Underbelly of the City

David Choong Lee's inventive depiction of urban America enters its final week at Joseph Gross Gallery

Back in Korea, David Choong Lee had an idealized view of the United States.

He thought America was an idyllic place, with "no crime, no drugs, no poverty, no homelessness, no unhappiness," says Brooke Grucella, who brought a Lee installation to the UA's Joseph Gross Gallery. "But in San Francisco, these notions were obliterated."

Lee arrived in the Bay Area in 1993 to study art, and he learned, to his shock, that urban America had streets full of drifters and lost souls. Men lived in cardboard boxes; artists painted their way through concrete tunnels; and hip-hoppers danced between skyscrapers. He picked up his art degree, as planned, at the Academy of Art University, but he stayed on, and the underbelly of the city became his subject.

Sunshine on Cast Shadow, Lee's 300-piece installation at Joseph Gross, is an homage to street people and the cities they inhabit. The gigantic 3-D collage—half-painting, half-sculpture, it's an inventive architectural work—takes up five of the six walls in the big space.

Lee paints on salvaged wooden cigar boxes, crates and pallets, and he has arranged four years' worth of the box paintings into a continuous cityscape, their rectangles mimicking the skyline. And he has organized the painted boxes by color as well, to suggest a day in the life. The pale yellows and pinks of dawn in the early sections, on the first wall, give way to the bright greens and oranges of midday on wall two, and then to the blues of twilight and the velvety blacks of midnight on the final walls. Nature in Lee's dense city is reduced to light and color.

The boxes are all different sizes and depths, so Lee's surface is pleasingly uneven, as lively as an inner-city streetscape, as syncopated as a song. Some jut out into the gallery; some are almost flat; some serve as shelves for tiny paintings; others are wooden canvases for large-scale compositions.

Lee paints in oils, acrylics and house paint, varying between high-gloss and matte surfaces, and he veers crazily back and forth between realism and abstraction. Portraits, mostly of young black men, are rendered almost photographically in a traditional style, with the distinctive faces of real individuals peering curiously out at the viewer. But these carefully worked figures are embedded in a city that's all abstracted patterns, skittering geometries of circles and triangles and dots in odd secondary colors—olive, purple, lime. A skyscraper might be conveyed by a series of pink triangles, or by an orderly series of orange circles on gray. They're part-optical illusion, part-animé, part-graffiti.

One typical small painting (they don't have individual names) is a rearview of a young man walking along, listening to music through earphones. The moving figure is deftly drawn—his head is tilted as he listens, and his feet are meticulously rendered to convey his gait. Yet this fellow is moving through a fantasy space: a stylized spiraling cloud above, a meandering white path below, a splatter of blue dots ahead, and thick "fingers" of yellow paint stretched across the body. Sometimes these fantasy cityscapes take over entirely, and Lee paints a composition without people, using screen and pattern.

Another painting, about 4 feet by 4 feet, is a full-scale composition conjuring the chaos of the city. The background is a cacophony of traffic signals and signs. A vehicle is bearing down, and a parking citation floats where you might expect the sky to be. On either side, the skyscrapers in their delicate Easter-egg colors squeeze in. Floating circles within circles are everywhere: green inside pink; pink inside beige. There's a man in the middle of all this, a black guy in horned-rim glasses, and he holds his hands to his ears and screams, his open mouth a reminder of Munch's classic depiction of anguish.

Sometimes, Lee's art-school art sneaks into all this feverish creativity. He now teaches at the Art Academy—it's no surprise to learn from Grucella that figure-drawing is one of his specialties—and here and there is a beautifully rendered figure painting of an art-school nude, or a studio painting of a man in a chair. A suburban scene of a white man, flanked by green trees and looking up at an expansive blue sky, makes a surprise appearance. A nice charcoal drawing of five hands, lightly painted, turns up in the evening section.

The evening paintings are neon and sinful, with strippers dancing in the light, and hookers lurking in the shadows. Dots and diamonds and letters and numbers ricochet across the wood. In the wee hours, this Fun City turns grim. A threatening man loiters on a dark street. Stuck outside, the homeless men huddle in hoods and scarves, bracing against the weather. They're cold, tired, alone.

One druggie gazes confusedly out at the painter, his eyes watery and vacant. One young guy yawns mightily, but he has no bed where he can rest his weary bones; all he has is the shiny black sky above him, and the gold-diamond skyscraper on his right.

Lee is compassionate toward these outcasts, but he can also see the joy of the young and the free on the streets. Once in a while, his shiny city is joyful. In some of the daytime paintings, happy guys zip along on skateboards, careening through a giant green spiral, zooming up walls. Or they dance on the pavement, turning their bodies upside down, their legs jitterbugging in the air. Or they jump among the towers, flying through the sky.

They defy gravity—and their poverty—to leap tall buildings in a single bound. That sky and those skyscrapers belong to the young men of the streets. They don't own a thing, but the city is theirs.

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