If there’s a bigger local oasis than Lake Michigan, I don’t know of it. The lake is infinite and free; Head there when you need a break, or head to the Cultural Center to see Jin Lee: Views & Scenes, an understated knockout show featuring four photo sets, each offering thoughtful and devoted reflections on Chicago and the surrounding countryside , including the lake, but also weeds on sidewalks, mounds of road salt, and views from commuter trains. The exhibition is both a place for meditation in and of itself and a teaching offer on how to move through the city, open to a restorative observation, particularly of its overlooked aspects. Part is attitude, part location, and ultimately a combination of these.
Jin Lee, who has been photographing in and around Chicago since moving here to attend graduate school in the mid-1980s, was born in South Korea in 1961 and immigrated to Los Angeles with her family as a teenager. In 1996, she began teaching art at Illinois State University at Normal, eventually becoming a full professor, a job that has required hundreds of weekly two-hour commutes on the Amtrak line that runs between Chicago and Bloomington/Normal. That commute spawned “Train View,” one of the series on display at the cultural center, and may be an inspiration to commuters everywhere (or at least those who don’t actively drive the vehicle they ride in).
The series is Lee’s most expansive and diverse, not surprising given the variety of what is laid out in this particular 150-mile journey: snow-covered farmlands, patriotic warehouse signage, tangled forests, smoky oil refineries, low-income neighborhoods, a bustling village center, silent storage units , random billboards, abandoned industrial buildings, peaceful brown rivers and streams, half-completed real estate developments, a windswept graveyard, graffiti and more graffiti, an old prison tower and the quarry where inmates once worked, a horizon of wind turbines, endless utility lines. These places and non-places can be seen in all seasons, weather, times of day and night, maybe more than once. It can be difficult to distinguish one field from another, but that’s part of the interest here. So is the visibility of these landmarks, a unique series of train routes passing through areas that are often remote, private or otherwise inaccessible.
The extent to which these photos show they were taken from inside a train car varies. Some images have quite a blur that indicates speed; others are so sharply focused, so symmetrically composed, that it seems as if the train has slowed to a crawl or even stopped. (If you’ve ever driven Amtrak, you know they do. How much less of a chore must that be, camera in hand.) Then there’s the runaways, a handful of photos of the inside of the train — a book of short stories, held open by a hand, presumably the artist‘s; a window made visible by raindrops; a passenger who has awkwardly fallen asleep in the front seat – which not only remind the viewer of the genesis of this body of work, but also suggest the possibility of other types of journeys: literary, aesthetic, dreamlike.
When Lee isn’t taken along a set route, she always returns to a point along the shore of Lake Michigan somewhere on the south side. For the “Great Water” series, she always shoots a similar picture: half sky, half water, halved so evenly that the photographs in the gallery form a continuous horizon line, which is only interrupted by frames and wall surfaces. It’s impossible to fully portray something so vast and changeable, but Lee has done the lake justice by seeing it, really seeing it, in so many of its states of being. Here is a wintry lake full of small ice floes huddled together like lily pads. There, in two images that must have been moments apart, you can see the water color change instantaneously, from juniper to sea foam, the effect of a cloud passing the sun. Sometimes the horizon disappears entirely, other times it shows the steel mills in Gary, Indiana, or what appears to be a series of snow-capped peaks but is actually an optical illusion caused by lake-effect clouds. For the most part, however, these 19 photographs – about half of the current series – are filled with water and sky, waves and clouds in a wider range of hues and textures than even the most seasoned lake visitor would expect.
Where else does Lee go, what else is she looking at? Call it urban nature, those places where something exists that transcends human design, even if it is inseparable from it. The result is the Salt Mountain and Weed series. These look like a mixture of portrait and landscape photography, they are so intent on the peculiarities of their subjects and give them qualities such as dignity, importance, beauty, resilience, age, occasionally even anthropomorphism.
The mountains are the piles of road salt dumped around the city for winter ice management. In Lee’s paintings, which play with scale and frame, they are sublime mountain ranges that rise monumentally above the tree line. The gross dirt of accumulated pollutants becomes an organic state, the pitiful cracking and crumbling of small heaps an avalanche, the strange coloring of chemical additives a geological oddity. Two of these massifs even feature rugged face shapes, like the Old Man of the Mountain and other highland pareidolia. Who would have thought that flat Chicago offered such scenic vistas?
The weeds are where they grow, in the crook where the sidewalk meets the peeling white-painted wall. Those who can recognize such things will be able to identify yarrow, rue, plantain, dandelion, and other hardy wild plants. There are bound to be some pieces of trash and rotting leaves on the ground because nobody cares about such places. And yet there is diligence in the kind of close and sustained gaze that Lee practices—whether it’s weeds on the sidewalk, mountains of salt, the lake, or the view from a commuter train. It’s a non-judgmental kind of caring, full of helpful ideas for improving neglected sites; it’s just caring, plain and simple. Caring enough to notice that something is there, caring enough to see and appreciate it for what it is, and beyond. And that again and again.
Jin Lee: Views & Scenes runs at the Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago Rooms, 2nd floor north, 78 E. Washington St. through August 7; free, more information at 312-744-5000 and chicago.gov