Nude Perceptions

South Korean Riah Lee, TASIMJAE 2014 winner, returns for solo show at Art Studio in May

TASIMJAE 2014 winner Riah Lee, opposite, poses in her Seoul, South Korea studio.

TASIMJAE 2014 winner Riah Lee, opposite, poses in her Seoul, South Korea studio.

When Riah Lee decided to spend a semester as an exchange student at Lamar University in spring 2014, she didn’t expect to be back in Southeast Texas just a year later — especially having to transport a series of paintings for a solo show of her paintings.

But the Seoul, South Korea native took full advantage of her time in Beaumont and entered The Art Studio, Inc. Member Jurored Art Exhibition (TASIMJAE), earning first place and winning a solo show. Lee’s work will be on display, May 2-23, at The Studio, with an opening reception, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., May 2.

The show will feature a series of nudes painted over the past year.

“Recently, I’ve been interested in how the way we interpret images of female nudity has changed throughout history,” Lee said in an email interview from Seoul. “For example, in the Renaissance era, female nudity in paintings was from the male’s perspective and showed a fantasized female body. But a lot of history has passed, and now nudity has become a common theme or even expectation in painting, and with that, sexual tensions are diffused and our concern with the identity of the nude subjects has also faded.

Painting by Riah Lee

Painting by Riah Lee

“We are living in a time in which the ‘image of the nude’ is read as a mundane little icon.”

Lee’s latest work puts the figure in a specific location, rooting them in a real space.

“With this series I focused on depicting not only the figures, but also the air and the room, and the situation that’s unfolding, like a photographs does,” she said. “I hope that viewers see the figures and the atmosphere first, so I remove the most identifiable feature of the human body — the face — by cutting them out, blurring them, or hiding them on purpose. It also preserves my subjects’ anonymity in the image, but for each work I do note the name of the model, as well as a date and location, in order to give the viewer a sense of their reality. I then show the faces of the models exclusively, under the same names as in the figure paintings, hoping that the dialogue between the figures and faces challenges viewers’ perceptions of each. For example, after l reveal that some of the nude paintings are in fact myself, accompanied by a self-portrait, I hope viewers’ interpretations of my face is affected by the image of body, and vice versa.”

Lee recently graduated with a BFA in Painting from Seoul National University of Science and Technology. Making art runs in the family, it seems.

“My father was an architect and so is my sister,” she said. “My mom used to be an art teacher, and my father loved art as well. So, naturally, I was exposed to a lot of art, and creativity was encouraged as I grew up. My father sadly passed away when I was quite young.

In that environment, it is no surprise that Lee said she always loved creating.

Painting by Riah Lee

Painting by Riah Lee

“When I was little, my favorite things to do were sculpting my own toys out of clay or making paper dolls,” she said. “When I turned 16, I fell in love with cinema and wanted to be a production designer or work on art direction in films. That focus on aesthetics eventually led me to major in furniture design, but after my sophomore year in college I realized that course of study didn’t really fit me. Luckily my school was one of the few in Korea with a Fine Arts undergraduate major, so I transferred my credits without knowing anything about the major other than it was supposed to offer a wider array of coursework than furniture design — I was just hoping to broaden my perspective and take in more of the liberal arts.

“That was the first time I opened my eyes to the canon of art history, and since then I haven’t looked back.”

The 25-year old said she came to painting after experimenting with different forms of art.

“While I was in college, I explored many different media — from all the classical methods, such as sculpting, to more modern media, like photography, installation, video art and performance art — but none of them appealed to me as much as painting did,” she said. “So, I decided to stay with painting. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be an artist who works exclusively with paint forever. It is certainly possible that someday I’ll find that other media suits me better, but now isn’t that time.”

Lee’s influences cross the entire art history spectrum.

Painting by Riah Lee

Painting by Riah Lee

“I find inspiration in so many different places,” she said. “With this current series, I’d say that I was inspired most by the neoclassical paintings of Ingres and Goya’s later works, the stillness and narratives found in Hopper, and the atmosphere of Hockney. In a more a general and personal sense, I’ve always enjoyed Francis Bacon, René Magritte, and the concepts of Mondrian.”

Lee said her time in Beaumont helped her open up to other cultures and possibilities.

“The time I had in Beaumont certainly was different from what I thought about Southeast Texas,” she said. “People are living with different values from where I come, and it is something nicer and generous. It is very easy to judge things before experience, and I found it is not the right attitude to have after the time in Beaumont. Now I understood more of the different standards in cultures, that supports the main philosophy of my work stronger.”

Exploring different perspectives is the central theme to her work, Lee said.

“With my works, I’m always attempting to reveal the difference between perspective and the real,” she said. “I believe images are one of the more direct ways to reveal that difference, because we all see mainly what we want to see, based on our own experiences. Human figures have always fascinated me, and I like to employ them as my visual language to (hopefully) make my work more relatable.”

The Art Studio is located at 720 Franklin in downtown Beaumont.

For more information, call 409-838-5393, or visit

By Andy Coughlan

UP Editor