ROB SCOTT-MITCHELLLindy Lee – Birth and Death, 2007, archival pigment print, 100 × 65 cm. Courtesy University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane.

The Dark of Absolute Freedom

Lindy Lee

University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane

Currently on display at the University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, is the first major survey of Australian artist Lindy Lee. Rather than presenting a comprehensive chronological retrospective, the exhibition—curated by Michele Helmrich—intersperses 48 works from three chapters of the artist’s practice: her early photocopy art from the 1980s; her works centered around her Chinese heritage and the notion of family; and her later works that stem from her devotion to Buddhism and Zen. Helmrich’s selection offers cross sections and vignettes that reveal currents of continuity throughout. At the base of the exhibition is a profound sense of darkness that is at the heart of all of Lee’s work. The exhibition title, “The Dark of Absolute Freedom,” is taken from a quote by abstract painter Ad Reinhardt (1913–67), but is also based on Taoist origins, and it questions the notion of the absolute in regards to our existence.

Vocal about her difficult upbringing in Brisbane as a first generation Chinese-Australian, not quite fitting into either culture, Lee began exploring her identity by appropriating Renaissance masterpieces in her artwork, challenging the Western hegemony within the art historical canon. Her use of reproduction explores notions of origin, originality, “aura” and the role of the artist—concepts that were at the forefront of postmodern cultural debates at the time the works were made. While much of Lee’s reputation has been defined by this post-modernist framing at the outset of her career, her photocopy works in this exhibition also serve to reveal the artist’s strong interest in materiality and her obsessive experimentation with process that can be observed across her three-decade practice.

LINDY LEEPhilosophy of the Parvenu, 1990, photocopy and synthetic polymer paint on Stonehenge paper mounted on board, 14 parts, 30.0 × 24.5 cm each, 68.0 × 170.8 cm overall. Collection of the University of Queensland. Courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

In Silence of the Painters (1987), Lee has roughly, almost violently, smeared six photocopies of Rembrandt’s self-portraits with black paint. The near eradication of the images into pure monochrome is an obvious nod to Ad Reinhardt’s aspiration to avoid representation. Meanwhile, Philosophy of Parvenu and Untitled (After Titian) (both 1990), another set of works on paper, impart a sense of melancholy, as the ghostly faces of the subjects they portray emerge and submerge from varying grades of darkness. The rich velvety surface of the works are a result of repeatedly feeding the same sheets of paper through a photocopier.

Along the back wall of the exhibition space is a series of Lee’s encaustic works from the late 1980s, which break the characteristically flat surface of her photocopy series. During this period, Lee began mixing pigment with wax, which she used to coat the surface of colored canvases before arduously scraping off the wax to reveal the glowing images beneath. This Too is Heroic (1988), for example, appropriates a detail of a work by El Greco; the physically contorted bodies in the scene add to the sense of drama and intense struggle often felt throughout this series of paintings. 

First Principle and Traces of Enlightenment (both 2001) juxtapose flat monochrome panels with imagery of what Lee refers to as “splat paintings.” Borrowed from ancient Chinese Buddhist traditions, Lee’s “splat paintings” mimic the practice of flung-ink paintings, in which monks would mediate for a period of time before throwing a cup of ink on paper. The resulting patterns were believed to be the absolute culmination of all existing conditions in the universe and a record of the energy of the cosmos.

LINDY LEEFirst Principle, 2001, synthetic polymer paint, oil, wax and ink on board, 20 parts, 41.5 × 29.5 cm each, 166.0 × 147.5 cm overall. Private collection, Sydney. Courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

Elsewhere in the show is the large installation Birth and Death (2007), which comprises nearly 100 accordion books extended across the museum floor in zigzagging, disjointed rows. The collective mass of black-and-red faces depicted on the books are made up of inkjet reproductions of Lee’s family photographs—an attempt to connect to her Chinese ancestry by linking together five generations across time and space.

Lee’s recent works see a retreat from representation, or the external appearance of things. Reaching an almost transcendental point, her practice has become as much about the meditative ritual of process as it is about the result. Stylistically, Lee’s characteristic bold use of red, ultramarine blue, orange and green has now given way to a softer, more neutral palate.

Included in the exhibition are suspended scroll-like sheets of heavyweight paper and metal, riddled with a slew of burn holes. The constellation of shadows created as a result of the holes, which project onto the wall beneath, seems to invite the viewer to look at what is beyond the immediate surface of Lee’s works. Inspired by the almighty forces of the Earth’s elements, the idea for the work came from an artist residency in Malaysia, in which heavy rain physically pierced the paper that Lee had laid out on the ground. For the past few years, Lee has worked almost exclusively with the elements of fire and water.

Drawing on her earlier flung-ink and wax paintings, Lee’s newest works are a series of flickering bronze sculptures, which dance in the light like flames. The organic forms were created by hurling searing molten bronze onto a foundry floor and then polishing them into the golden shapes that they are now. Helmrich observes that “the darkness and pathos of [Lee’s] early works has perhaps evolved into a sense of light and transcendence. Nevertheless, a deep current underpins the work.” Ultimately, questions of identity and culture have led to a grander vision of existence within her work, evolving from addressing the query of “Who am I?” to the more all-encompassing “What am I?”