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Essay

Lee Heinen: Body Language (I am not a Camera)

By Douglas Max Utter

In a world all but paved over with computer file-generated images, many visual artists continue to make representations of the world and themselves with traditional materials. Objective painting, in particular, appeals to the mind and heart in ways that elude digital assimilation. At the same time, painters manage to enrich their own projects with the ever-increasing sophistication, speed, and ease of contemporary imaging. Over the past few decades Cleveland-based painter Lee Heinen has used personal and notational photographs as a basis for her own ongoing renditions of people, places, and things. For a long time most of these were Kodak-type snapshots, but more recently smartphone photos and especially "selfies" have come into play, forming the basis for a recent, still ongoing series that is also inspired by travels to Thailand and China, and to England. These paintings, featuring tourists and their phones in modern translation, sometimes depict immemorial human foibles and self-delusion, but also uncover touches of cosmic grace. Whether working from family photographs taken decades ago, or from last month's digital shots, Heinen rearranges poses and subject choices, using them as templates for apparent reminiscences which function as formal compositions, and as psychological journeys.

Picnic"Picnic"(2013) shows two adult women and a child at a wooden plank table with attached benches. They seem like people we might have known, family members perhaps, and yet they feel unreachable, reproducing the impact of old photographs. These may be people the painter actually is related to, but what matters is that this scene declares itself to be a part of the past. The child's face, peaking shyly from behind his mother's(?) dress, is merely a blank white form, while the women's features are sketched tentatively, abandoned to time by a memory that has begun to lose some of its resolution. Still, the colors haven't faded, nor the way that the younger woman stands and leans slightly over a bowl, stirring or scooping with an invisible spoon. In the forefront of this triangular composition, driven down and to the right by the brown lines of the table and bench, is the seated figure of an older woman. Probably she is the grandmother here, we can tell from her large white buttons, snaking in a sinuous line from the bottom of the canvas to her neck, a dotted line perforating the black oblong of her coffin-like dress. While this woman's features are vague, and her eyes obscured by spectacles, her posture carries its own message. Her arms are crossed, her shoulders slumped. A viewer might feel that she is discouraged, tired, guarded. But then, this is not a painting of a memory, after all; this is a rendition of a photograph, edited, much-simplified, and altered in fundamental ways in order to make a formal/expressive image which reflects the artist herself. Perhaps, among other things, a painting can be considered an analog recording of perceptions (the surrealist-oriented abstract expressionists thought so) – an ancient concoction which also engages the viewer on a visceral level. A photograph, on the other hand, documents conditions of light and the attributes of the machine that generates it, and the process employed in printing it. Only down the road from these considerations is it about the objects pictured, and (at last) about a photographer's choice of subject matter.

The painted interlocking shapes that compose "Picnic" are influenced by stenciling and collage works, and its off balance, thrusting energies derive from a lineage of design traceable at least as far back as Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts. Heinen proposes: three human figures, a table with attached benches, a bowl, a bird, the spear-like leaves of irises at the foundation of a house, a window, and a door. The figures are awkward, in the way that paper dolls can be, their clothes bulge and peak, the seated woman's hat is a peculiar affair, like a tiny thatched roof – yet all of these mildly odd, vaguely child-like features recall remote Japonisme-influenced figurative drawings and paintings (Vincent Van Gogh, and expressive symbolists such as Edvard Munch and James Ensor) and the over-stuffed quality of the "past," an impression of obsolete exaggeration.

But the postures -- the body language as Heinen says, brings these sketchy forms to life in unexpected ways, modulating the design of her composition with qualities of mood and character. The older woman in her dark, old-fashioned dress reads as isolated and depressed, separated from her grandchild by the younger woman (to presume these relationships), who is dressed in the fleshy pink of youth. The bowl in this young mother's hands conveys her vital, nourishing role, an idea reinforced by the blue bird which feeds from it. The bird itself is an interpolation, and surely Heinen means it to be an obvious one – as if to say,"Do you believe in fairy tales? Then here's a bluebird." "Picnic" is about inevitable envy and pain, as roles are transferred and family dynamics roll forward.

