Victorian based Rhys Lee has held solo exhibitions since 2000 in Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Sydney and internationally in New York, Germany and New Zealand. His work has been included in group exhibitions at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne (2019), the Ian Potter Museum, Melbourne (2015), the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (2012), Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery (2001), The University of Queensland National Artist's Self Portrait Prize (2009), the Doug Moran Prize at the State Library of New South Wales (2009) and international commercial galleries in the USA, UK, Germany, France and Belgium. Rhys Lee has a Bachelor of Visual Arts, Graphic Design from the Queensland College of Art (1997). A monograph on the artist was published in 2009. Lee's work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and Artbank.
24 JULY TO 11 AUGUST 2019
By Tai Mitsuji
How do your paintings begin their life?
I never set out with a plan of what I’m doing; I usually just have some kind of inclination – I find an image, a photo or a painting that I like, and I go with it. I don’t have to wait around to be inspired. If I’m not making work then I’m anxious and depressed, so making work is like my medicine. There isn’t a moment when I’m not thinking about my art. For example, I’m currently looking at the floor, I’m staring at this rug. It’s hand-woven, it has symmetry, and someone with a naïve hand has done it. It’s not perfect, which I think is beautiful.
I read a few old articles that described you as a graffiti kid cum artist; can you tell me about that evolution?
You know what, in a much earlier article, I talked about graffiti and then every piece that got written after that referenced it. One of the things that I don’t like about doing these things for magazines is that they regurgitate the same shit over and over. No one wants to write something current or off their own back, you know? They talk a lot about graffiti, which is fair enough, but I’ve kind of rejected it now, I’ve moved on and done different things. Up until my early-to-mid-twenties, I was involved in graffiti – and, of course, the thing about graffiti is that once you’re involved in it, it’s in your blood – but I’m not excited about it being still focused on.
Well, let me ask you this: if we traded places, and you were the writer and I was the artist, what would you ask?
I don’t have questions to ask myself, I answer all my own questions through my paintings.
How do you pick the subjects for your paintings?
They kind of pick themselves. It’s not a deep and meaningful thing for me. There is no hidden stuff; it’s about images that have interesting shapes and that might have a bit of humour, works like my sculpture Good Boy (2018) and my pastel piece Good Boy #19 (2018). I don’t really see my works as figurative or abstract, because to me it’s the same thing. The subject matter is almost irrelevant. My works are as much about just carrying colour and form as they are about the subject. Although the colours aren’t really thought about, they are mostly automatic.
What do you mean by automatic?
Well, I just have a bunch of tubes of paint sitting out. I don’t deliberate over the colours I use, either it works or it gets painted over. I wouldn’t say it’s by chance – it’s by intuition more than anything. I don’t sit back in a chair and go ‘ah’; it just happens. For me, the more I think about the work, the more problems I run into. I prefer to let the thing direct me. It’s about reacting to what is in front of you, about letting the mark inform the next mark, inform the next mark, inform the next mark.
Can you tell me what the future looks like for Rhys Lee?
As funny as it may sound, I’m just trying to be a better person; I’m just trying to be a good father and a good partner. I’m trying to evolve as a human being and become a better painter. Every time I go into the studio, I’m trying to progress – and that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s about putting the work in and showing up, and showing up with intent, it’s not about fucking around. In the past, I had a studio in the city, and I had a big armchair there. I did a lot of sitting around and looking at the wall, looking at the canvas and deliberating. But I haven’t done that for a long time. I think having kids makes you realise how valuable time is. When I get to the studio, I have intent. I used to drink in the studio as well, but I don’t do that anymore. When I stopped drinking in the studio, I was scared that things were going to go wrong, and I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m able to do. I was scared, yet now I have this clarity that I never had before. It’s a real revelation.
Do you think being a good father makes you a better artist?
One of my biggest inspirations is my son. He is six and a half and I sometimes work from the drawings and paintings that he does, because they are so inspiring. I wish I had that lack of inhibition and that innocent childlike quality when making art. To me, they are some of the best kinds of marks. Last year, I had a show in Germany and one of my big paintings, A Knife Through a Hand Through a Table (2017) that I sent over was inspired by my son’s work, Untitled Head (2017). In fact, sometimes he has even worked on a couple of paintings that I have done.
Lastly, why do you think you gravitate towards paint?
Paint has a life of its own. It’s a difficult medium to harness and take control of. You really never have 100 per cent control of it – which is great. You go with it, and you have these unexpected things that happen. I am constantly surprised. You learn how to manipulate it, but it still does its own thing. It’s always going to do its own thing. It’s a constant battle and that is what keeps me interested in it. If I have control or command over something, I lose interest. I like the fight.
This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 45, 2019
Rhys Lee: Recent Paintings
24 July – 11 August 2019
Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne
25 JULY TO 12 AUGUST
Queensland College of Art graduate Rhys Lee’s latest exhibition at Nicholas Thompson Gallery follows on from a sprawling exhibition he staged there in 2017, entitled 10 Paintings and 100 Drawings. This 2018 iteration is considerably smaller in scale. Whistle Work is made up of only nine medium to large paintings, but it takes off from where the artist left off. Lee is a prolific painter; his works might loosely be described as portraiture but they’re not really like any portraiture you have seen before. They nearly always include a face or the suggestion of a face; according to Thompson, “Lee considers this as almost a type of self-portraiture.” Most recently he has been painting images of psychotic poodles, all bulging eyes and maniacal, bared teeth. They offer a kind of perverted beauty: pampered animals rendered grotesque and mad. Weird too, they hold your gaze.
