Being bowled over by an unknown artist’s first one-person show does not happen often but when it does, it renews your faith that the art world is not just about buzz and hype. That is how I felt when I saw the work in Hannah Lee: First Language at Entrance (December 2, 2021–January 30, 2022). The gallery’s press release, less than half a page long and jargon-free, with the artist’s three-sentence biography at the bottom, was refreshing to read. After receiving a BFA at Parsons School of Design in 2012, Lee did not go on to earn an MFA at Yale or Columbia or any other graduate program. This was a press release in which no claims were being made for Lee’s pedigree, which meant that the work would have to speak for itself. I can count the number of times this has happened in the past few years on one hand, especially for an artist’s debut show. 

Lee exhibited six modestly scaled paintings and group of small sculptural objects composed of q-tips propped up in melting ice cubes made of resin, sitting on two narrow glass shelves. The paintings (all dated 2020 or 2021) were done in oil or oil and wax on panel. The largest measures 30 by 40 inches, and the smallest 8 by 8 inches.

Installation view of Hannah Lee: First Language at Entrance. On the wall: “Nail polish” (2021), oil on panel 8 x 8 inches

No matter how straightforward some of Lee’s realist scenes seem to be, their clarity tilts toward the dreamlike rather than the observed or remembered. Pressed to characterize her work, I would call it “liminal realism.” She depicts an uncanny situation so that it may initially strike the viewer as believable, which might be considered the opposite of surrealism. Lee’s work quickly and smoothly draws the viewer into its clearly defined space, yet resists immediate comprehension. I liked being in that ambiguous state, where seeing and knowing dance around each other without letting go. 

In “Milk” (2020), two fit, young Asian women, seated cross-legged on blue satin mats placed on a wooden floor, face each other from the opposite ends of a long, low, narrow blue table. A blue and white cloth, decoratively embroidered with pairs of horses and swans, is laid out on the table. The woman at the far end, who is bare breasted and wears black sweat pants, is pressing a pump to each breast. The pumps’ tubes carry milk into a glass near the other end of the table. Although her back is to us, the woman sitting in front of the glass appears younger and slightly smaller in stature than her companion.

The age difference suggests they are sisters rather than mother and daughter. I suppose they could be friends, but that relationship seems unlikely to me. There are many ways to read this sibling relationship, the coolness of the older woman’s face and the unseen face of the younger woman, and yet none strikes me as fully satisfying, which is why I feel so strongly about this painting. It does not fit into any tropes regarding familial relationships, particularly those in an Asian American family, which have become commonplace in middlebrow magazines and articles about “tiger moms.” 

Hannah Lee, “In between” (2021), oil and wax on panel, 18 x 24 inches

The other thing that struck me about the paintings is that their locales and figures are all different from each other. Lee does not step into the same subject twice. In “In Between” (2021), she focuses on the far wall of a gray, nearly empty room. A door is at each end of the wall, both slightly ajar, their doorknobs mirroring each other. Between the doors, an illuminated fish tank sits on an equally sized table. On the left is an electrical cord that reaches from the fish tank to a socket on the wall. On the right side, two clear plastic tubes extend from inside the fish tank to the door on the right. There are no fish in the tank, just some rocks and water. 

The problem with works like this is that they often feel contrived or arbitrary, but this is not the case with Lee’s paintings, and that is why I am drawn to them. She seems to put thought into everything: the electrical socket, the lighting in the room, the color of the walls and ceiling, and the placement of the doorknobs. And yet, for all of Lee’s deliberation, there is something direct and offhand about the painting, something understated. 

Hannah Lee, “Demonstration” (2020), oil and wax on panel, 30 x 40 inches

In “Demonstration (2020), the exhibition’s largest painting, I would call attention to the way Lee stages the scene, the care she has paid to the spacing, to architectural details, and to both of the two figures facing us, who stand by a column, and those facing away from us, who compose an audience. Three of the four people with their backs to us form a diagonal, even as the two on the far left are parallel to the picture plane. Lee’s placement of a plant and planter and an electrical wall socket covering on the painting’s right-hand side convey her compositional acuity. That, and the way she directs our gaze to the subjects of the demonstration: a woman, and a man who seems to be applying eyeliner to her. 

What is the purpose of this demonstration? Why is it taking place in this location, which looks like some unused corner of a hotel lobby? Who are the people in the audience? Lee seems to be able to strike a perfect balance between transparency and opacity. Rather than impose an external logic on the paintings, which would make them feel contrived, she seems to find it in the process. That’s the power of these works.

In “Shower” (2021), which I found to be the most compelling and perplexing painting in the exhibition, Lee depicts a stage-like room within a larger space. The room is cropped on the right side, leaving a view of the front door, with light shining in from the gap between the door and the floor, a single bed in the left corner, gray walls, books and bottles on a board sitting on a radiator, and an open door on the room’s far left. Through the door we see a figure standing in a bathtub behind a transparent shower curtain. 

Hannah Lee, “Shower” (2021), oil and wax on panel, 24 x 20 inches

This is where painting seamlessly shifts into another dimension. The wall on this side of the room is just a gray wallboard. Wooden supports on the outside indicate that the main room is inside a larger room. And yet, if the wall on the left is all that separates the room from the larger space it is in, that space with the shower cannot exist. Lee’s attention to unlikely details further enhances the mystery of the painting. What is the light glowing in the center of the bed? Is someone reading under the covers? Why is the bed so close to the front door? How big or small is this apartment? 

The paucity of creature comforts, such as chairs and other things meant to make one’s life comfortable, is a noticeable feature of these works, and yet Lee does not make that the focus of the paintings. Rather, it is something discovered in the looking, just as the pairs of animals on the embroidered cloth in “Milk” are not immediately obvious. This is one of the strongest debuts I have had the pleasure of experiencing in years. The obvious effort that has gone into each painting, along with the artist’s disinterest in developing a signature style, conveys an ambition and confidence that speaks well for Lee’s future. 

Hannah Lee: First Language continues at Entrance (48 Ludlow Street, Manhattan) through January 30.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

One reply on “Hannah Lee’s Dreamlike Realism”

  1. The shower painting, which you so rightly draw attention to, seems to me to want to sum up the key elements of a life lived. Both the bed and the shower are lit and if we imagine the artist traveling daily between them we get a pretty good idea of a day in the life of a very focused person ( who also suspects that it all happens in a make believe stage set )

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