The Familiar and Familial in MiKyoung Lee’s Art

PRINCETON, New Jersey — As I wander through the solo exhibition Threading Memories / MiKyoung Lee, I feel a rising wave of affection and an urge to hug one of the artist’s fuzzy, bulbous sculptures. Made from everyday materials (twist ties, pipe cleaners, sewing thread), Lee’s sculptures feel approachable and familiar, reminiscent of home and imperfect human bodies. 

Tapping into traditional textile techniques and memories from growing up in South Korea, Lee knots, twists, and stitches together her chosen materials to form the wiry, basket-like netting that comprises many of her sculptures. In doing so, she transforms unassuming mass-manufactured materials into hulking orbs, organic vessels, and undulating wall pieces. Her process-centered approach and material sensibilities harmonize with those of artists like Ruth Asawa, Lenore Tawney, and Eva Hesse. Lee considers her tactile, labor-intensive methods a “ritual ceremony,” rich with symbols for human life. “There is an exceptional satisfaction in touching materials with my hands while developing my projects — the simplicity of binding, netting, knitting, sewing, and stitching,” she writes in her artist statement. “These are the metaphors of our lives, how we live, and how we connect.”

Endearing in their bodily wonkiness, Lee’s sculptures cast shadows that look like line drawings as they rotate ever so slightly from nearly invisible threads attached to the ceilings of Art@Bainbridge, a gallery operated by Princeton University Art Museum that’s located inside a restored house built in 1766 in downtown Princeton. The homey space, with wooden floors and fireplaces in every room, emphasizes the domesticity of Lee’s art materials, which also populate her home studio in Virginia.

MiKyoung Lee, “Bubble” (2016), twist ties and pipe cleaners 

The show’s 20 works — featuring sculptures, thread and wax “drawings,” and ink drawings — span the past 15 years. Each of the gallery’s four small rooms is dedicated to a different theme (dreams, nature, tradition and labor, and life cycles) and a dominant color, which progress in a sunset-like gradient (lemon, glinting gold, bubblegum pink, and crimson). 

Large, suspended sculptures anchor the exhibit. In the first room, there’s “Bubble” (2016), a trio of dangling forms whose abstract shapes suggest human anatomy (maybe livers, spleens, and stomachs) in shades of mustard and lightning-bolt yellow. The blood red “Bubble #3” (2008) — the earliest and largest work — crowns the show. At six feet tall, the bold-yet-porous sculpture seems to consume the final room with its presence and impressive use of pipe cleaners. Standing in front of it, I felt a swelling tenderness and suppressed my urge to wrap my arms around it, knowing this would not only be frowned upon, but would crush its voluminous shape. 

This monumental sculpture intersects with a significant shift in the artist’s personal life. She made it the same year of her first pregnancy, marking her entry into motherhood and all the attendant beauty, challenges, transformations, and surprising twists and turns. “Accumulating tangles is part of life,” the artist wrote in her artist statement. “The threads in these works seem chaotically ordered, but they come together beautifully; they become reordered to create something new, with new textures and contours.”

MiKyoung Lee, “Bubble #3” (2008), pipe cleaners
Installation view of Threading Memories / MiKyoung Lee at Art@Bainbridge at Princeton University Art Museum. Left: “Blossom 8” (2023), twist ties; right: “Rhapsody” (2023), twist ties
Installation view of Threading Memories / MiKyoung Lee at Art@Bainbridge at Princeton University Art Museum. Pictured: “Dream 12” (2023), twist ties and pipe cleaners
Installation view of Threading Memories / MiKyoung Lee at Art@Bainbridge at Princeton University Art Museum with thread drawings on the wall
Thread drawing by MiKyoung Lee

Threading Memories / MiKyoung Lee continues at Art@Bainbridge at Princeton University Art Museum (158 Nassau Street, Princeton, New Jersey) through January 7. The exhibition was curated by Zoe S. Kwok, Associate Curator of Asian Art at Princeton University Art Museum.

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