The customarily stark ambience of art galleries took on a warmer if still largely minimal feel in Lee Kit’s first solo show in the United States. Gauzy cerulean cotton sheets hung over the gallery’s floor-to-ceiling front windows, while cardboard pieces lined the walls, featuring layers of paint half-obscuring the logotypes of various drugstore products, from Johnson-and-Johnson baby cream to Murine eye-drops. Appearing alongside these works were gingham fabrics— either hung like tapestries or folded and set aside— as well as photographs of sunny domestic scenes. A drying rack in the center of the room offered up an array of dyed-blue sheets, each printed with an epigrammatic line from a pop song.
These thematically disparate works were apparently related in Lee Kit’s mind, but how? One clue was the palette of pinks, whites, and pale blues that remained constant from piece to piece. To the extent that saturated, bright hues express a certain resolve on the part of an artist— a commitment to more expensive pigments; a determination to keep paints unadulterated— Lee’s faded pastel colors seemed to suggest something of the opposite mindset: a decision, maybe, to go with the flow. Given the laid-back optimism in the work on view, one wonders if he’s the sort of artist who chose his vocation because he’s drawn to a certain pace in life: perhaps he likes unstructured days, or sunlight in a studio, or his favorite songs playing in the background while he works. As it turns out, he hand-paints each stripe on the tablecloths and curtains; it’s not hard to imagine him arriving, via this repetitive act, at some version of Buddhist mindfulness— a measured awareness of one’s perceptions and actions. The song lyrics printed on fabric thus start to seem like another means of honing attention. His artist statement notes that, as we grow accustomed to songs, we come to overlook their words. By printing lyrics on cloth in a large serif font, then, he renders them disconcertingly real, their contradictions and specificities no longer smoothed over by the flow of music.
The exhibition’s title (“1,2,3,4…”) could represent any number of things: a meditation practitioner’s counted breaths, or the holler of a drummer kicking off a song in four-four time. Regardless, it adds to the sense that Lee is interested in progression— the progression of time, in particular, as portrayed explicitly by his pairs of photographs that capture the same scenes in two discrete moments. These tableaux (a kitchen table; a beach picnic) incorporate his hand-painted tablecloths and curtains. Displayed near the photographs are the actual fabrics, which still carry stains from dropped food and spilled drinks. Lee’s art objects live long, interesting, documented lives, as they go from being made to being exhibited. Likewise, the drugstore items referenced in his cardboard works evoke not the impersonality of mass production but instead imply intimate histories, as when they reside not on pharmacy shelves but in a friend’s toiletry bag.
This show raises an often-considered question: How does an artist who cares more about process than product share these priorities in the context of a gallery— that is to say, a venue best suited to showcasing outcomes? Lee had an unusual approach: Set up a table and chairs near the front of the space, and invite visitors to sit and drink a cup of tea. Rather than merely leaving an audience to intuit his state of mind when he made the works on display, he effectively created a mini-ritual via which viewers themselves could take a moment to experience something similar. Dawn Chan