Certainly Bold and Boldly Uncertain: Doah’s Lee’s Chinatown Sailor Moon

By Jeffrey Katzin

For Chinatown Sailor Moon, her first solo exhibition in Philadelphia, Doah Lee has thoroughly suffused the intimate Practice Gallery with resounding energy and color. Initially asked to show The Hottest Cheese Cakes, a series of ten canvases, the artist responded with much more—a flurry of new paintings, prints, and other objects featuring eye-catching patterns, radiant lights, and inescapable scents that appeal on every sensory level. This material richness is undeniably attractive, but it is Lee’s surprising sincerity which gives her work lasting appeal. Having moved to the United States from South Korea in 2008, she portrays the complexities and contradictions of her experiences as an immigrant with openness and criticality.

Doah Lee, Yellow Face Yellow House, 2019, Acrylic, house paint, spray paint, fabric marker, screen print on hand-dyed canvas and stained glass, etc., 108 x 168 inches

Inside the gallery, paintings, pillows, mirrors, leaded-glass windows, and fresh coats of paint lay claim to three walls. Hand-drawn stick figures poke out from the space’s back corner, and few surfaces go unpopulated. The last wall is illuminated by a neon display that cycles through a series of brightly saturated hues. The smell of surreptitiously-placed Victoria’s Secret perfume permeates the room, reminding both current and former high school kids of times when bodily identity undergoes intensive flux and formation. A speaker over the entrance plays a layered mix of sounds from Sailor Moon’s famous costume-change sequences, appropriately signaling the transformation one undergoes when ensconced in Lee’s vibrant environment.

Doah Lee, The Hottest Cheese Cakes, 2018, Acrylic, crayon, and spray paint on hand-dyed canvas, Each 60 x 47 inches

I was thus surprised when Lee, during a long and wide-ranging conversation at the gallery, told me that she admires public figures and artists who make bold statements, but that she does not consider herself to be one of them. Take, for example, the many upright fingers featured throughout her works. After Lee first arrived in the U.S. over ten years ago, she reflexively made the familiar two-fingered “peace sign” while posing for pictures. When more seasoned Asian immigrants poked fun at her for embodying a clichéd stereotype, she felt ashamed and resolved to cut it out. She reflects on this experience by picturing the gesture with one of the two digits eliminated, no longer displaying a peace sign but instead a middle finger. Lee would not be so brash as to give anyone “the finger” outright and instead uses the image to express a palpable but directionless frustration—she notes that in her studio, before anyone else sees her work, she is always the first target for each painted or printed finger.

Doah Lee, Chinatown Sailor Moon, installation view

Every detail in Chinatown Sailor Moon is just as thoughtfully conceived. Paintings on rollable, unstretched fabric evince Lee’s experience as a transnational transplant, short on storage space and long on mobility. The artist includes images of white seamstresses because they grace the façades of Asian-American laundry and tailoring businesses, which in turn connect to her own labors of stitching and dyeing to construct her paintings. She chose to print images of Sailor Moon because the cartoon character, like Lee herself, has moved between Asia and the U.S., facing different expectations and interpretations in each context. These associations are so dense that viewers cannot possibly follow them all, but that’s just fine. If you don’t know the cartoon and Sailor Moon’s silhouette looks to you like any other overdone idealization of female beauty, you’re not wrong.

Doah Lee, FOBULOUS IS NOT FABULOUS, 2016, Neon board

But if these personal and multifaceted associations are indirect or left ambiguous, Lee’s central concerns are forthright, and no less personal. The neon FOBULOUS IS NOT FABULOUS references Lee’s label within Asian-American communities as a F.O.B.—a foreign-born Asian “Fresh Off the Boat,” accepted but also marked and alienated by her accent and relative unfamiliarity with American customs. The windows at the front of Yellow Face Yellow House indeed allow the piece to resemble a house, but a cross pattern and a red bow also turn it into a giant wrapped gift representing Lee’s self-presentation to the United States, especially whenever it comes time to renew her work visa. Handwriting on one of its windowpanes reads, “I am worthy,” even though Lee finds the idea of having to prove a person’s worth abhorrent. Her series of ten paintings, The Hottest Cheese Cakes, references the Korean belief that unmarried women over the age of 25 must, like confections that are going stale, be marketed at a discount. Lee was reminded of this trope when recordings surfaced capturing Donald Trump declaring that 35 is “check-out time” for women. The country and the number may change, but the theme of gendered consumption remains the same. Lee’s paintings draw attention to the harm done by this set of beliefs, and yet they also conspicuously point out each passing birthday.

Doah Lee, The Hottest Cheese Cakes (detail)

Body positivity, self-determination, and self-respect are laudable goals, but they are easier said than done. Lee and I talked about how attitudes that we know are damaging can be deeply ingrained and persist in our minds, despite our better judgment. It is hard not to want to be young, beautiful, effortless, and accepted, even when you can marshal an augment that these are hollow values. Our conversation reminded me of a phrase that I often think of, penned by writer Tom Bissell in a very different context: “a part of me for which I have no real use.” By so candidly and publicly acknowledging the parts of herself for which she has no real use—the shallow insecurities she confronts, the desires she harbors while knowing better, the mental patterns that she cannot shake despite the pain they cause—Lee is more daring than she admits. Rarely is anyone (even among those of us unburdened by the pressure to conform within a new culture) willing to concede that they are a work in progress. By making her own internal contradictions visible, Lee shows that a statement does not always need declarative finality in order to be bold.

Doah Lee

Chinatown Sailor Moon

Practice Gallery

Artist Talk: February 9, 4pm

Closing Reception: February 24, 2–6pm

Jeffrey Katzin is a curator and a PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania.