Published in Art Radar on Jan 22, 2016
Following a residency by the artist at Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), the creative workshop and gallery opened a solo exhibition of work by Jane Lee on 17 January 2016. The multimedia output of this young but much acclaimed Singapore artist will be on display until 5 March.
In her short career to date, Jane Lee has been exhibited widely and has received many prestigious awards. The artist studied painting and fashion at LASALLE College of the Arts. She has had work in exhibitions at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Singapore (2014) and New York (2012), Mizuma Gallery, Tokyo (2013), and Osage Soho, Hong Kong (2011), won the Celeste Prize 2011 in New York for painting, and in 2007 she was the first recipient of the Singapore International Residency Art Prize.
Lee transforms the materiality of media, expertly transmuting their characteristics. She deconstructs the components of a painting innovatively, to reveal the significant place that painting holds in visual culture. The surfaces of Lee’s work are textural and give her canvases a dimensionality that suspends her compositions in the realm between painting and sculpture. Frequently distorting the assumed characteristics of a medium, Lee has experimented with various techniques that pull apart every element of the canvas.
Lee expels acrylic paint on the wooden stretchers, playing with the painting until it becomes closer to a sculptural object, with the bottom giving way to the force of gravity. In addition to this, Lee creates works that fall, unroll, hang, coil, interlace and ripple, imbued with kinetic potential. The paintings work in conjunction with the space surrounding them and utilise space as a medium itself.
Exploring paper and print
In “Freely, Freely”, Lee strays away from the medium of painting to explore the formal qualities of print and paper. The medium of print has a pivotal place in the visual history of Singapore, developing in the 1930s, influenced by the Creative Woodblock Movement in China.
According to writer, curator and Research Fellow at NTU CCA Singapore Tony Godfrey, the contributor for Lee’s exhibition catalogue,
Jane wanted to make work that was different from what she normally did. She has not done anything with paint in the show – and if there is paint, as on the side of the acrylic works, it was applied by someone else.
Her exhibited works alter paper to create dynamic installations that tackle themes of entrapment and freedom. Birds and nature are the perfect metaphors for freedom. The exhibition title alludes to the theme of autonomy that the artist tries to grapple with. The multiplicity of freedom is implied as not just relating to ‘being free’ or aesthetic freedom in the Kantian sense, but rather the materialisation of freedom in the visual sense through the metaphorisation of nature.
In an interview, as quoted in the exhibition press release, Lee states:
I wanted to work around a good narrative. I thought about paper, paper—tree, tree—birds. I’m exploring the idea of freedom and imprisonment using images of birds.
Freedom and lightness: the bird metaphor
Birds in flight symbolise the autonomy and buoyancy that can be found in Lee’s new works. They encapsulate her departure from her previous work and the weightiness of painting as a medium. While previously Lee has been concerned with the exploration of colour, this exhibition scrutinises lightness as a concept. The choice of medium – paper – bears witness to this. Lee uses materials that accentuate ethereality and airiness – the translucency of tracing paper that lets light shine through it, letting colours and forms refract softly through the acrylic works.
Lee’s work pulls apart the dichotomies and tensions between the relatively complimentary concepts of freedom and lightness. In Set Me Free (2015), birds are caught mid-flight, but still daisy-chained. While they are free, the freedom is retained and curbed; like a bird in a cage, being allowed to fly within the confines of its cage, however large it may be. Lee alludes to a restricted freedom, moderated and controlled by censorship and the Orwellian idea of thought-police.
In other works, such as Just a Moment (2015), Lee makes a connection between her conceptual approach to print and its technology. The work is a compressed forest-scape painted on standing panels, which is also a site for some birds that are resting amongst its coverage. The compression of nature alludes to the place of nature as a controlled organised necessity in most urban metropolises. The bird metaphor is associated with nature and that can be interlinked to trees, and subsequently paper, the raw material in the print industry.
Despite the central position of the avian motif in the exhibition, Lee refuses to give the form any kind of specificity. The birds function more as a metaphor, rather than catering to or stemming from some sort of specialised ornithological fixation. Tony Godfrey, in his essay on Lee’s show states:
She is treating them almost as though they were logotypes or pictograms. That all the birds cut from the acrylic sheets then fly above is, she remarks, more a convenience than a necessity: she wants them to look like rain, rather than souls.
The generic characteristic of the bird serves to represent a figure trapped within a caged, restrictive concept of freedom. Godfrey continues:
At the heart of the show is her sense of how trapped people are, how unsmiling they are as they go to work each morning or return in the evening. They seem so unhappy. She wants to give them some images of freedom. Not just people in Singapore, but people everywhere.
Uncovering the essence of the material
Lee’s work is inventive and playful, drawing on visuality and tactility to address not just the work conditions of late capitalism, but also of late modernism. The visual language employed by Lee, with its pristine whites, circles and structured networks is reminiscent of the modernist swerve taken by the artist.
Materiality occupies a prime place within Lee’s oeuvre. It is through her deconstructive treatment of paper she discloses its nature, both in source and in character. Her experimentation of materials through her works in paper and print, endeavour to arrive at the essence of the medium, a result of her formalist preoccupation.