“Pretty Painted Pictures and a Whole Lot More: Jamie Lee’s Savvy Hybrids”
Jamie Lee paints pretty pictures that – on second, third, and fourth looks – reveal themselves to be a lot more complicated than that. In fact, the Korea-born, California-educated, New York-based artist’s color-saturated extravaganzas are not, properly speaking, paintings. Nor are they conventionally pretty. And for that matter, they are not really pictures.
To start with the first: Each of Lee’s carefully composed constellations of distinct elements is not a seamlessly smooth painting but a polyglot collage, a mix-and-match mélange comprised of a diverse inventory of disparate materials, including such typically artistic supplies as airbrushed acrylics, marking pens, gel mediums, tinted inks, and variously colored pieces of cut-and-pasted paper, as well as such untraditional elements as glitter, fabric, thread, and all sorts of saturated dyes. What Lee does with these materials is what makes her works original: powerful hybrids in which painting’s compositional unity and collage’s fractured fragmentation feed off of each other to produce pieces that are neither nostalgic nor idealized but just the right mixture of unsentimental realism and dreamy optimism.
In the same way that Lee’s resplendently physical works are not conventional paintings, they are also not pretty, in the ordinary sense of the term: benignly agreeable to the senses and unassuming in the demands they make on viewers. Lee’s deeply appealing works do not settle for combining attractive colors in balanced compositions or for making tasteful arrangements of seductive shapes and gorgeous forms. They are not content to create pleasantly decorative atmospheres that gracefully – and graciously – enhance their surroundings while demurely slipping into the background, like well-behaved hostesses who are not supposed to be the focus of the social engagements they facilitate. Instead, Lee’s bold and potent works on panel and paper put prettiness to good use. For them, beauty is not an end in itself but a means to intensify and strengthen a viewer’s involvement with the open-ended yet intimate dramas that unfold before the imaginary landscapes, panoramic still lifes, and exquisitely detailed linear worlds they lay out with humble aplomb. In all of Lee’s dream-inducing, memory-stimulating images, the crisp visual punch of sharp, hard-edged graphics combines with the untouchable elusiveness of colored light and the indescribable immateriality of drifting air to create complex experiences in which things aren’t what they seem, and, more important, are a whole lot more interesting than usual.
That is also the sense in which Lee’s works are not really pictures. To look closely at any of her energetically animated images is to watch seemingly solid objects break down into abstract patterns. It is to see what initially appeared to be substantial chrysanthemums, sun flowers, and daisies splinter into their constitutive components: stems, leaves and flowers, all of which, in turn, dissipate into patterns made up of repeated shapes, colors, and lines, which themselves often dissolve into ethereal atmospheres and intangible colors. But representation, depiction, and picture-making are not displaced by pure abstraction in Lee’s works. On the contrary, her multi-layered emblems live in two worlds simultaneously. They stay on intimate terms with such familiar things from recognizable reality as flowers, birds, bugs, skyscapes, and seascapes while making a place for the human imagination – for daydreams and reveries that allow consciousness plenty of free space, so that it can depart from the conventional strictures of rationality, the dutiful purposefulness of efficiency, and the narrowly defined productivity of goal-oriented behavior. Lee’s boundary-bending images invite viewers to indulge and cultivate a richer and denser and more complex relationship to our immediate surroundings, where simple things, like pretty pictures, open onto worlds-within-worlds, each filled with endlessly fascinating details and quietly ravishing intrigue.
Her abstract images also bring together the accessibility of Pop Art and the intimacy of personal recollections. Neither superficial nor sentimental, they eschew the standardized sameness of mass-produced consumer goods and they never fetishize the privacy and uniqueness of the psychological self. Instead, Lee’s generous mixtures of materials, genres, and artistic conventions offer a charged blend of mundane, everyday ordinariness and knock-your-socks-off excitement by inviting individual viewers to lavish our heightened attentiveness on the littlest, seemingly most insignificant of things. Her works celebrate not Nature, with a capital “N,” like the nineteenth-century European Romantics, but an entirely cultivated world of urbane sophistication, refined artifice, and cosmopolitan pleasure. One of the best things about Lee’s art is its optimism, its willingness to seek out and insist upon satisfaction and happiness and discovery and love and wonder and delight as experiences essential to art and to life. In the United States, an entrenched history of pragmatism and Puritanism has generally denigrated such experiences, which traditionally have been pushed out of art in favor of avant-garde solemnity, Surrealist grotesquerie, and Conceptual pretense. Lee’s gorgeous profusions of sensual colors, serpentine movements, and vibrant forms fly in the face of such cut-and-dried conservatism, giving us pretty, painted pictures that are a whole lot more than only that.
“David Pagel is a Los Angeles art critic who writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times. He is also associate professor of art theory and history, and Chair of the Art Department, at Claremont Graduate University, and adjunct curator at the Parrish Art Museum, where he is currently working on an exhibition about the relationship between Pop Art and Folk Art.”