Li Lin Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1955. When Lee was three years old, he moved with his family to Hong Kong before emigrating to Pittsburgh in 1962. Lee studied biochemistry at the University of Pittsburgh from 1974-1978. He didn’t pursue art as a career until he moved to Chicago in the mid-80s. “It was [there] where I realized that you could actually become a full-time serious artist,” Lee has said. “I didn’t even know that it was possible when I was growing up. When I came here, and I went to the galleries and saw the shows, I realized that there were some very serious people working.”
Lee’s family was creative; his sister became a musician and his brother became a poet. Lee’s father had a classical Chinese education which included lessons in calligraphy and painting; he regularly held family painting sessions, traditionally using sponges to ink through stencils. Lee used a similar sponging method to make his drawings.
In 1989, Lee traveled to China for the first time to work with Crown Point Press in its woodblock program, which was started by Kathan Brown in 1987. Lee had heard many stories about China from his parents. “Arriving there, it felt like I was arriving at a place where I had been before,” he said in a 1992 interview. “There’s a feeling of that place: the mood, the smell, the light. People say that your homeland is inside of you. That’s maybe what I was feeling.” Lee was able to speak to the Chinese printers in fluent Mandarin (though born in Jakarta, Lee’s family was Chinese by origin). “That experience prompted me to do some works on paper, which is nice, because that type of work is more immediate,” he said. Through Crown Point’s program, Lee created five color woodcuts on silk mounted on rag paper.
In a 2010 interview with Barry Au of DePaul University, Lee cites mystery as being an essential aspect of his work, “When you make art premeditative, when you preplan it, you take all the mystery out of it. So, for me it is very important to keep the mystery in place.” Lee is more interested in European art, which he describes as having a more philosophical approach than American art. “Making art, for me is raising questions and not really answering anything. After many years of working on art, it is a perfect way in searching for yourself.” Lee adds, “The works almost birth themselves in a way.” Swirling shapes and natural forms reminiscent of his biochemistry background appear throughout his work. Critic John Yau wrote in Artforum, “Lee uses painting to get in touch with the unconscious, as well as to release both imagination and memory from the repressive realm of mental categorization.”
Li Lin Lee has had solo exhibitions at E.M. Donahue Gallery, New York, NY (1989); Blum Helman Gallery, New York, NY (1990); Walsh Gallery, Chicago, Illinois (1994-2003); Murphy Hill Gallery, Chicago, Illinois (2012). He has been a part of group exhibitions at Madison Art Center, WI (1990); Betsy Rosenfield Gallery, Seattle, WA (1993); Arc Gallery, Chicago, Illinois (1995); and d.p. Fong Gallery, San Jose, CA (1999). His work is included in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Lee currently lives in Chicago, Illinois.