As an artist who, like Lee Heinen, has lived much of his life in the long shadow of the Cleveland Museum of Art, I am also attracted to "Picnic" because of a certain similarity that its composition and figures share with those of a very prominent work in CMA's collection. Fairfield Porter's large 1967 pastoral painting "Nyack" also foregrounds an older, plainly depressed female figure, contrasting her downward gazing posture with the vigor of a younger woman, who paints at an easel in the middle distance. Both are seated under a large tree, the older woman in a long, colorful, traditional folk-style skirt, the artist in a formal black skirt and dark brown, sleeveless top. In costume they are almost the reverse of Heinen's figures, but the mood and subliminal message strike a related chord. And Heinen's picnic table ties her composition together with a single strong movement, just as the angled, broken arc of benches and easel in Porter's work leads the eye back and forth, like a swing across his big canvas. It's worth noting also that "Nyack" was based on a much earlier sketch the artist had made, rather than on a photograph, and that his wife was one of the figures (the elder), and the other was a friend. But in both works there is a disquieting sense that some stylistic and compositional choices expressing calm and continuity are at odds with specters of personal or interpersonal dissatisfaction, which haunt these superficially blithe paintings through body language and surprisingly dynamic internal organization.

The Mango ThiefAmong the most strongly conceived of Heinen's recent paintings is "The Mango Thief" (2015). The title refers to a baboon, grinning for the cameras and iphones of a group of amused tourists, who seem as greedy for a photo-op as the baboon is for the small mangos, which spill out over the yellow ground from a white paper bag. These complicit observers include the artist herself, of course, who clicked her own pic of the scene during a recent trip to Thailand. She later tweaked the elements of that photo to make her painting, which plays the shapes and colors of its five characters against a yellow background like a musical progression, harmonizing tones of pink, orange, pale green and blue-gray with the white-spangled maroon of the dress worn by a strong central figure. That woman, in seamed silk stockings and deep yellow sun-hat, is pictured from the back, as are the two tourists who occupy the left side of the canvas. At the bottom left corner a man crouches to get the best angle. His baseball cap is on backwards, making room for the black point-and-shoot that he holds to his face. Nearest to the monkey, a young woman wields a blue smartphone. She wears a leaf green shirt, sleeves rolled to her elbows, untucked above bone-colored chinos. Her weight rests casually, confidently on one hip, her blonde hair reaches down from under a bucket-shaped hat. A jaunty brown strap crosses her back from shoulder to waist, as if she was on a military expedition, or a Girl Scout ramble; and her shoes match her phone. Probably she and the young man are together. We see only part of the side of her face, just a crescent of light pink cheek, but her slim, fit, not quite stylish look suggests that, though young she's no longer a girl. Across from her a figure with glasses and a short haircut is rendered in an all-over pale bluish gray. Perhaps he's in shadow, although if so the shade is confined to his own outline. It's more that he's part of the back story – he's the mango vendor, maybe, from whom the baboon snatched the bag of fruit. He holds up one hand in admonition or entreaty. Or maybe he's just a cool passage of shadow on a hot day.

But despite these characters and the gentle swirl of visual information they present, this is a painting that derives its real strength from the startling, even ravishing swathe of abstract chaos seen through the maroon window which is the central figure's patterned dress. The figures that circle around her, up toward the baboon facing them all, are present not because of the photo-op, but because they orbit this patch of pure freedom that attracts them, and the eye of the viewer, irresistibly. The batik-like white slashes and suns explode the painting's anecdotal and reflective narratives (its thoughts about presence and identity and perspective) as if the sunny street scene were split open like a fruit, to reveal the energy of worlds. It's just a glimpse, but a mighty one, presented so deftly that at first it's hard to see, and afterwards all but sets fire to the remainder of the painting, in the manner of an E.M. Forster-like revelation/event. Yet while this abstraction (which must represent a decorative floral motif, yet becomes so vitally changed, and charged, on the canvas) crashes into the painting like a starship, it harmonizes with the other tones and shapes, and with the cloisonnism of Heinen's delicate outlines, pushing only gently against the boundaries that it nevertheless destroys. If the baboon has stolen and (with Henri Rousseau-ish delight) devours the raw sunshine of unself-conscious experience, which we tourists then steal from the grinning animal with our devices, it remains true that the outrageous splash of Being spreads throughout and beyond any style, anecdote, or captivity, contained only tenuously before the god returns to claim its own.

