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Jim Lee: Paranoid

Freight + Volume February 28 – April 4, 2009

Any experienced coyote knows the only reasonable response to a trap is to dig it up, turn it over, and defecate on it. It’s an offering to the trapper’s pride, a piss stain on assumptions of rational authority. By confusing the roles of predator and prey, the coyote keeps things interesting, reminding us we’re not the only beings with a sense of humor. Jim Lee’s recent exhibition presents a similar situation. However, where the artist’s work sits in relation to the aforementioned archetypes is unclear. Surely, deciding whether it’s trap or trick (or painting with or without a capital P) seems decidedly foolish. It’s the slippages in between that count.

Jim Lee,
Jim Lee, "Pierced (Ash&Tan)," (2008-09). Acrylic on wood, 13 x 32.5 x 10 in/ 33 x 82.6 x 25.4 cm.

As he did two years ago with his exhibition Altamont at this same venue, Lee deftly navigates that blurry edge between aesthetics, taste, form, and the evaluative criteria that we apply to art. Detritus, traditional art materials, and existing architectural elements are mixed into mostly unexpected combinations. These strange unions give rise to a host of conflicting ideas, to an edgy mentality where the certainty of our assumptions and the comfort of our logic is refuted. Is that a sculptural element or a gas pipe? Is that a pillow or a painting? Is that crumpled wrapper art? By incorporating objects into, and removing conventions from, the two worlds that govern this mindset—one of physical reality and post-consumer waste, and the other of abstract value and the significance we apply to it—Lee achieves a physical aporia, a trap of bafflement.

It’s within this oxymoronic borderland that the artist has rebuilt the gallery space with his usual obtuse precision. A warped plywood wall is erected in the center of the space that holds a large canvas, “Quadraphobe” (2009). Its scraped and worked surface of light blue, white, and gray leads me to wonder whether the painting or the wall has any value without the support of the other. It presents an absolute contingency of contradictions within a context of equivocation. It’s a hard pill to swallow, indeed. As is “Pierced (Ash&Tan)” (2008-09), a lozenge-shaped construction, half raw plywood, half ash gray, mimicking the small capsules of allopathic agent we ingest for all variety of symptoms. Protruding out of the left, gray half of the piece are five thin metal bars, non-uniform in length or arrangement. It suggests a laceration of the imagination’s esophagus, tough medicine that’s humorous and wicked in its subversion of signs.

In these combinations of materials and implications, Lee creates a mental/visual feedback loop between the greater world outside and the formal aesthetics we use to make sense of its beauty. It’s where the construction site and the garbage dump are twinned with the high ideals of aesthetic projection and formal arrangement. Their union birthed a strange mutation of art and life, schooled somewhere between the street and the studio. Confining this view to the simple dichotomy of high versus low art, or painting with or without a capital P, seems to me the wrong approach, or at least a narrow-minded one. The specters of high modernist thinking were present in this project from the beginning. Without their ghosts this transformation of material ideas isn’t possible. Divination is only realized when some small part of the divined is allowed to enter. A little touch of evil for the greater good, or vice versa. It’s in the contingency of these claims that this work lives, outside the traps of culture that claim aesthetic authority. In navigating this brumous borderland, illusion sinks below the threshold of consciousness and appears as truth, and we learn to flip the traps of culture with reflection rather than reflex.


Craig Olson

Craig Olson is a former student of Thomas Nozkowski and regular contributor to the Rail. He is also an artist who lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2009

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