Henry (Have you ever been this low?) is the second exhibition in Lee Kit’s apartments series. The gallery has been arranged to suggest a living space for a pseudo-fictional character, Henry; and is adorned and hung with Lee’s well-known hand painted cloths and newer cardboard paintings. This space’s absent inhabitant, Henry, has been partially inspired by an unpopular civic politician from Lee’s home city of Hong Kong. Details and events of this politician’s highly visible non-professional life have been considered by Lee and allowed him to create a body of work which personifies the accumulated shame and guilt of this ostracized public figure. His family’s wealth, his taste for expensive red wine, a car accident, a divorce—these are but a few particulars that Lee has used to inform him of this man’s state of mind. As a whole, what is conveyed in this space, are the surroundings and the emotions of a powerful, but lonely and scorned man. Henry’s life isn’t a major disaster, he doesn’t live with the weight of having inflicted violence or death on anyone he held power over. But, his influence, decisions and actions have made many people’s lives dismal. As a consequence, Henry himself is faced with a consistently miserable life. He hasn’t given up on his life, but he remains in this useless stasis, unable to change himself or the emotional environment he has set for himself.
Three new hand-painted cloth works, for which Lee has become known for, are included in this exhibition. These fabric works come in several styles; stripped, plaids, grids or monochromes. The colour pallet is often pale, warm and pastel. Here, two cloths serve as window curtains, one for the exterior window on the east wall of the gallery and the other for the large windowpane that leads into the gallery’s office on the north wall. A third cloth, hung over the radiator of the gallery is painted in a striped pattern and was used as a rag, with which Lee has cleaned the furniture contained within the space. These paintings have been made by hand with acrylic paint and water on a cotton-polyester blend. They are air dried, ironed, folded and then used for a many number of purposes. For Lee, the cloth painting must have some sort of use-value in daily-life before they can be considered a finished work. Previously, Lee has used such cloth paintings as picnic blankets, tablecloths, handkerchiefs, a flag in a protest, barrier tape and bed sheets, to name a few instances.
Lee’s cloth works have been described as showing a great quality of lightness1, however the acts that remain central in this body of work carry great weight. Self-described as both a painter and labourer, what Lee conveys through this approach, is that for an artist the act of making is not a distinct act in itself. Instead, what is crucial to understand is that the act of making is embedded throughout his daily-life. There is little separation of his painting activities from everything else he undertakes. This perception allows for the rupture of what we consider a contemporary lifestyle; in which work time, hobby time, and relationship time are tightly bordered and regulated by the institutions and spaces that govern our time. Our employers, our gymnasiums, our favorite restaurant or local pub, our families – are but a few examples of these institutions that allow us to make distinctions on how we act, what we do and what we produce. What happens when we allow these allotments to fade? How do you react to these scenarios? Are you happier? Does it cause you stress? How could you imagine a life less dependant on these rigid divisions of our time?
The other major body of work seen in this exhibition is a new series of cardboard paintings. These paintings appeared after Lee produced a very slight work for an exhibition in Seoul in 2009. In the gallery, three pots of empty Nivea cream were found open and strewn along the floor. The large floor to ceiling window in the gallery had been covered with the cream and dried by the sun to form a murky film, rendering the image of the happenings outside the gallery blurry and opaque. Now, in this new series of paintings, Lee has drawn directly from the packaging of beauty and cleaning products. Constructed by molding and folding pieces of consumer grade cardboard, Lee undertakes an editing and layout process, to distill the most essential elements of these brand images, slogans and ideals, to give the works a comforting presence. They are familiar, they remind you of things we use day to day to look after our skin, our health, our own sense of well-being. Yet despite the care and delicate nature they are meant to impart, they feel cheap and mistreated. The corner of one painting is crushed, smashed and rounded; another has been run over by a car. How do we negotiate this treatment of a work of art? (Like Niki de Saint Phalle, is this auto-destructive painting?) Should they be considered disposable, like most of the products and things we encounter daily? Does their mistreatment make them much more precious once hung in a gallery? Adding a further problematic to the reading of these paintings, we are forced to question why they are hung in a domestic setting, in Henry’s space. Is this a jab at the way the middle class idealizes the products that surround them? Or is it a more pointed and art-historical position Lee has taken toward the taste of the rich, who continue to collect and fuel the legacy of pop?
Though Lee remains central to the activation and positioning of his works, his motivations remain quite well guarded. In his recent exhibitions he has shifted the frame around his work—from scenario to setting. In the past, his works rallied people for events, such as holding a family picnic on top of one of his cloth paintings or a dinner party for friends around his cloth paintings. Now with the creation of a setting, for a character who is absent but ever present in these apartment exhibitions, Lee has added another level to his practice. In creating this staged fiction, one more question remains, is Henry Lee Kit’s muse or client? (And, what’s the difference these days?).
1 Lau Kin-wah, The Lightness of Lee Kit, PS Magazine, Hong Kong: Para/Site Arts Space, 2004, Issue no 21, p. 29.
Lee Kit is an artist who lives and works in Hong Kong. His work has previously been exhibited at Art Basel | Art Statements 42, Osage Gallery (Basel), ShugoArts (Tokyo), MiArt (Milan), Bonier Konsthal (Stockholm), Royal College of Art (London) and Para/Site (Hong Kong). Upcoming solo exhibitions will take place at Project Fulfill Space (Taipei) and Galleria Dell’Arco (Palermo).