If you live in Atlanta, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Barry Lee’s work before. His murals and drawings of brightly colored space dogs and speckled, smiling cartoon figures can be found on the walls of local drinking holes and office spaces alike. These murals are comical and whimsical. Lee’s new show “How Nice” at Murmur Gallery (Lee is a Murmur Quarter Program Resident) isn’t like that. Yes, there are bright pinks, blues, and purples, exaggerated scenes, and even humor, but there’s nothing childish about this exhibition. Even though there are only a dozen or so pieces, “How Nice” overpowers the small gallery space, and aggressively and unflinchingly demands attention.
The work in “How Nice” includes photography, video, and sound, and there was an opening night performance—more on that later. All pieces revolve around a single, complex subject: the artist himself, and specifically his experiences as a disabled, bisexual artist at the beginning of his career in an ableist world. The tone is set with a neon sign out front that spells out the exhibition title in loopy, cursive pink lettering. It’s inviting, but the words carry the underlying tension of a strained smile. There’s no dodging the main themes, as Lee makes clear immediately in a wall text leading into the exhibition. Lee has Nager’s Syndrome, a rare condition that has affected the artist’s face, hands, and hearing. According to the text, the work in the exhibition aims to showcase how people react to Lee’s appearance, “the absurdity of representation and treatment of disability, the overwhelmingness one can face with loss of certain senses and living in a world that doesn’t take the time to empathize adverse experiences but rather sympathizes them.”
The majority of works in “How Nice” are self-portrait photographs. Lee’s illustrative style peeks through in subtle ways, particularly with the bright palette and absurdist scenarios. For example, in Another Day, Self Portrait, Lee, dressed in a striped shirt and denim overalls, eats from a massive red bowl of strawberries while hands in pink plastic gloves prod at his face. Other photographs include the intimate Inspiration Porn, which shows Lee in bed, under the arm of a faceless man holding a bouquet of pink flowers and wearing six gold medals. In another, Shame, we see Barry in a leather jacket, held in the discombobulated arms of someone with long purple and pink nails.
In all the photographs, Lee faces the camera, directly challenging the viewer’s (perhaps subconscious) preconceptions of his life as a bisexual artist living with a disability. The compositions and rosy color palette blurs the scenes into a romantic, dreamlike world, not unlike David Lynch’s film sets in Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. However, Lee and his gaze ground the work firmly in reality. Lee as subject matter is beautiful, confident, and breathtakingly vulnerable—and without a hint of self-consciousness.
The video art employs images and sound to further immerse the viewer in what Lee experiences day-to-day. In Read Your Lips, two screens on different time loops play the same sequence over and over again, a series of mouths asking questions such as “What happened to your face?” “What are you, retarded?” and “Are you deaf? My dog is deaf!” Another projector screen shows a compelling loop of Lee in an outdoor basin accompanied by a Grim Reaper-like figure washing Lee with a stream of water that seems to come from his fingertips. The photographs alone are powerful, but the video submerges the viewer deeper into Lee’s world through hard-hitting audio and visuals.
The opening night performance, the Freak Show, was hidden behind a large pink curtain at the back of Murmur. Visitors were invited to “step right up” to see the “greatest freak show on earth.” Only one person was allowed in at a time. No phones allowed. Earplugs were provided. The line quickly reached the door, and the time allotted to each visitor was shortened from two minutes to one. As each person left the installation, there was a strict, unspoken rule that no one would tell those waiting in line what was behind the curtain. Upon finally stepping behind the curtain, it quickly became clear why no one would spoil the surprise. The unwitting viewer stepped onto a platform and immediately faced five or six strangers. Dressed mostly in white shirts and black jeans, they whispered to one another, giggled, smirked and stared. It was alarming and unnerving, and it’s implied that the experience is just a tiny taste of what Lee experiences on a daily basis while, for example, going to the grocery store.
As an artist and activist, Lee will not be pigeonholed. He’s too complex for that. “How Nice” not only shows off his considerable technical talent, but also his ability to fully draw the viewer into his world filled with dark humor, beauty, and unwavering honesty. It’s also a fleeting experience. As a DIY space, Murmur’s hours are limited. Try to catch it, but if you can’t, that’s okay. Something tells us “How Nice” is just the beginning for Lee.
“How Nice” is on view at Murmur Gallery on Broad Street on August 10, 7-9pm; August 20, 3pm-5pm; and September 3, 2-4pm. The closing reception and an artist talk are on September 9, 6-8pm.
E.C. Flamming is an Atlanta-based writer. She has been published in ART PAPERS, Paste, and The Peel Literature & Arts Review.