Curiouser and curiouser: the extra-ness of Katherine Lee

Santa Fean
By Devon Jackson
Published October/ November 2010

My thoughts on Katherine Lee: She’s gifted and she knows it. She’s all of 25, perceives herself to be three times that age, but could pass for 17 (although a tough 17). She has a babyish face, but her carriage, attitude, demeanor and personal are all assertive, surly, irreverent, and glib—ways of being that probably set in during early childhood in Iowa (where she grew up with an older sister, a twin brother, a father employed in emergency management, and underwriter mother), amid so many other fair-haired, fair-skinned, fair-behaved girls. And even if she wasn’t a tomboy growing up, she could pass for a tomboy now—a Patti Smith sort of tomboy. What does all this have to do with her art? Nothing. Everything. In my mind, these are all healthy, even necessary, artist qualities.

Random as she says her life has been—that she grew up in Iowa, that she ended up at the College of Santa Fe, that she works at Backroad Pizza part-time (that she rides motorcycles and has painted images of hostages and time travel in her living room?)—it all seems to have come together. Or started to. When discussing her art, she could just as easily be referring to her life. “I generally make work in a mixed-up way,” she says from her Baca Street home studio. “There’s a certain amount of buildup. I’m ambitious, but I also feel work taking time to develop. It needs that pause, that rest, that time in between.”

It’s that time in between—in between randomness, in between order, it doesn’t matter—where artists find that sweet, that funk, that gushy stuff. Stuff that Lee came up with in her Hostage series—works reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof cycle but not as specific, texturally richer, and of an entirely different (read American) sensibility. A sensibility Lee feels got misread. “I thought they were preposterous, but a lot of people didn’t see them as preposterous. They took them seriously,” says Lee. “Some people took it to a psychological place: We’re all hostages in our minds. Others saw them as bondage. They were trying to interpret them the ‘right’ way.”

Perhaps frustrated by those responses, and bored with the Hostage format (“They were getting to be cookie-cutter”), Lee switched over to landscapes—or cityscapes. People-less streetscapes where her interest lay in figuring out how architectural objects fit into certain spaces. Whether or not the works succeeded critically was secondary to Lee’s overall goal. “If the paint’s laid down nicely,” she declares, “it’s a good painting. It interests me.”

In her most recent works, though, she seems to have swung back to the “dark and tantrum-y,” as she puts it, with drawings of dogs gone wild and nude women. “Nude women never go out of style,” says Lee a bit glibly, though not so glibly—since it’s true. Recalling the days when her parents would take her to the Art Institute of Chicago and expose her to paintings of big, strong women—nude—surrounded by cherubs, Lee maintains it’s the formal, material aspects she’s after, not politics, not statements.

Antithetical to the “look at it once and you get it” quality of most artwork nowadays, she’s constantly in search of that extra-ness—even if it’s a tad too much. “I’m trying to get the drawing more gruesome, to make something wrong—gruesome, f***ed up,” says Lee. “I’d like them to be more than a trifle. But I’m not an intensely perverted person. I have to work at it. It’s difficult for people to reckon with that.”

It’s this self-awareness—a self-awareness not steeped in irony, not laden with quotation marks—that gives Lee’s work such power and holds out promise of ever more promising work in the future.

“These drawings come from angst, from my general outlook on the world, which can be bleak,” she explains. “I don’t think that people change that much or are that good. But I don’t try to chance anyone through my work. I don’t probe too much.

“What I make doesn’t come from understanding,” she adds. “It comes from a curiosity.”



Katherine Lee’s latest exhibit, Animal Violence and Topless Women Eating Jam, runs October 29 – December 4 at 8 Modern, reception October 29, 5-7pm, 231 Delgado, 505-995-0231,