by Annabel Keenan
The artist draws inspiration from her own migration to consider both the confinement and freedom associated with a life in motion.
In The skin of the earth is seamless at Tina Kim Gallery, Maia Ruth Lee draws inspiration from her own life, including her youth in Seoul and Nepal and experiences of migration, to consider both the confinement and freedom associated with a life in motion. The solo show spans paintings, sculptures, and an intimate, poetic film entitled “The Letter” (2023). This film grounds the exhibition, pairing old family videos that her father took, many featuring rural Nepal, with text from letters Lee wrote during the pandemic. Candid clips of daily life show people traveling and standing on piles of colorful fabrics at markets, and stunning views of the mountainous landscape. The words offer glimpses into Lee’s inner thoughts, her concerns for issues of family, and the concept of home.
Lee pairs “The Letter” with sculptures made of an assortment of colorful fabrics and tarps, much like the ones seen in the video, as part of her Bondage Baggage series (2018–ongoing). Bundled together and wrapped tightly in a cage of rope, twine, and tape, the dense packages are arranged in piles on the floor. In making these, she had in mind luggage she saw on conveyor belts at the airport in Kathmandu. Representative of the people to whom they belong, each parcel bears stories of travel and migration. Lee’s bundles likewise hold evidence of the human hands that tightly wrapped each material.
The bound items push against the ropes that confine them, bulging through the grids of their encasement, rendering an image of containment. In her paintings, Lee takes the sculptures as inspiration, applying ink to the unprimed canvas wrapped into the tight bundles. She then frees the canvas, cutting the rope and relieving the pressure. The evidence of having been bound is preserved in the grid and impression of ropes. The burden, however, is gone. Areas that were once squeezed through small holes in the lattice are smooth, the surface nearly flat. While the tracks of the ropes remain, the canvas stands taut and strong, an embodiment of freedom. Scattered on the floor below are the empty rope cages, their pod-like shapes intact despite the contents having been removed, a visual reminder of their former role.
Bringing the viewer from the clips of migration and tight bundles of personal items to the vibrant paintings that seem to have exploded out of their exoskeletons, Lee presents a powerful story of the tensions and metamorphoses that migration begets.
Maia Ruth Lee: The skin of the earth is seamless continues at Tina Kim Gallery (525 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 6. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.