Persona"Persona," also composed from smartphone photos, is a more straightforward look at the way the distractions of technology alter our common experience of public space, going on to comment about deeper social issues. A young man, African-American with an intensely theatrical vibe, with golden-brown skin and a spiking corona of dark hair that rises from his broad, downturned forehead -- almost as if he were in costume as the Sun itself -- dominates the canvas. The power that he emanates is a matter of both composition and personality – it's clear that he is the "persona" of the title, a self-realized and at this moment self-absorbed, somewhat larger-than-life individual, depicted as he quite literally stands out in a crowd while communing with his smartphone. He eclipses the plump gray, probably Caucasian figure beside him, who wears a thigh-length hooded jacket and carries a furled orange umbrella. On the other hand, he seems to emit the three gray-toned people depicted behind his huge head, since their lower bodies disappear behind his shoulders. Another man with a mustache stands beyond him on the right, appearing to lock eyes across the canvas with the paunchy man on the left; the faces just behind the "sun" man are looking to the right. Lastly, a sixth figure on the right is turned toward the upper left. The sun-man/cell man's head is the center point where each sight line intersects all the others. People in their orbits see him; he does not trouble to see them. The painting could be titled: "Solar System."

Thinking About SelfiesBut Heinen's main cell phone painting (to date) depicts this sort of public narcissism as a mass pictorial phenomenon, rather than soliloquy. "Selfies" (2015) is composed horizontally in what computer programs call landscape mode; there are enough portraits going on here already -- eight individuals and one couple are shown recording themselves. Oat one point the level horizon line gives rise to a shadowy outline of Rodin's The Thinker, pedestaled in gray.This is clearly the Cleveland Museum of Art's bronze edition of that famous work, mutilated by explosives in 1970 and reinstalled in its damaged state as a grim reminder of humanity's ongoing irrationality. Its presence establishes a sort of mise en scene, but one more psychological than literal.

For one thing, each figure or pair of figures is a different size. It's as if they occupy different, invisibly intersecting planes, collaged together here but foreign to one another in fact – no Euclidean law unifies this un-space, no classical perspective. The characters themselves are variously equipped, some with selfie-sticks, some without, and have different ideas about how to depict themselves. One woman puts her phone on the ground and crouches over it, like Narcissus at his pond. Two others resemble duelists when their sticks cross as they try to frame a more distant view – though this is less a clash than an optical illusion, since they appear to belong in different decades, in different frames of reference entirely. There can be no crossing of gazes or sightlines in this strange land, where all regard is self-regard and the eye bends back toward itself at the crook of the selfie-stick. Several of the amateur photographers shown wear dark glasses, which also speaks of their isolation, if not their blindness. One of these is the artist herself, whose hand and face (depicted on a phone display) are painted in the lower left-hand corner of the canvas. This moment of friendly self-caricature takes a little of the sting out of a work which otherwise carries a sharp satirical message. If the wreck of reason as symbolized by Rodin's sculpture is the emblem of the situation she considers here, the inclusion of a self-portrait alerts us to the thought that the artist, working to assemble these vignettes, is making a kind of parable painting, a rich genre with roots in medieval manuscript illustrations. Heinen is a student of historical manners and the artistic triumphs of western art, and her awareness in "Selfies" of the incomparably resourceful, socially acerb masterpieces of Pieter Breugel the Elder is clear. Breugel's "Parable of the Blind" comes to mind, and the "Land of Cockaigne." Heinen's contribution to this genre could be called, "Wherever We Go We Find Ourselves."

