all these rich Westerners love Osho, and I started to think that wisdom is the ultimate luxury.”
Lee’s work might call to mind ‘acid’ aesthetics, but he stated he is “done with psychedelics” in his personal life, at least for now. “It’s the whole notion of once you get the message, you hang up the phone,” Lee explained.
However, Lee’s next project after Million Masks of God veers away more towards a “samurai-like” discipline of spirituality. He plans to paint 108 variations of Buddha, all on 16 x 20in canvases. 108 is a sacred number in Buddhism, a concept introduced by Theraveda monk Bhante Gunaratana. The story goes that 108 is the number you get by multiplying the senses of smell, touch, taste, hearing, sight, and consciousness by whether they are painful, pleasant or neutral, and then again by whether these are internal or external, and again by the past, the present and the future. So, 108 feelings: 6 × 3 × 2 × 3 = 108.
As such, Lee intends to paint 108 representations of the Buddha himself, transcending gender, shape, and form. “One person might relate to the goddess Guan Yin, one person might relate to the super muscular Buddha,” Lee said, showing me a brief glimpse of a few of the paintings through the FaceTime camera. “It’s the accessibility that’s important to me.” He dreams of filling a gallery with these paintings and creating an overwhelming setup of the image of the different forms of Buddha. “I feel like I’m this fusion of a Buddhist and a Christian,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of Buddhas today, though, and we’re connected and can be aware of them.”
“I feel like I’m this fusion of a Buddhist and a Christian,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of Buddhas today, though, and we’re connected and can be aware of them.”
Lee and I connected over a shared history in combat sports, (he studied Tae Kwon Do while I studied competitive fencing) as well as a mutual interest in the Yogic philosophy that connects physical practice to Buddhist and Hindu spirituality. “Yoga is like a martial art against yourself,” he remarked as we discussed how I’d abandoned the recreational sword-fighting that shaped my adolescent psyche for yoga and strength training as an adult. “I always tell people that I just happened to be really good at kicking people’s asses, but I don’t necessarily enjoy it,” he said of his experience as a Tae Kwon Do champion. He recalled how in tournament videos “the expression on my face is not even like ‘Yeah, I won,’ it’s more like ‘Let me get this done,’” his father, an archetypal “scary Korean dad,” waiting for him on the sidelines.
“The main benefits of martial arts aren’t physical,” he continued “The pillars of self-respect and self-control really influenced my art and gave me an awareness of movement.” As someone whose own artistic and literary practice has a deep resonance with the combination of discipline and thrill that combat athletics offers, I wondered if most artists would benefit from learning how to “kick ass without enjoying it,” as Lee put it. Combat athletics is the ultimate test of the ego, a competitive setting in which you have to keep your dignity through what can sometimes feel like public humiliation. For me, it taught me a sense of pride and honor that has sustained me as a creative throughout my life. “I always make a big distinction between ego and pride,” Lee said. “Pride implies the struggle you went through to make your own work. Ego is more like ‘look at me.’”
“The main benefits of martial arts aren’t physical,” he continued “The pillars of self-respect and self-control really influenced my art and gave me an awareness of movement.”
But as much as he emphasizes discipline, Lee hardly advocates for asceticism. “You have to live,” he said. “You can’t just be sitting on a lotus leaf all day.” His art implores viewers to examine it, whether at Trotter & Sholer or through his online gallery. Even if you can’t see Million Masks of God in person before it closes 12/6, Lee’s art challenges us to find a mask of God in anything. In a cultural moment when we are all wearing masks (or at least we all should be), there’s no better show to see.