Jim Lee was born in Berrien Springs, Michigan and received his MFA from the University of Delaware in 1996. His current show in New York at Nicelle Beauchene runs until March 31st. We met and became good friends in early 2001, shortly after moving to the city. We recently caught up to discuss his ever-evolving work, interests, and life outside of the studio.
Ridley Howard: I’ve known you and your work for over 10 years now—can you talk about how the language of your paintings has developed? In terms of early interests, minor and major shifts that have led you to where you are now.
Jim Lee: As you know, I have a pretty manic personality. The work seems to feed off of that. I’m rarely content and that moves the paint around. Early on, the work was heavily oriented towards the structure. Even the drawings were in relief. Cardboard assembled in a quasi-haphazard fashion. The work was small-ish in scale and I labored over a lot of minute details. At times, I felt like I had an idea of what each piece would look like before it was finished and I really didn’t want that to be the situation.
I need to work and not really know that I am making anything in particular. I guess that’s why I work on multiple pieces at the same time. It allows me to keep moving without focusing so much on the act of painting—in the end, I just want to make things. There shouldn’t be any hierarchy in my process. Oil paint is no more important than latex, and linen is no more important than a piece of plywood. When I paint in this manner, the pieces become more interesting to me…I lose track of what is actually occurring.
Now it seems my painting is more traditional in terms of structure. Flat, lots of stretcher bars, canvas and linen. It’s like the sanctity of the rectangle has won me over. All of this said, the work has basically remained about the same since the mid 90’s. Looking back, I like what I was doing 10 years ago. It was a bit uglier, nastier, and meaner.
RH: You sort of mentioned this, but the structure and architecture of the paintings seems primary—structure as image/abstraction, structure of paint surface and stretcher, the architecture and space of the room. It all crumbles and materializes simultaneously.
JL: For me, it’s about staying engaged. The structure helps me to remain locked in. I try to slow people down…I want the viewer to discover things slowly; to have the paintings unveil themselves in a manner that takes time. I guess that’s all part of it. The surface, stretcher, the environment—I want it all to be a factor. I imagine it being like when an athlete talks about the game slowing down… it’s as if everything is functioning on the same level. I imagine it has more to do with confidence in one’s approach.
RH: Do you see your process as a kind of intervention? I’ve always thought about a Kelly-like elegance in tension with another disruptive energy.
JL: That’s funny. I like the term intervention when referring to my painting process. Sure, I guess there is a sort of intervention occurring. I just try to react off of things…marks on the painted surface, purposely warping a stretcher bar, cutting something then putting it back together. I want to create a scenario in which I have to fix something. In the end, I try to make a painting out of the happenstance that is part of the studio. And, over the years, I have tried to pare down the tools that I use. Having fewer tools forces me to make those decisions out of necessity. For a time, it felt like I was relying on the tools to inform what I would do next, and that seemed to inhibit my process. I had a big table saw that I would drag around with me from studio to studio. I built a giant table for it so I could roll it around, and it could easily rip a four by eight foot sheet of one-inch baltic birch. But in the end, I would be setting up all these jigs to make one or two cuts, and I would lose contact with the reality of the situation and it was like I was trying to make furniture. So, about 6 years ago, I just gave it away. I said to this guy I ran into in the neighborhood, if you can pick it up it’s yours. He thought I was crazy, but was super excited to get it.
RH: Does your limited, but charged, use of color relate to that?
JL: Color has been strange for me. I love to use it, but it really has to fit with me just right. I love to mix colors when I teach my students, but in the studio I hate to mix color…it slows me down. I just want that immediacy. I think that’s why I use a lot of industrial paints like oil-based enamels and such. I go to the store, tell them what colors I want…its ready to go. Just open up the can. I like to shop at the mom-and-pop hardware stores in the neighborhood. They always have some paints that are going out of stock, or they have decided to go with another brand and are selling cheap. I bought an industrial paint sprayer a few years ago—that provided a way to get color down really fast. It allows for some chance to occur at the same time it allows me to create a beautifully flat and nearly-dead surface. In the end, I believe that is something that I strive to achieve…a surface that is barely there…almost dead. I want to try to get the painting to be still for just a moment…it seems that the paintings are always moving too fast in my mind. I want them to slow down and not be all over the place.
RH: You’ve recently done shows in Europe where you showed up with materials and made work on the spot. How is that process different than working exclusively in your studio?
JL: I don’t need a proper studio to do my work. I’ll work anywhere, and I love to travel (although I hate to fly). So, it is always an option for the foreign gallery. It’s usually much cheaper for them in the long run. I integrate fairly easily. I don’t speak any languages, and, heck, I can barely speak English. But I usually find all the really quirky industrial product stores that I need in the first day or two. I walk around taking in the new environment, locate the small bars within walking distance, and I set up shop. I like to bring my own staple guns and paper so I can get started immediately. I did this last during January 2012. My gallery in Brussels, Vidal Cuglietta, brought me over for the month. They let me use the gallery as my studio. They had to work a few days a week and I worked in the gallery beside them. If it got too cramped in there, I’d take a walk or grab a drink. I like to have music on when I work, so I had to use headphones when the owners were there. One time I was working on a painting—and I guess I got ticked off by something—and with headphones on you don’t realize how loud your voice can be—well, apparently I said motherfucker a bit too loud. They didn’t immediately show up, but within about 15 minutes, Barbara and Lilou stepped into the space as I was looking at the painting and they said, “Is this the motherfucker?”
