Rhys Lee @ Karen Woodbury Gallery
Rhys Lee invited a number of his friends, including artists Heidi Yardley, Chris Pennings, Matthew Hinkley, Daniel Price, Robert McHaffie, and ceramicist Pia Murphy, to collaborate on an exhibition at the Karen Woodbury Gallery. The result is a vibrant display of paintings, works on paper, and ceramics produced by every artist in the show either in collaboration with Rhys Lee or individually. It is fascinating to seek out elements of each artist in the collaborative pieces; works on paper with Heidi Yardley (especially Owl and Irma) and the ceramics with Pia Murphy are among the most felicitous collaborations in the exhibition.
Although I have the deepest admiration for Rhys Lee, I have to confess I always had an ambivalent relationship with his works. He has well developed and formulated thoughts and ideas, a wild imagination, and a desire to express it through visual medium. Perhaps the most outstanding exhibition I have seen of his to date was a show of small black and white drawings at Helen Gory. It was also perhaps the most honest exhibition by the artist I have seen. Reduced to black and white, he was able to express his angst best; and works on paper are by far his best metier.
However, when it comes to canvas, he just somehow loses it. The awkwardness of his figures seems amateurish rather than intentionally abstracted; the constant and relentless mixing of colours results in muddiness rather than complex and sophisticated layering. Manila 1 and Manila 2 illustrate this point. Both paintings are based on the same stencil-like skull and monkey drawing. Manila 1 is more simple compositionally, layered with fewer colours, and is more successful by comparison with Manila 2, where constant mixing of pigments results in the overall muddy gamut. In Winged Figure, done in collaboration with Heidi Yardley, the attention is drawn immediately to the face of the girl with a snout by Yardley. The surrounding colours are by Lee, and while two thirds of the canvas feature complex layers of pinks, reds, blues, and purples, the addition of greens and blacks results in a muddy, brown cacophony towards the lower third of the picture.
As usual, Rhys is best on paper, and Reclining Figure and Baboon are cases in point. More minimal and immediate, compositionally simplified, they are infinitely sharper than his canvasses, and deliver his ideas with greater psychological force and conceptual aplomb. It is as if the medium of paper, which absorbs pigments faster than canvas, require from Lee rapid thinking and immediate decision making as to the form, composition, and colour palette, and simply does not allow the artist as many mistakes as a more complex and protracted medium of painting on canvas.
But to finish this entry on a positive note, Rhys Lee increasingly excels in 3D objects. I have been struck by his sculptures from the moment I saw them at Helen Gory and Tim Olsen a few years ago. His fashioning of clay somehow preserves the same raw emotion and dark sublimation in sculpture as it does on paper; and his glazes are – frankly – superb, especially in Masks (though my attraction to these pieces is probably subconsciously informed by similar works by Stacha Halpern from the 1960s). Blue Tongue and Vampire are especially interesting for their direct correlation to the works on paper, but perhaps the most outstanding exhibit is Skeletons, an installation of one hundred Mexican-totem-pole-inspired pieces and, in spite of repeated compositional elements of skulls and bones, each statuette is unique and individual. Beautifully executed, featuring lusciously thick glazes of various shades of blue (with brown and orange underglazing), they are at once haunting and engaging, standing to attention like a rather macabre set of chess pieces or the ghostly soldiers of William Longstaff’s The Menin Gate.
[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but full or partial use is welcome with proper acknowledgement. Where applicable, images are courtesy of the artists and their galleries.]