Despite, or maybe because of, a barelydry bachelor of fine arts from the College of Santa Fe, Katherine Lee paints without rules, letting instinct take her where it will.
“A painting will inevitably gain meaning, become a story—there is no getting around that. A mark stands for itself but will also be assigned (by the mind) an anthropomorphic significance or history. This is partially why I paint what I paint, because I do not think it matters what is painted. It is very hard to make art that is not exclusively about ourselves,” she told the Journal with a wisdom beyond her 25 years.
Lee’s first solo show opens today at the small but distinguished Eight Modern on Delgado Street, a gallery that in its first year has become known for its concentration on both modern and contemporary art. Lee’s work falls on a cusp between the two categories, uniquely her own.
“Her paintings transform familiar settings—a motel patio, an airport tarmac – into scenes at once familiar yet unnerving,” gallery director Jaquelin Loyd said. “A deserted patio deteriorates in the sun and passenger planes stand abandoned on a runway. They are spaces of suspended action and endless possibility unmanned but not abandoned. The work simultaneously evokes a sense of quiet comfort and bleak solitude. Lee leverages the dysfunction between the ideal of the natural landscape and the built environment.”
Born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1984, Lee grew up in the rural Midwest and now lives and works in Santa Fe. She received her B.F.A. in 2008 from the College of Santa Fe. In 2006, she spent a semester in Brazil studying art and language. During her time abroad, she developed a distinct artistic practice and completed six paintings of Brazil, entitled “Exteriors.” Those paintings with two more are being shown at Eight Modern. She was in a group show (“Mind the Gap”) at the same gallery last fall. The paintings in “The Brazil Series” are not organized around any theme, issue or subject matter, she said. “They are organized around not worrying about that. Go with your instinct.”
Loyd said Lee’s process begins with the photographs she takes of her everyday surroundings. She isolates elements from the photographs, combining them to create a unique composition, which references but does not replicate the actual landscape. After applying a foundation of black spray paint to the paper, Lee uses red and blue transfer paper to trace the bones of her composition onto the surface. She then skillfully and selectively paints in the outlined composition, leaving visible traces of the initial layout.
Describing her work in technical terms, Lee referenced “triangulation,” the determination of a point in space based on three known coordinates, to define the conceptual center of her art. For Lee, those coordinates are traditional painting, media literacy and contemporary cultural signifiers.
She doesn’t mean she uses triangulation technically, she said “The triangulation is instinctual and occasionally metaphorical, but nothing rigid or tied to composition. If we call triangulation a technique for knowing one’s location in space, one could say that each painting is the end result of an unknown equation or the starting point for a potential calculation,” Lee added. The instructions she gives herself are: “Hack/alter/discard at your will.”
While her work is far from message-driven, Lee describes much of it as evoking “the uncomfortably unspoken implications of a society that so myopically views the significance of its surroundings.”
“Not the current society’s concentration, but the lack therof,” the artist said. “The assembly of our surroundings is a direct product of ideals gone awry. Something to celebrate and condemn.”
Lee has been featured as a young, up-and-coming artist in publication such as the Smithsonian Magazine, which recognized her as one of several contemporary artists reinvigorating the art of painting by “reaching back to the roots of modern art to find new modes of expression.”