RH: Speaking of mf’ers, I recently heard you refer to your work as ‘scruffy.’ You seem to frame a certain attitude through process. I know it relates to a lot of music you love, and maybe sports teams you follow.
JL: Well, I try not to take myself too seriously, so if I use a word like ‘scruffy’ to describe my paintings, it is a way for me to keep everything grounded. As for the music that I listen to…it’s all over the place, but the least amount of production sounds best to me. As for the teams I follow, I’m really loyal to the Philadelphia teams since about 1977. Philly teams seem to go through a lot of hardship. I get so excited for the people that live in Philly if the teams are doing well, which for some reason isn’t all that often. I’ve experienced 3 championships in my lifetime, the 1983 Sixers, 1980 and 2008 Phillies. I guess that’s pretty good. Still waiting for the Birds and Flyers.
RH: Is there a concert or album that stands out to you in the way that Schwitters does?
JL: That’s a great question, but I doubt I have a fantastic answer. My recall ability is really poor. Many things are jumbled up in my mind. Band names, songs, titles to paintings, box scores, grocery lists…its endless. But a few weeks ago I had a visitor to the studio, and we were just sitting there shooting the shit and TV Eye by the Stooges came on the stereo. And I said, I wish I could make a painting look like this sounds. I listened to TV Eye on repeat for an entire day. I do that with a lot of songs…Brother James by Sonic Youth is a good one for that, same for Bowie’s Life on Mars?…go figure. It gets super strange after about nine or 10 hours of listening to the same song over and over. Maybe it’s a way for me to deprive myself of information and it forces me to break rules I normally wouldn’t attempt to break.
RH: Your first show in New York was such an anomaly at the time—a breath of fresh air. You were one of only a few young artists invested in the work of Imi Knoebel, Richard Tuttle, and Franz West. What is often called ‘Provisional Painting’ is now quite pervasive in young galleries and top MFA programs. Though your voice is distinct and work only distantly related, I am curious how you feel about the current landscape.
JL: You know, I’ve not heard of that term Provisional Painting…I’ve got to look that up. In the past, I’ve called my work fugitive… so I guess that’s related. I’m really happy to hear that any show of mine could be viewed as an anomaly—I wish more shows could be considered that way. When I was in grad school I got a lot of shit for making the work that I did. I was the odd ball. It seemed that everyone was using a projector and layering images looking for some sort of oblique narrative to arrive. I liked the work that everyone was making, but I just thought it looked timely. I was, and still am, trying to make something that looks more timeless. I’ve always felt like a modernist that was born about 70 years too late. And the climate of the art world is what it is. Who knows what will become the next trend? I know that I enjoy looking at the galleries and seeing what everyone is up to. There are a lot of good young artists out there making solid work. I know that when this ‘provisional painting’ has run its course, I’ll still be making the same stuff I’ve been making for the past 20 years or so. As I think about this question, I think I sort of liked being the odd ball.
RH: I am always interested in how artists use the theatricality of scale. Is that part of what you think about?
JL: Scale is always in play. Size means nothing to me…its all about scale. I think that is the thing that I struggle with the most—that, and making a horizontal composition. For my current show at Nicelle Beauchene, I used sound to mess with the scale and space. I made a giant diddley bow for people to play. It makes a low rumble–really sludgy and I believe that helps to humble the work.
RH: I have always admired your devotion to your work and studio life. It is constant and completely separate from any exhibition schedule. Do you give your students advice about the road ahead? Did anyone give you advice about being an artist that stuck?
JL: Someone said to me, Jim, you make good looking paintings—can you make a bad looking painting? I always found that funny.
I always tell my students, “Stay as young as you can for as long as you can.” Everyone wants to get hooked up with a gallery. I say, just make the work. That is the only thing that you can control. Doesn’t matter if you are the next hot thing or sitting in anonymity—the only thing that is of true importance is to get in the studio and make the work that is relevant to you. I love to be in the studio, I also love to hate being in the studio…that goes back to my manic personality.
RH: I know you’re spending a little time working upstate these days, and you and Jenny just welcomed a daughter into the world. Have the shifts in your life offered new energy or perspective?
JL: Yeah, I had to grow up fast. I just mentioned to somebody the other day that I was living like an asshole for 40 some years, and then in a period of one month, I had a baby, a house and a car. Holy shit, all of a sudden I’m my dad?! That was a lot to handle. I love my life; I don’t know how this sitcom can end. And having a daughter has been a true blessing. She is the best thing I’ve ever had a part in making.
But yeah, the work must be shifting or shall I say that I am shifting. I just opened my show, and I must say the past few months have been a real tough time for me. I’m still digesting the work, so not sure what to say about it yet. I just want it to challenge me.
Ridley Howard was born in Atlanta and is now based in Brooklyn, NY. He received a BFA from the University of Georgia, and an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He has received awards from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is represented in New York by Leo Koenig Inc.
Note: An abridged version of this interview appears in Huffington Post.