Lee Young-hee embraces tradition and its contemporary interpretations as her work's main subject matter. But, this approach might be considered a use of traditional images superficially and thereby an attempt to cajole viewer sympathy. However, tradition and modernity in Lee’s work is an outgrowth of her efforts to explore her own identity in the complex situation of the present, and to expose this to her external consciousness. "My work begins with scenes of life and my environment. Here tradition, customs, history, and reality are intricately interwoven like warp and woof." she confesses. The 'scenes of life' and 'environment' she mentions are not spaces of everyday experience but are closely associated with historical awareness. This means the flow of space and time defining tradition is fossilized when in the present she belongs to. Tradition becomes part of the present and a fragment of her consciousness, after being recollected by her archeological paranoia. The term ‘warp and woof’ in her writing is a clue to the transformation from nature to civilization. Warp and woof is the basic unit of fiber texture, referring to the horizontal and vertical threads that create cloth. A crossing of warp and woof transforms a one-dimensional structure into a two-dimensional structure. Lineal thread turns into two-dimensional cloth when it is combined vertically and horizontally, then changes to three-dimensional objects for daily use. It is not only used for daily life but also has an ornamental function thanks to diverse dying and weaving techniques. The warp and woof can be thus a comprehensive suggestion of the relation between nature, civilization and art.
With the term, warp and woof Lee does not indicate her understanding of the process of civilization’s progress and regression as a lineal horizontal flow. What she means is that her multilayered, multiple present address is situated at the point where stagnant and continuous time, the variable and invariable, shared things and fragmented time units intersect.
The critical elements for understanding Lee’s work are traditional, folklore, and archeological artifacts. Since 1986 the primary subject matter used in her work includes ttoari used for carrying a water jar on the head, straw sandals, shrine mountains, sotdae (sacred poles for communication with the heaven), icons reminiscent of drawings incised on rocks, framing tools, plans showing the excavation site of relics, ancient maps emphasizing the flow of water and mountains, pieces of comb-pattern pottery and its restored form. During this period Lee attempted self-transformations, diversifying subject matter and materials and trying to lend symbolism to her work through a combination of traditional and modern images in the processes of revealing an object’s physical properties as it is, and representing and reconstructing the object. However, this tendency underwent a huge change with the opportunity to have a solo show in 1995. Away from the provisional, one-off adoption of materials, she explored their meaning more deeply. Departing from the original images of artifacts, her work randomly combines their pieces, but the combination relies on precise calculation.
The tendencies of her work displayed at her solo show in 1995 are largely classified into the following: a series of works entitled In the Pottery, Mounted View-Anatomical Charts of Restored Artifacts and a group of works entitled Excavation. The former series of works is obviously different from the latter. In the Pottery shows the amalgamation of fragments with different patterns, and Mounted View-Anatomical Charts of Restored Artifacts presents a reconstruction of a cross sectional drawing of pottery. In the latter the original form of the pottery is not completely represented, but is reminiscent of the original form. Unlike these series, Excavation just hints that fragments of various potteries are combined arbitrarily. In this series totality is excluded and a combination of parts or pieces is underlined. While previous works are made up of just one material, these works uses cloth of very different textures, and are presented as an installation by spreading yellow-red clay on the floor, revealing contrasting hues.
In many respects works exhibited at her second solo show in 1997, The Crack presented a prelude to Excavation. In those works the artist deepened the theme of her previous pieces as an extension of her work. In these works more clandestine spaces are created by putting objects in the air. The cloth used appears stiffened and fossilized by using wood adhesive for whereas cloth in her previous work has a tender, pliable quality. The use of counter-projected light in her 1995 exhibition was more aggressively adopted for this show. While in the previous show light unveiled the relationship between the subject and object, in The Crack the light reverses the positions of the subject and object as it is projected from the back of the work.
At the show the works that were objects of aesthetic addiction and evaluation conceal or reveal their appearance with ‘dazzling’ backlight. The works’ indigenous physical characteristics and identities lose their outer appearance of solid existence, and the weight of fossilized materials is transformed into a light, transparent quality. Twigs, leaves, and agglomerate cotton set in the works are exposed when penetrated by light. These elements provoke a subtle feeling in harmony with the pottery patterns rendered by stitching, the lines combining pieces, the seemingly transparent fiber texture, and the light. This subtle feeling draws viewers into a world of optical illusion at the point where revelation and concealment are mixed or reversed.
The theme of Lee’s solo exhibition derives from the idea of many elements interwoven like warp and woop. Its symbolism essentially works in contrasting relation with a fragmentary, organic system. We experience a lack of clarity where the reverse or mixture of values changes from bright to dark; heavy to light; homogenous to heterogeneous; whole to part; rational logic to a meditative, transcendental view of nature.