Pasatiempo - A matter of life and death: artist Katherine Lee

Michael Abatemarco

In her exhibition With Fire,Flags, and Sacrifice, which opened at Eight Modern in 2013, local artist Katherine Lee presented a body of work that spoke to the transient nature of human life in an intriguing way: by calling attention to its absence in compositions based on human-made environments such as a city street and an enclosed yard. Tension was created by the sense of actions having just occurred or about to occur. Her paintings have a surreal quality — there’s an implication that there’s a human presence in them somewhere just out of sight.Lee’s new work, which includes hand-crafted paneled doors and simple, mostly unadorned, coffins, is thematically related to her paintings. Using biography as a starting point, she broaches universal considerations of memory,time, and loss. Maps, Doors, and Coffins: Locating Absence opens at TAI Modern on Friday, June 5.

The new show is perhaps a reflection on loss from the point of view of those who remain when someone has died, and the deceased become abstractions, composed of memories of the living. “I am working with a metaphorical death — the sentimental aspect of this piece — of the family unit I grew up with,” Lee told Pasatiempo. “I wish to put the ‘abstractions, composed of memories of the living’, as you put it,somewhere, to affix them to something. Nostalgic memories certainly reside there; it is a place the mind makes. All of the work is based upon the place the mind makes but one can never physically occupy. I guess I’ve been a bit obsessed, trying to build bridges to places that are really only states of the mind.”

The exhibit’s three major components,maps, doors, and coffins, amount to a conceptual approach to the subject, not of death specifically, but of states of transformation. “The maps act as guides,” she said. “The coffins act as vessels; the doors act as portals.Another way of putting it: to take a word and treat it like a place; to take a loss and treat it like a thing; to take a name and treat it like a point of entry. The work is sentimental and darkly funny — quixotic — especially the coffin piece.”

Lee’s “maps” are oil paintings. There are two: Home Map and Grass Map. The first is a nighttime street scene with references to place names in the Midwest where Lee was born and raised. The painting, labeled with specific addresses, represents a microcosmic view of one’s place in the world. The addresses and street names are arranged horizontally across the composition, following the road. The road is lit by a streetlight, towering like a small sun. Grass Map, a landscape, is also labeled with text but the words do not reference specific places as much as they do objects, moments, and states of being: “Blood Stain,”“Savage Brother,” and “Semi-illiterate,” for instance. The text is arranged over a patch of grass as though alluding to things hidden deep within it.The words are generic enough to call up different associations for viewers but one senses, as with Home Map, that they are not random but specific to Lee’s own personal history, as with the coffins. “Everyone is still alive and the coffins will never house bodies or be interred,” she said. “As a work of art their existence is to act as an anchor or bridge to the conceptual rather than as literal functional objects.”

Lee’s coffins are full-sized, finished in black, and fitted with handles for pallbearers. The one decorative conceit on the lid of each is a rendering of a skull that is garlanded with flowers, two symbols that call to mind memento mori — reminders of mortality. The doors in the exhibit, each with printed text across them and a few with numbers like an office door might have, are something else — not mementos but invitations. With the names “Wolf Hole,” “Seldom-Little Seldom,” “Library of Babel,” and “Museum of Dark Forces,” they promise intrigue, but one would most likely open such doors with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. “The ‘Museum of Dark Forces’ and the ‘The Library of Babel’ both come from fictional sources: Underworld by Don DeLillo and Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges, respectively,” she said. The numbers above the text are the page numbers from the editions where the references can be found. In the case of DeLillo’s novel, the words “Museum of Dark Forces” are spoken by one character to another during a discussion about dietrologia, an Italian word referring to the search for hidden motives behind events. In “The Library of Babel,” a short story in Ficciones, Borges describes the universe as an immense library of randomly arranged books that seem to conform to a specific order. “The other two doors are descriptive place names: Wolf Hole, Arizona, and Seldom-Little Seldom,Newfoundland.”

The idea that the doors open either to specific places, perceptions, or states of mind is purely conceptual. As self-contained objects, not set into a wall or intended to open on a clearly defined space,they tease the mind with possibilities. Death can have the same effect if you think of it as a door or portal leading into another state. On the other side of that threshold, from the point of view of the living, lies one of life’s biggest mysteries.

A series of death-emblem studies, works on paper, further recalls the memento mori. The images are pages taken from Life magazine and printed, as with the coffins, with skulls and flowers imparting a sense of irony that carries over into Lee’s other works. In fact, the exhibit itself,because it can, by necessity, only consider the subject of death from the vantage point of those still kicking, seems as much about presence as it does about absence. Even the departed enter into a kind of life after death by way of the remembrances of those whose lives they’ve touched. “Contradictions are kind of my métier,” Lee said. “I think the absence/presence thing is more or less an intuitional or emotional state for me that is always there and as I continue to build an aesthetic, to make more work, I also continue to hone that intuitional/emotional state.”