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Life in excess: The works of Jane Lee

Report by Rui An

This article was first published on Jane Lee is an event of the Singapore Art Show 2009 and is currently on display at Osage Singapore from 26 September to 8 November 2009. Admission is free.

THE BEST artists are usually compulsive obsessives. They develop their entire oeuvre around a singular, fascinating expression which they painstakingly refine, reconfigure and redefine, ambitiously pushing the parameters of their artistic medium.

(Picture: Status, 2009, mixed media)

This monomania would perhaps be a most appropriate diagnosis for Singaporean painter, Jane Lee.

The range of works at Jane Lee’s solo exhibition, now running at Osage Singapore, reflects the adventurous spirit of the fashion designer-turned artist and the sheer intensity of her personal engagement with her medium.

Her landmark, monumental spectacle, Raw Canvas, left an indelible mark upon the audience at last year’s Singapore Biennale, with the multisensory feast that excite the most primordial of our sensual cravings.

The work, formed by thick, voluminous, colourful swathes of paints made an impact on its viewers as much as it was unfortunately victimised by them. The tactile quality of the works was simply too tantalising for our hands to resist, whether to the philistine or the culture vulture.

The works on display at Osage similarly illustrate Lee’s sensitivity to textural sensations. The intricately layered rivulets of paint obliterates the presence of the canvas to create an autonomous, three-dimensional landscape. In fact, the works of Lee problematises simplistic medium categorisation, crossing the boundaries of painting, sculpture and installation. Paint is no longer a mythical representational medium in her work, but a physical entity in its own right.

It demands us to approach it from different angles and perspectives, reflecting a distinctly sculptural aesthetic. The site specificity of most of her works also demands that we consider the physical and architectural space the work is situated in.

In Status, the centrepiece of the exhibition, streams of red paint cascade in undulating fashion beyond the surface of the wall, spilling over to the floor as a miniature mountainous landscape of paint.

(Picture: Detail of status)

However, the work moves beyond being a diorama of paint as it asserts an all-encompassing presence that is larger than life. This breathtaking quality of the work results from a brilliant choice of exhibition space and curatorial direction.

The work, standing at more than four metres high, is situated at the centre of a cavernous space, with the walls stretching to the firmament of the ceiling. The atmosphere resembles that of a cathedral, thus bestowing the work a commanding presence.

The stark, saturated hues of red asserts its presence even more in the spatial emptiness that surrounds it. The red appears to spill out of a largely vacant, rectangular space where a canvas is suppose to be hung, appearing to swamp the surrounding white cube with its pulsating energy. The dimly illuminated environment strangely enhances the work’s colossal presence.

Such an interpretation comes across as deeply unsettling and sinister, which is antithetical to what others have commented about Lee’s works, variously describing it as “delicious” or even “creamy”. Herein lies the fascinating power of these layers of paint. Their provocative nature is attributed not only to the richly layered quality of the paint, but the concomitant layers of emotional experience they satisfyingly offer. There is terror yoked with beauty, and the grotesque mingled with the seductive.

(Picture: Objecthood, 2009, oil on epoxy canvas)

Examining the works in closer detail reminded me of an anecdote from Susan Miller’s Disgust: The Gatekeeper Emotion as I attempted to rationalise the undercurrents of disgust that I experienced.

The book highlights a segment of David Denby’s In Darwin’s Wake, which describes the image of hundreds of sea lions on a shore – an image of an “oily, rolling and roaring fecundity”.

In the perspective of the writer, the huge company of greasy, identical animals seems to have coagulated into one big, indistinctive and disgusting mass. Apparently, what disgusts us is not life which is base, but life in its “most rampant, creative and procreative forms”. We instinctively recoil from not what is regarded as deficient but what is seen as overly imbued with life.

(Picture: Fetish VI, 2009, Acrylic paint, acrylic gel on canvas. Courtesy of Osage Gallery.)

Lee’s paintings curiously corresponds to this sense of a “superlife”. The organic forms and the dominant use of red relates to the bodily and carnal. The iridescent streams of paint appear to flow ceaselessly with a seething, almost libidinal energy (And a sexual reading of Lee’s work is not at all far-fetched, considering that one of her series of works is entitled “Fetish”).

Each runnel of paint, with its sparkling sheen, is teeming with its own sense of vibrancy. The thousands of interlocking streams are like micro sites of life that collectively forming a superorganism. The overpowering smell of the paint, the irresistable tactile appeal of the surface and other sensual aspects of the works all contribute to create a work that is beyond what we can accept as “life”. Here, we see life in its unbridled excesses, exploding beyond the boundaries of the self that cannot contain its potency – simultaneously alluring and unsettling.

(Picture, from left: Turned Out, 2009, Acrylic paint on canvas. Folded Painting, 2009, Acrylic paint on canvas. Bond II, 2009, mixed media. Courtesy of Osage Gallery.)

Lee’s works do not merely just offer satisfying emotional experiences, for they are also intelligent pieces of institutional critique. Works such as Turned Out,Folded Painting and Bond II reflect her dialogue with the institution of painting, as she redefines the utility of the canvas.

The canvas is no longer regarded as the sanctified surface upon which another world is created.

Lee abandons the notion of the canvas as a surface, demolishing and reconstituting it as a creative object. She cuts the painted canvas into thin strips to be remade into new forms, employing it like a piece of fabric, as structure instead of support. While the works’ captions deadpan “Acrylic paint on canvas”, the canvas that we are confronted with is a highly unfamiliar image. The canvas is still there, but it has been “turned out” and “folded”.

(Picture: Purple Drape, 2007, mixed media on epoxy canvas. Courtesy of Osage Gallery.)

In other works, the canvas is invisible as it is entirely overwhelmed by the paint. The paint appears like a malleable piece of fabric, particularly with its undulating waves and creases, as seen in Purple Drapeand her Denim series. This association with fabric is also reflective of the painter’s background as a fashion designer.

She ditched fashion for fine art in 1998, approaching the new terrain of painting with an acute sensitivity of textures and a fresh, open-minded receptiveness towards new definitions of painting.

She cites American minimalist artist Robert Ryman as one of her influences, but I would think that her works are in fact the antithesis of his. For one, her works are the result of painstaking labour and a fastidious attention to textural details. Ryman’s works can hardly even compare in this respect.

More importantly, while Ryman’s white-on-white paintings have often been employed by critics as a sobering sign of painting’s internal exhaustion, Lee’s exuberant pieces celebrate the infinite possibilities of the medium. They are brimming with a life force that cannot be contained and are an affirmation of the fact that the power of painting lies beyond the borders of the canvas.

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