Changing of the GuardA third work from 2015 is titled, "The Changing of the Guard," based on a photograph taken by Heinen during a visit to London. Buckingham Palace doesn't appear in her painting, and neither does the Queen, nor the guards. This time the iphones themselves play a major compositional role, piercing the horizontal canvas like darkened windows. Not that there's necessarily anything negative about her conception here. Her light touch and mostly pale pastel tones, seen also in her symbolist-related sea and shore 'scapes, reflect an American lineage of modernist and proto-modernist depiction that includes Milton Avery, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Marsden Hartley. "The Changing of the Guard" feels more like an abstract work than Heinen's other camera-phone paintings. Open space plays an important design role in those pieces, sometimes in terms of color (the burning yellow ground asserts itself throughout "Persona," stoking the solar imagery), or as a sort of narrative neutrality, like the putty-colored no-man's land between the figures in "Selfies." In the London painting we see a finely composed patchwork woven from the backs of heads and a tangle of forearms, sleeves, hands, which hold the rectangles that only living generations would recognize as cameras, and a stripe of warm gray at the top of the canvas. No pageant, no crimson uniforms, no military headgear, just the jostle of the moment, the elbows of the photo-op, and a few telling details: a watch (with hands) reporting the time on one man's wrist, and right in the middle of the canvas a blank cell phone display surrounded by a black and white striped border. This signage perhaps declares or even celebrate the absence of an external referent, a subject for the mayhem of recording. The blankness of all the little screens (parts of ten are shown) imposes its own message, at least, along with the omission of spectacle: there is nothing to see here, except perhaps ourselves turning away from contact; the contemporary gesture of presence, marking each occasion with a photograph, cancels out experience and makes reality moot.

Et in Arcadia EgoIt seems to me that existential reflections are very much built into Lee Heinen's recent paintings, and can be found in the larger body of work she has produced over the last two or three decades. No doubt her work carries other, less fraught messages as well, and it is very possible to look at her scenes and people in a more relaxed state of mind. She is a remarkable colorist, and almost without exception her paintings appeal to the eye, often with a warmth that encourages the viewer to look longer, to remain in her painted places. Yet often the result of this is that she has time to show us other things, darker moods. Her 2013 work "Et in Arcadia Ego" is attractive in this way, presenting a hidden strip of beach, where masses of rock move down to the shore. It is a place many people would find appealing, promising both beauty and solitude. But the orb overhead announces a more exceptional condition: Either a solar or lunar eclipse is in progress. Is this then a nocturne, in the manner of Ryder or Avery? And there is the fact that the central massive boulder is painted a stark black, as it slouches toward the deep blue water across the sand. The viewer is caught between the pleasures of this composition, and an ominous note too loud to be ignored. The title should have warned us: "Et in Arcadia Ego" is a line thought to derive from the Eclogues of the Roman poet Vergil, declaring a subject approached by Poussin and Guercino, among others. It literally means, "And in Paradise I," which is usually taken to remind us that death can be found everywhere, though the ambiguity of the phrase has been much discussed over the centuries. I think that Heinen uses it more as a title than a phrase, explicitly including her image in a group of historical works which contemplate death as a fact of life, as with memento mori paintings. In Heinen's painting, however, there is a dramatic impact that needs no interpretive gloss. This conspiracy of elements, of light and dark, under the dark lantern of a moon in celestial shadow, is legible only as romance. Heinen's work partakes of mystery and the old promise of treasures abandoned on an incoming tide.

Whether she is exploring and re-defining landscape in fauvist terms of energy and symbol and intense color, as she did a few years ago, or delving into the sociological revelations of photography, especially in its latest instant incarnations, mixing these resources into her own rich sense of art history, Heinen is unfailingly a painter with a deeply human touch. Her work is less a matter of immediate call and response, reacting to the lived reality of day to day existence, than a measured participation in a visual artist's constantly, rapidly expanding worlds of imagery and mediums. Her humanity resides most in the warmth of her considerations of the people and things she depicts, and a sense in her paintings that these personae and elements are part of the pattern of her life, translated from secret tongues of experience known to herself alone. This is, after all, how we make the present moment rich in spirit, through a willingness to relate, re-examine, re-tell our own past.



 

Bark and Bite: Lee Heinen's Dog and Tree Paintings

By Roger Welchans, MFA, PhD
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
May 2006

In this "Bark and Bite" exhibition at her Alma Mater, Ursuline College, Cleveland artist Lee Heinen is showing two groups of recent paintings. One is a gathering of sizzling tree and vine pictures, and the other, a series of flamboyant portraits of indoor pet dogs.