For Whistle Work he has painted cats too – who exude all the aloofness of an art connoisseur – menacing baboons and more poodles – or are they clowns? The new works continue Lee’s investigation into colour relationships, in his typical prolific mode of art making. He lets the imagery well up from his subconscious; the subjects that people his work are at times a nightmarish mix of cartoon characters, caricature and spooky horror tropes. It’s a show that pulses with a mania, a kind of gestural abstraction meets George Condo. His work owes a debt to Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker, yes, but it is infused with a contemporary energy that is truly palpable. The palette too is a riot of colour. The art shouldn’t work but it does. Whistle Work opens at Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne on July 25 and shows until August 12, 2018.
EXHIBITION PREVIEW IN VAULT MAGAZINE
10 PAINTINGS & 100 DRAWINGS
14 OCTOBER TO 5 NOVEMBER 2017
"Rhys Lee’s painted protagonists slide between shapes and species like hallucinatory projections of subliminal currents. Bestial snouts and anthropoidean faces flicker with the familiar and strange, knocking humanity off its evolutionary throne into a shadowy subterranean world where renegade cowboys and carnivalesque outcasts lurk with predatory stealth..."
Extract from Elli Walsh exhibition article in current issue of Art Almanac - Read full version here.
"‘I always want to show everything that I make… get it out there! Otherwise it just sits in a studio pile or gallery stockroom,’ tells artist Rhys Lee. In his current, epic exhibition at Nicholas Thomson Gallery, he’s certainly been able to showcase a great deal of his most recent output – a rich and brilliantly perturbing exploration of the human condition."
Extract from Elle Murrell exhibition profile on The Design Files - Read full version here
30 JULY TO 21 AUGUST 2016
Rhys Lee: Hopeful Monsters
The senior artist Gareth Sansom recently made a comment about a Rhys Lee work on Instagram, suggesting that the painting shouldn’t work, “but it does.” Over a recent lunch he convinced Lee that the comment was meant as an utter compliment, however Sansom’s comment certainly was astute: There is always something “wrong” with Rhys Lee’s work, something wonderfully off-kilter that is at first utterly unnerving but, once it settles, becomes entirely beguiling.
“I’ve been going through a colour period in the last few years,” he said at that same lunch. “But now I’m turning towards a dark period.” As a youthful artist, Lee’s work had aggression and darkness at its very heart. But in 2009 he moved to the bush and has since become a proud father of two, a fact that is clearly filtering into the new works with feral energy.
Lee’s next outing will be a fearsome collection of sculpted bronzes with accompanying paintings. The resulting army, or menagerie, of sculptures are amongst the oddest works in Lee’s oeuvre to date. Manically grinning heads sit alongside malformed hands and strange, bulbous portraits. The Hand of the Artist here is battered, malformed, truncated and bloated. On the one hand, Lee’s appendages are the victims of some form of hideous leprosy, on the other they resemble the withered balloons employed in the arsenals of deranged clowns. At times they resemble sea anemones, those beautiful flower-like entities that are in fact predatory oceanic animals.
Humans love monsters and, according to at least one theory of biology, that may be because we ourselves are possibly monstrous – quite literally. Humans may be the result of what German-American biologist Richard Goldschmidt termed a “Hopeful monster.” His concept, conceived in the 1940s, suggests that, alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution, major evolutionary shifts have, on occasion, exploded in massive leaps between species. Joyous mutants or, to quote David Bowie, “Scary Monsters,” and “Super Creeps.”
For Lee, however, these strange busts act more as portraits of the human condition. He muses that they may in fact be self-portraits, reflecting the wild leaps from somber anxiety to joyous transcendence that the artist himself has felt during the tumultuous emotional upheavals of beginning a family and creating art.
There is another element in these new works, perhaps spawned from his own childhood; that of the phantasmagorical. At times we are reminded of the works of Robert Anning Bell (1863-1933) who penned the grotesqueries illustrating Grimm's Household Tales, the drawings by the author of Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) and the macabre etchings of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516).
Such imagery delights and terrifies children and adults alike, an uncanny frisson that Rhys Lee is now setting free in the gallery environ. Having emerged from the canvases they were conceived on, these creatures are now set in burnished bronze, standing proudly like some kind of family portrait of an other-dimensional Game of Thrones. Some of them grin madly, others portray a more somber mood, each exudes personality. For all their strangeness, there is something intimate about these works, perhaps reminding us of youthful dreams (or nightmares). There can seem to be little doubt that fatherhood has influenced this mid-career artist in the best of ways.
– Ashley Crawford
WORKS ON LINEN
WORKS ON PAPER
THE MASK OF THE FEMALE CRANE FLY AT SYDNEY CONTEMPORARY
10 TO 13 SEPTEMBER 2015
New at the fair this year are Melbourne’s Nicholas Thompson Gallery, which opened in March and is taking work by painter Rhys Lee. Extract from Jane O'Sullivan 'A lot riding on the success of Sydney Contemporary 2015' in The Australian Financial Review 8 September 2015
RHYS LEE IN BEN HORWOOD’S INTERVIEW WITH DIIV FOR ‘NME’
RHYS LEE INTERVIEW WITH TAI MITSUJI ON ARTIST PROFILE ONLINE
Artist Profile’s interview with Rhys Lee by Tai Mitsuji published online to coincide with 2019 exhibition ‘Recent Paintings’: https://www.artistprofile.com.au/rhys-lee/