The Irony and Sincerity of Jenny Lee

Double Portrait (oil on canvas) by Jenny Lee, 2014
Double Portrait (oil on canvas) by Jenny Lee, 2014

Puns, doubles, optical illusions, and other visual jokes appear in many works by Jenny Lee. In her studio on Irving Street, one finds mostly small-scale, carefully rendered works that are meticulously executed in a variety of media. In Double Portrait, Lee has selected a found object, in this case a photo frame with the standard, mass-produced portrait as the subject of her painting. Painted in a slow and careful manner with a soft and muted color palette, this painting has strange, beautiful, and slightly eerie qualities. We get an echoing of the woman’s face from multiple angles with an almost Cubist perspective of seeing all dimensions at once. It soon becomes apparent that you are looking at a reproduction of a reproduction and yet another reproduction in the reflected double. This playfulness makes the work something akin to Rene Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas un pipe and the general visual wit of Magritte’s work.

 

Works by Jenny Lee: (left) Untitled (pencil on paper), 2008 and (right) Heath at 40 (pencil on paper), 2010
Works by Jenny Lee: (left) Untitled (pencil on paper), 2008 and (right) Heath at 40 (pencil on paper), 2010
Strangeness and eeriness are not subjects from which Lee shies away. In pencil drawings Untitled and Heath at 40, we find two portraits, one of OJ Simpson, whose eyeballs have been replaced with that of an anime character, and the other of Heath Ledger as he would have looked at age 40. Apparent are references to death and the darker side of celebrity, both of which Ledger and Simpson had some association. Simpson has been reduced to a cartoon character and appears as a soulless, inert object, whereas the imagined aged portrait of Ledger is not only a reference to his untimely death, but also a largely ironic rendering, giving specificity to a nonexistent object. These portraits are full of dark humor and continue Lee’s thread of using visual wit and her masterful technical skills to deal with subject matter that can often be quite heavy.
Untitled (inkjet print in a folder) by Jenny Lee, 2015
Untitled (inkjet print in a folder) by Jenny Lee, 2015
Photography, means of reproduction, and preexisting images in the world are strong presences in Lee’s work. She often paints on found objects such as packaging and appropriates similar items. In another Untitled (image above), we find a portrait of a figure wearing a mask whose face is only partially visible. An inkjet print of the portrait is placed in a folder so only one eye is visible to the viewer. The eye hints at an expression of laughter or a menacing smile, which lends itself to the theme of visual puns on eyes, seeing, how we see, representation, and reproduction, all explored by Lee. The mask in this case starts to take on grotesque characteristics pointing to how reproduction can often lead to distortion.
Hippies on a Slant (oil on canvas) by Jenny Lee, 2015
Hippies on a Slant (oil on canvas) by Jenny Lee, 2015
Distortion of the human form is further apparent in Lee’s oil painting Hippies on a Slant. The canvas and the figures represented appear stretched out and elongated as if affected by some physical force. The scene is chaotic, with multiple figures morphing into one another resembling a mosh pit. The faces lack specificity and appear as stand-ins for people, rather than individuals. Confusion, distortion, and haziness are all visible in Hippies on a Slant, which presents an equally puzzling portrait of human nature.
Untitled (oil on canvas) by Jenny Lee, 2015
Untitled (oil on canvas) by Jenny Lee, 2015
Works by Jenny Lee: (left) Untitled, 2014, and (right) Meditation Stones, 2015
Works by Jenny Lee: (left) Untitled, 2014, and (right) Meditation Stones, 2015
Nature and natural forces can also be observed in Lee’s work. In yet another Untitled, we find a small-scale, loosely painted rendering of a landscape. Here again, the landscape appears as more of a signifier rather than any place in particular. This image is paired with a thick gestural brushstroke to create a curious juxtaposition.  Whether rendered in its tranquility as in the pencil drawing Meditation Stones or its volatility as in the dog fight in Untitled, the natural world provides a source of exploration and contemplation for Lee.
Street view of Sister gallery
Street view of Sister, the window gallery operated by Jenny Lee
Detail of work by Terry Young at Sister gallery
Detail of work by Terry Young at Sister gallery
In addition to her artistic practice, Lee runs a curatorial program in Sister, located at 69 Irving Avenue. Epitomizing the ingenuity of DIY, she built this small gallery into one of the windows in her studio. The current show includes works by Peter Wilson, which can be viewed daily from 5PM to 11PM.
Artist Jenny Lee in her studio; image courtesy of Jonathan Chaplin
Artist Jenny Lee in her studio; image courtesy of Jonathan Chaplin
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If you missed Hotel California, the exhibition curated by Lee during Bushwick Open Studios 2015, you can still keep up with her latest projects and see her work by visiting her website