Most of the paintings are executed in her current, highly personal, Realist style, a style she calls "over-the-top Realism," using sweeping bravura brush strokes and raucous hues which clearly lean towards modern Expressionism. She is an artist whose "times" made her a Modernist as well as a Realist, and like other modern Realists, Fairfield Porter or David Hockney for example, she shares a kind of unspoken "brief" to intermingle abstraction with real appearances, a mixture which obviates naturalistic depiction but greatly increases the artist's expressive possibilities.

When the above mixture is used skillfully, as it is in these paintings, it provokes thought and expands the meaning of the works beyond their merely decorative presence. Obviously, it's also an assertion that the artist has something to say through the subjects she has chosen, and indeed these paintings do often prompt thoughts beyond plants and pets.

The Pet Dog Paintings

Pet dog portraiture as a genre is a province saturated with "whys" and "hows." Why would a Modernist artist like Lee choose to practice this slightly anachronistic, mildly tarnished genre? How and why does she up-date it? What's the message? To answer these queries requires a short note about earlier dog painting.

The earliest dog paintings appear in hunting scenes on the walls of Ice Age caves around 10,000 BCE. They depict "working dogs" as man's loyal helpmates, a subject often repeated even to the present day.

But the type of pet-dog portraits revived here by Lee – the affectionate and humanized portrayal of individual indoor "family" dogs – evolved out of late 18th century aristocratic portraiture where they appear as cuddly canine ornaments nestled on the silken laps of elegant lace-cuffed, ivory-fingered sitters. As this type of painting became fashionable at court, it conferred upon these pretty creatures such enhanced social and family standing that they quickly emerged as the principal "sitters" themselves, to be displayed with the rest of the family portraits.

As an established genre, pet-dog portraits became an absolute rage during the Victorian period led by the Queen herself, who besotted with her extensive canine "family," commissioned the leading Academicians to paint dozens of them – flawlessly dextrous, naturalistic portrayals of indolent, pampered "court" dogs, Pugs and English Bulls among them, all cutely be-ribboned and pertly posed amidst expensive baubles and bibelots – tasteful reminders of their owner's station in life. Victoria's pictorial passion quickly percolated down to the rising Middle Class, the "bourgeoisie," who co-opted them as status symbols, and in accord with their taste, accelerated their inherent "cuteness factor" to a level of cloying sentimentality.

Of course, to 20th century Modernists such painting was anathema, reeking of bourgeois taste and plodding Academic technique. They saw no way in which it might advance their "brief" to develop a revolutionary new aesthetic appropriate to the brave new Machine Age. So they shunned it, but despite their censure, pet-dog portraiture never entirely vanished from popular culture. Even so, the most dedicated Modernist painters declared it "outre," and if practiced publicly, a peril to their professional standing.

Why then would Lee decided to paint pet-dog portraits now? We can only speculate that it was prompted partially by her "artist's cultural awareness" of our society's ubiquitous coddling and humanization of dogs as "family members," and partially by her personal, genuine affection for the pet dogs within her own family. Together they likely triggered a kind of "Victoria's impulse" to commemorate them in portraits.

Whatever the exact reason, she did in fact decide to paint family dogs, "only the dogs she knows," as she puts it, as commemorative gifts to her family and friends. At first, only four dogs were involved, two Pugs, an English Bull and a friend's St. Bernard, so it might have seemed like a relatively short-term task. But instead, stimulated by a creative challenge to reinvent the genre, it evolved into a practically limitless "theme and variation" project.

The manner in which she deployed her Modernist "brief" against the old Victorian prototypes might best be described as an "attack," one which obliterated almost every trace of its Academic and bourgeois "weaknesses", and yet ingeniously retained a certain affection – but not a saccharine sentimentality – for the dogs themselves. We'll discuss how she accomplished that later.

Her principal Modernist tactic, immediately evident when you scan the gallery, is to detonate a retinal blast of gaudy colors and fluid strokes crawling in loose networks over vividly contrasting ground colors which buzz through the interstices. Begone, Academic sobriety and drudgery! The resulting bumpy surface has a deliberately coarse "unfinished" quality, a kind of feigned ineptness and fictive spontaneity which masks the artist's actual sustained engagement in the work. This too is part of the Modernist "brief"– make it look casually inventive, childishly simple, though of course it isn't.

