The Facial Expressions of Joseph Lee


Joseph Lee is a self-taught fine artist and actor based in Los Angeles. He studies faces and the emotions that inhabit them. Lee focuses on the parallel between external reality and internal process by manipulating everyday faces and objects through segmented brush strokes, color choice, and volume, converging them into a complete and balanced whole.

Lee's work will be shown in a new exhibition, opening this week in GR gallery in New York. We sat down to talk with him about the nature of his interest in the human face, his creative process and how he slows down.

How would you define your aesthetic language?
My aesthetic language is the “gray matter” in between absolutes. It lies somewhere between the abstract and realism. It parallels my own struggle to define my personal and cultural identity. I choose to investigate and visualize those fears, ambiguities, and insecurities.

How does your creative process look like?
My process always begins with a cup of coffee and an hour at the gym. I don’t take many breaks while painting, so I try to start my day with physical activity. Moving helps me to release any mental tension, allowing me to be more creatively fluid. I can never pinpoint when a good idea hits me. At times, my work is born from random things I see and other times, it works in reverse – I’ll seek out references for a specific concept or emotion.

Describe your interest with the human face?
My background in college was in acting, so, I learned how to dig for subtext in human behavior. For better or for worse, I rarely take anything at face value (no pun intended). The need for attention or to beautify oneself is just basic human nature. My interests lie in finding all of the depths and layers beneath our societal masks.

How does, if at all, your heritage inspire your work?
At some point last year, I found myself getting creatively stagnant. Coincidentally, it was during this time that I was cast in a Korean television miniseries filming in Seoul for three months. While in Korea, I was immersed in the surrounding architecture, fashion, customs, and local aesthetics. I began visiting galleries and speaking with local artists and was mesmerized by the simplicity and calculated use of minimalism in much of Korean art. Being Korean-American, I wanted to completely immerse myself in the culture and learn about my lineage. Through this experience, I gained a lot of understanding about just how ambiguous my own personal and cultural identity is. Hence, my work began to take a more abstract, ambiguous direction.

Do you feel slow-living inspires your work in any way?
I’m an anxious person by nature. I feel as if I walk a mental tight-rope every day – that is my baseline. My mental state is delicate enough, that at any point, I can easily misstep and fall off. In recent years, I’ve tried to build a sort of mental martial art to defend myself from my own negative voices. I can easily exhaust myself just by overthinking the smallest decisions. Painting is my counter to all of that. This is the part of my life where I feel stable and in complete control. As soon as I begin a painting, I completely shut my negativity off and release all tension.

How do you slow down?
I struggle with relaxing. I am getting better with age, but, I have to put in effort to slow down. I have my immigrant mother’s work ethic and paranoia. I can spend 20 minutes laying on a beach before I start having a physical response because my brain is telling me to go do something. In recent times, I’ve learned (largely in thanks to my lady) that work-life balance comes from healthier relationships, lifestyle choices, and being present with the people you love. Off-setting my brain activity by engaging with everything around me, helps to rejuvenate my senses, and in turn, creates more energy once I get back to work.

Describe the feeling of being an artist in a digital world?
I feel very fortunate to be an artist during the age of social media. It has democratized the art world, and brought what was once out of reach, into the hands of anybody with a phone. You’re able to absorb all different types of genres and artistic mediums. The difficulty comes when you have to filter through all of this to create of your own voice. At the end of the day, an artist is only as good as his or her point-of-view.