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Art Reviews, Cultural Bric a Brac, Jargon Free

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Paul Lee


Paul Lee
Peres Projects
Show Closed March 29, 2008

When viewing Paul Lee’s work at Peres Projects, I thought of Robert Rauschenberg and an old chestnut that still gets theorists and historians all riled up in the arts, namely that there are two ways of looking at Robert Rauschenberg. Some critics see his work in terms of the critique of modernist painting, especially Abstract Expressionism. For this, most critics focus on the way Rauschenberg re-oriented the way one sees (pushing painting out of the rigors of academic composition and allowing a sort of street vision), the way he uses found objects to form a hybrid of painting and sculpture, and his use of not only multiple mediums but also his ability to push technology for aesthetic purposes.

Now another group of critics see Rauschenberg in terms of iconography – all of those knickknacks, images, and junk store items add up to picture of Rauschenberg’s life, a life that is often coded and hidden. On this side of the criticism, most focus on Rauschenberg’s life as a gay man in the 1950s, his relationship with Jasper Johns (this criticism goes on and on to the disservice of both artists), and the codes and secrets that those two plot points involve on the surfaces of his work. (see Jonathon Katz’s recent essay on Johns’ Watchman in the Smithsonian’s journal).

The moral of the story is that we need both sides of the story to get a clear picture of both the history of Modernism and the history of Rauschenberg. You cannot have one without the other.

Paul Lee seems to inhabit this Rauschenbergian world where one’s private life and one’s grappling with art history are the same and rightly so. He, like Rauschenberg, uses the strategies found in the history that preceded him in a personal way -- in Lee’s case, the history is a mixture of Minimalist painting and sculpture with the more ad hoc constructions of artists like Jessica Stockholder and Tony Feher. Also like Rauschenberg, homoeroticism and domesticity are pervasive in Lee’s work, but thankfully also like Rauschenberg, this content is not an overwhelming slogan but an essential, interesting part of the work.


Most of Lee’s references are easy to recognize – you have Malevich’s Black Square painted on tambourines, you have an early Brice Marden panel painting made of grey and black beach towels, there’s a Fred Sandback made from a clothing seam sagging in one corner, and then there are the light bulbs – a material that in Lee’s context recalls both Johns’ lead sculptures as well as Dan Flavin’s early work (so visible in the recent retrospective). Basically with Lee, you find references to work made by men now reclaimed and remade by another man who is perhaps more attuned to the masculine stereotypes that can be implicit in that history. In other words, Lee is more inclusive about what the history of those robust masculine artists can allow.

Of course all of that is old hat (see post-minimalism et al.), but as a unit, Lee’s work offers enough nuance to be consistently compelling – there is something elegant in the way he can get such a wide impact with just a few nubs of material. They are also sly. For instance, several works in the show featured simply hanging towels on pastel fields. Every time I wanted to center in on a reference (for instance, the centering of an object in a Joseph Kosuth text/object painting, the broom that appears in Johns’ great work, Fool’s House from 1961, or those infamous Rauschenberg socks and ties), Lee does a light sidestep of the issue.

Lee’s towel is not simply an object seeking definition (Kosuth), a device to activate a visual field where representation and objects split from each other (Johns), or perhaps a coded personal reference (Rauschenberg). Instead, Lee’s towel is cleverly all three at once. We might say that Lee’s towel functions somewhere between Johns’ deadpan delivery of iconic visual philosophy in Fool’s House (writing an arrow that labels “this is a towel” and “this is a broom) and all of those mad iconographers running around chasing every splatter, and tracking every drip in a Rauschenberg. The towel is inert (maybe the correct word is limp) and is positioned in such a coy, gentle manner that one feels the object fill up with personality above anything else. Most Lee sculptures have this effect, and to this writer, this effect is both historical and human at once – a good thing!