More importantly, all of her clotted paint smears, scratchings, swipes and puddles do in the end achieve their Modernist aesthetic goal, to remind us that these dogs are freshly and joyfully made of paint, not fur and flesh, and that consequently, the artist is free to explore thoughts and ideas beyond mere representation. This she emphatically does. Why else would these dogs be so provocatively "in-your-face," so up-front and eager to burst through their picture planes?

Sniffer Frog Dog

Why else are some of their faces pressed so close that they are cut off by the "frame," like King Kong at the window. Why do some sniff at at us so aggressively with snouts foreshortened like reflections in a convex mirror ("Sniffer," 2002), while others ("Frog Dog," 2003) glare madly from faces which are half frog and half human as if plucked from Lavater's peculiar 18th century charts on evolutionary physiognomy?

Privileged Icon

Whether they are imperious, arrogant, indifferent, baleful or blissful, they are surely creatures with "attitude" that we identify with human personalities. One bull terrier is the "boss" in a parody of a "board room" portrait, another is a "fop," ("Privileged," 2003), a pampered Pug luxuriating on richly flowered fabrics and cushions, its muzzle and neck delicately gilded to underline its ornamental preciosity.

And what are we to think about the "sacred" English Bull, full length and spread-eagled, flashing its belly at us from a "cloth of honor" backdrop with a large, ragged patch of icon-like gold leaf? Does it ridicule its status within the family, or perhaps the family itself? Then there's the vignette triptych of the the thrice coddled Pug in the arms of a remarkably ham-handed, headless "sitter"wearing a sweatshirt – surely a burlesque of its 18th century aristocratic prototype That hand especially, flayed of its predecessor's ivory shell – is a worthy bit of Modernist expressive Realism.

Cuddling Triptych 3 John's Bitch

The fact is, that the artist presents many of these dogs – not all of them, as caricatures, the artful exaggerations of which always cut two ways, eliciting both affectionate humor and "biting" satire. About the latter, it's fair to ask what or who is being lampooned? The dogs? The owners? The Victorian prototypes? Bourgeois taste? The leisure class? The pet industry? Conspicuous consumption? Well, probably all of the above, and perhaps more.

Pug on a Rug

Those dogs which are not caricatures – like the giantized St. Bernard ("John's Bitch," 2006 ) or the flat, yellow "Pug on a rug," 2006 – are attractive Realist studies in decorative form, an aesthetic "bark" without the satirical "bite." I think we must conclude that Lee has managed cleverly to sidestep bourgeois "cuteness," and replace its annoying sentimentality either with warm humor or pleasurable aesthetic design, not to mention a surprisingly gritty iconography. Surely, even the hardest-core Modernist is thus free to admire her brand of pet-dog paintings.

The Tree Paintings

About trees, humanity has forever endowed them with special human traits and roles, good and bad. Lee finds in them the beneficent qualities of sage and patient elders, "living witnesses of time," as she puts it. She's fascinated too by their tolerant longevity, their increasing majesty and "character" as they age, and very real function in life as guardians, protectors, and replenishers of oxygen.

As a Realist artist, not a Romantic or a Surrealist, she paints recognizable trees, but modified by her Modernist "brief" which precludes fussing with such epidermal details as bark (ironically, given the title of the show) because it could detract from her freedom to convey "something" beyond surface appearances. There are indications in this show that the "something"is nothing less than the universal "life force" shared by trees and us. In some respects that's the ultimate humanization of trees.

Mystical though it may sound, it isn't, Lee's trees are not the spiritualized, other worldly "God-made" trees of George Inness, nor are they kin to the pretty, "cotton-candy" woods of Wolf Kahn and his circle. Instead, they are visceral, carnal residents of the material world; direct, bold and un-labored visual signs of the sinuous and fluid "matter" of life assertively translated into paint.

