The limits of my language are the limits of my world.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I AM A LITTLE BIT IN LOVE WITH KATHERINE LEE.
I mean,what’s not to love? She’s a delightful young woman, shy and whip smart, with greater talent and drive than any one person ought to be allowed to possess. (People like Lee make the rest of us look bad.) And her art is knockout. I also adore Margo Thoma and Jaquelin Loyd of TAI Modern, who’ve been showing Lee’s work since she was still a student at what was then the College of Santa Fe, where she earned her BFA in 2008. So skip this review if you’re looking for Mean Girls redux. This is more along the lines of a mash note.
As to what it is that I find so compelling about Lee, the first thing I’d note is her unique combination of conceptual vision made manifest through the vehicle of superb craftsmanship. I’ve known her as an outstanding painter for several years;recently she added carpentry to her repertoire and on her it looks dang good.Second, her grasp of the poetics of language is stunning. The girl was reading Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) when I visited her studio; I find this an impressive feat, given that simply reading about the philosopher gives me brain cramps. Not that he would have cared about my discomfort. After all,this is the man who said, “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.” Fun or no, the importance of Wittgenstein to our post-structuralist grasp of art as a language, as if truly grasping the concept is possible, circles back to his primary concept: that language cannot describe meaning, at least not precisely. This means that when I say “chair,”the chair I see in my mind’s eye is not the same chair you see in yours. And it cannot ever be. This can appear to be a very large problem if you’re a writer,but not if you’re poetically inclined. In fact, those of us who are comfortable with abstract ideas, with that which cannot be said but must be shared, kind of love this paradox.
Of course, the very words “locating absence” represent a catchphrase that has been used to death in contemporary artspeak. I don’t wish to defend its overuse, and can only say that the phrase captures meaning the way a cliché does truth. Too often, notions of slippage, hyperrealism, and simulacra are badly used in artist statements and gallery press releases to justify the seriousness of a body of artwork that is yawningly devoid of purpose, beauty, or resolution.Without being aware of Lee’s genuine interest in the philosophy of art as language, I’d have been likely to dismiss the title of her exhibition as hollow,and its content as slick, biker chic. As easy as it might have been to dismiss Maps,Doors and Coffins as hipster claptrap, I remain grateful for critical review assignments like this one, which force me out of my office to look at art in person, to talk to artists and gallerists, and to evaluate what I think I know about contemporary visual art.
TAI Modern’s exhibition was comprised, hardly surprisingly,of largish, oil-on-linen map paintings with text layered across their surfaces; a series of hand-hewn doors such as you might find at a seedy dentist’s office; and a set of five matching coffins, glossy black with gold, laser-cut skulls and flowers in a kind of family crest—if your family members are all Harley riding rock-and-rollers. The coffins were built by Lee according to a nineteenth-century book of instructions. Each box is complete inside and out, though they are not intended to be used for actual burials. Rather, she explained to me, they are the artifacts of a conceptual art piece that encompasses the coffin as a vehicle between life and death, “confronting abstractions of love, family, memory, and time.” Particularly evocative is the fact that Lee is a twin, and her coffin lies next to that of her brother, their initials twining along gold-crested emblems of skulls and Chinese birth flowers, suggesting that while death always gets the last laugh, it’s a fine thing indeed to sail off into the afterlife in a gorgeous ebony box. The doors serve, metaphorically and literally, as portals to and from mysterious places, each pane of frosted glass etched with a room number and title. Doors one through four are captioned, respectively: Museum of Dark Forces, Wolf Hole, Seldom-Little Seldom(these last two are place names from road trips the artist has taken), and Library of Basel.
Ultimately, Lee is a painter. Home Mapproves the point, its Richter-like image sliding past our vision the way a sleepy child might see the world on a rainy night from the back seat of the family car while rolling along on a city highway. The picture lists, in small print at the bottom of the painting, all the addresses of all of the places the artist has lived—all of the doors she’s passed through in faraway houses that seem defenseless against the dark and cold.