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Some people gain a deeper understanding of themselves through introspection, or through keeping journals. Hyunmee Lee explores herself through creating art.

The Korean-born artist paints enigmatic canvases whose complex layers and bold brushstrokes reflect the process and the passion with which they were made.

"My approach to painting is without restraint," she has said. "I use color, shape and gesture to express human identity with the absence of figures. The freedom I have in my work reflects the freedom I also feel in my own life."

Exhibitions of abstract art are rare in Utah, where tastes in painting lean toward desert landscapes. It's even more unusual for a Utah abstract artist to have two major exhibitions at once. But Lee pulls off this uncommon double feat with a just-opened show of her new paintings at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and another exhibition debuting Friday at Phillips Gallery in downtown Salt Lake City.

The simultaneous shows are a testament to Lee's growing reputation in Utah, where she is rebuilding her career after coming to the United States nine years ago from her native South Korea, where she is a celebrated artist. Her paintings are distinctive products of her Asian upbringing, her calligraphy training, her formal art education and her Taoist philosophy, which advocates balance, simplicity and spiritual exploration.

"The thing that makes her work stand out the most for me is the confidence in her strokes, the way she lays down paint," says Meri DeCaria, director of Phillips Gallery, which will exhibit some 15 of Lee's canvases. "A lot of times when an artist will do an abstract painting, it'll get muddy and overworked. But hers have an elegance to them. People who understand [abstract art] will be blown away by her work."

Lee's paintings are deceptively simple monochromatic squares rendered mostly in earth or charcoal tones. Bright reds, blues and yellows don't seem to exist on her palette, while shades of gray are common. Muted fields of color are adorned with impulsive black scribblings that seem to float over the background.

Ten of Lee's new UMFA paintings are large in scale, almost 8 by 8 feet. The other 120 are small, measuring 1 foot square, and grouped according to color in grids of eight and 12.

The paintings' spontaneous, expressionistic feel belies the careful consideration that goes into them. Lee sketches her works in advance and often layers paint over paint, giving her canvases an unusual depth.

"You'll notice if you get up close to the [paintings] that there are little windows everywhere through which you can kind of peek into the background," says former Utah Arts Council executive director Frank McEntire, who curated the UMFA show.

"There's a danger in that people will think these are easy to do, which is not the case. Even the small ones are as conceptually labored over as the big ones."

The UMFA exhibition, titled "Intimacy Without Restraint," is hung in the museum's Great Hall, a formidable space that poses aesthetic challenges. With its soaring 55-foot ceilings, the Great Hall has swallowed everything that has been displayed there, from Rodin sculptures to Princess Diana's gowns. To combat this, McEntire hung some of Lee's works in vertical rows that climb high up the wall. He hung most of Lee's big paintings at eye level, however, because "we want the observer to almost walk into the work."

Lee teaches art at Utah Valley State College and produces her paintings from a studio at the Pleasant Grove home she shares with her husband, Kyu Lee, a Salt Lake City architect. Her current life is a world away from Korea, where she was born in 1961 and where she started painting at age 5. Lee's poor health as a child often confined her to her room, where she spent hours drawing, painting and reading. Her early artworks were so precocious that her teachers thought her parents had helped her.

"I knew that painting would be the energy of my life when I was very young," she says. Lee studied art at Hong-Ik University in Seoul and later during graduate work at the University of Sydney in Australia, where she found her style of abstract, or gesture painting. Upon returning to Korea in 1991, she threw herself into Seoul's thriving contemporary art scene and showed her works in dozens of exhibitions.

In 1997, Lee and her husband immigrated to the United States. After her success in Korea, coming to Utah was a jolt. Besides adjusting to a foreign language and culture, she encountered a fragmented art community that hadn't heard of her. "I went through a few years of confusion," she says.

Slowly, Lee regained her artistic footing. She landed a solo exhibit at the Utah Arts Festival in 2001, the same year she was offered the UVSC job. In 2002 she had a solo show, at UVSC's Woodbury Gallery, devoted to semi-abstract paintings inspired by Utah's mountains.

Lee says she is drawn to abstract art because it allows her to express more ideas and emotions. She works intuitively, allowing the spontaneous gestures of applying paint to inform the end result while illuminating the inner workings of her mind. Lee communicates themes and emotions through her paintings, but they are subtle, indirect.

"I don't want the viewer to have any instant or prejudiced thoughts from my work," she says. "I would like the viewer to have more freedom."

Lee's title for her newest series of paintings is "Outside Sight," which she chose because it reflects an Asian view of "bringing the outside in to the centered self" - the opposite of the Western view, which tends to project the self outward upon nature. She sees her new paintings as subtler, calmer and more meditative than her previous works. They offer clues into Lee's psyche - not just for the attentive viewer, but for the artist herself.

"All [my] paintings are very connected to exploring myself," she says. "I am honest with my work, and once I'm finished, those paintings can be my teacher."


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Enigmatic canvases

"Intimacy and Restraint," an exhibition of new paintings by Hyunmee Lee, continues through July 9 at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City. Admission is $4, $2 for seniors and youths ages 6-18. Admission is free for children under 6 and University of Utah students, staff and faculty. For more information, call 801-581-7332.

A smaller exhibition of Lee's new paintings opens Friday with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. at Phillips Gallery, 444 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City. The show will continue through April 14. All the paintings at the UMFA and at Phillips are for sale; for more information, call the Phillips Gallery at 801-364-8284.