Daughter of Peneus Gnarled

Her most elementary humanization of a tree, probably accidental, is found in "Daughter of Peneus," (1999) where the title is an oblique reference Daphne, whose torso and arms are discernable in the trunk and boughs, transformed into a tree by her father, a river god, to save her from the unwanted advances of Apollo. Other works, like "Gnarled," (1999) might simply invite empathetic responses to their apparent muscular exertions, but they were primarily intended as "character" studies, which become more engaging as the artist expands her expressive vocabulary.

The Baobob Yellow Baobob

Often, such expansion requires a visual jolt. For Matisse, it was a trip to Morocco. For Lee, a trip to Africa, where her experience with the intense heat, light, and aridity changed her palette to the hottest, most vivid color combinations of her career, which she applied specifically to her "character" studies of African trees. The two Baobab paintings in the show (The Baobab, and Yellow Baobab, both from 1999) are early products of the African adventure, and indeed, the thorn-like trees virtually crackle in a parching, firey red-yellow atmosphere. But several years later another "hot" painting, "Red Trees," (2003) reflects a more sophisticated use of incandescent light, implied humidity, and simmering heat.

Red Trees

The upper two-thirds of "Red Trees" is occupied by a thin mass of feverish yellow-green "foliage," bleached out as if overexposed in a flash of hot light. A few dripping dark lines add a note of moisture and look like limp, dangling Spanish moss without really trying too hard. Some thin yellow lines wander crookedly in a small area of the hot green looking for something to describe, but give up. The whole steamy mass hovers over an alley of flat red trunks rising like cooking flames from a molten red-orange earth to be silhouetted against a strip of torrid yellow sky.

The heat looks oppressive. And the "pulse" of the painting – that is, the degree of energy apparent in its execution – is intelligently minimal, reinforcing a sense of enervation.

Because of the clarity of her execution, almost all of Lee's paintings have a "pulse," ranging from languid to twitching to frenetic, and "reading" it often provides the key to her expressive intention.

Yellow Allee

Check the "pulse" of a similar painting, "Yellow Alee," (2001). It's rapid compared to "Red Trees," and very readable in the short, swift strokes which rustle and cool the leafy canopy providing respite from the hot light beyond. The "livin' is easy" here. We should notice also that the trees in this picture are painted in "X-ray" mode, showing us the inside red core of the green trunks and branches. While these red streaks provide a structural "spine" for the mass of green foliage, they are likewise clear evidence of her interest in making visible their invisible interior.

Glade unklimt

Two years later, in 2004, for an experimental "jolt," Lee tried her "steroid" hues on black canvases ("Glade," and "unklimt," both from 2004). Her usual execution separates most strokes from each other and permits a vivid ground color to unify and excite them, but the black under painting prevents that, forcing each hue separately to sing its own song with clear and penetrating intensity. The colors glow as if exposed to ultra violet illumination, and each stroke acquires an extraordinary calligraphic presence.

While the effect is aesthetically pungent, it is also eerie, like stripping nature's epidermis to expose its inner circulatory or neural systems. Again we see her getting closer to nature's "insides," perhaps nudging her towards the challenge of painting a universal "life force," so elusive for western artists, but intentionally present in every thoughtful stroke rendered by the Chinese masters.

Wisteria

Whatever the stimulus, perhaps her experiences in China, she made a significant breakthrough towards that end in "Wisteria," (2006) a risky, "over-the-top" Realist tour de force with an agitated, even fibrillating "pulse" rate in which some powerful force within this sprawling tree has propelled new growth and delicate blossoms explosively through nature's constraining husks, the new life unfolding in triumph among the debris of renewal.

There is something Oriental about the splintery calligraphy of the action, achieved with a paint-soaked feather duster slapped, dribbled and whisked with controlled abandon, and also about the meditative focus on an unseen force below the surface.

The 17th century critic Roger de Piles argued that a good picture ought to be able to stop a spectator in his tracks. "Wisteria" qualifies, and it's highly likely that its sequel, a five canvas "Wisteria Cycle" – unfinished at this writing – which refines and intensifies the discoveries of the breakthrough, will have a proportionally greater aesthetic impact. Together, they tend to confirm that Lee is sufficiently impious and adventurous to take the risks required for new discoveries. We await them.

 

 
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