Sangmin Lee at Hamilton Artists Inc.

By Stephanie Vegh

Despite the bare-boned vulnerability of Sangmin Lee’s Still Lives in Transition, this exhibition at Hamilton Artists Inc. holds much of itself secret. There are no helpful labels in the gallery or online to explain the materials used to sprout flowers, vessels, and stranger growths from their wire armatures – a decision that compels the more curious eye to scrutinize each form for clues to its composition. Plaster is a likely culprit, as is paper pulp or clay, but more ambiguous still is the direction in which their transformations slide. Some of these forms read as generative, like salt crystallizing into lively new shapes, while others erode towards ruin.

Sangmin Lee, Still Lives in Transition, 2024, installation view

The wires that undergird each of these installations establish a structure that, along with its many shadows, casts a language of lines that also resist interpretation. A series of floral transfer prints traverses a corner, revealing a shimmer of mica at some angles as they shift in pattern and tone towards the corner before dissolving into streaking pigments that bleed towards the floor, dappled into blotches not unlike black mould.

Sangmin Lee, Still Lives in Transition, 2024, installation view

Despite this sparse offering of clues, all that the artist provides is immediately evocative of home. Floral shapes and patterns recall domestic wallpapers and arrangements in vases that countless households have employed to lend warmth to chill walls, while other suspended forms recall the decorative language used in fences, railings, and balconies. A chandelier crashed to ground is among the first spectacles the visitor encounters – a rare representation of solidity and grandeur estranged by the strings of vertebrae tangled among its decorative limbs.

Sangmin Lee, Still Lives in Transition, 2024, installation view

Beyond this first encounter with familiarity, a fragile series of objects hung across flat planes of space throw up barriers to navigate, and suggest their own brittle strength through the hooked wires that terminate an open flower where the pistil should be. A scattering of objects lurk in the exposed ceiling beams and bristle from wires stuck in a lower corner. Hovering like so much else here between death and rebirth, these could be arrows shot from the orderly barricades or the first blooms of new growth still taking shape.

Sangmin Lee, Still Lives in Transition, 2024, installation view

While Lee predominantly speaks in pale shapes encrusted in pastel hues, a small display of objects arrayed in a single line are startling in their relative solidity and read like another line of code to decipher. The wire armature recurs here to hold items in place – or to stand alone as its own silent loop punched into the wall – as do a few amorphous stained plaster objects that now feel familiar, some of which prove to be built on the foundation of aging orange peels. How is it that recognizable objects like the playful plush donut, the unadorned spoon, the folded bandana, and the slapstick bundle of dynamite have become the bizarre intruders to this space? A childhood riddle is suggested by some of these elements, but much is held tantalizingly out of reach.

Sangmin Lee, Still Lives in Transition, 2024, installation view

Another enigma – a single perfectly formed peach suspended like a punctuation point at the end of one object-laden frieze, untouched by all its crumbling beauty. Its familiarity, nourishment, and comfort are all kept carefully out of reach.

Sangmin Lee: Still Lives in Transition continues until June 1.
Hamilton Artists Inc.: https://www.theinc.ca/
The gallery is accessible.

Stephanie Vegh is a Hamilton-based artist, writer and arts worker focused on communications and advocacy. Her drawings, installations and book-based works investigate cyclical histories and human impacts on the natural world. She can be followed on Instagram @stephanievegh