New York

Li Lin Lee

E.M. Donahue Gallery

Li Lin Lee works in enamel on square pieces of wood or copper. His vocabulary consists of decorative patterns, allusive motifs, abstract signs, simple forms, and mathematical symbols, and his palette ranges from dusty sunset red and burnt orange to winter melon green and deep midnight blue. Spatially, the compositions can shift from depthless atmospheric fields to hard thin layers of paint. While none of these particular processes or materials are extraordinary in themselves, Lee’s way with them is another matter altogether.

In his approach to painting, Lee seems influenced by the Surrealists’ belief in free association, the erotic unconscious, and automatism. His process involves applying an initial layer of spray paint, splashing paint thinner onto the wet ground (an act of erasure and erosion), and then sanding and re-sanding a work’s surface after subsequent applications of paint. Lee utilizes the ground as a kind of magnet which pulls together all sorts of associations and memories. Like Max Ernst, Lee uses painting to get in touch with the unconscious, as well as to release both imagination and memory from the repressive realm of mental categorization.

Lee exhibited 35 paintings, which ranged from abstract personages (The Contortionist, 1988) to weird gatherings of science fiction things (The Transformation of Venus, 1989). While his work has something in common with that of contemporaries such as Jonathan Lasker and Michael Young, it isn’t as bounded by an insistent signature style or a neoformalist reticence. Although done on a modest scale, Lee’s paintings are expansive; they cover a good deal of territory and employ a large, fluid vocabulary.

Lee’s work partly evokes his childhood in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. The decorative motifs call to mind patterns found both in clothing and architectural detail; the warm colors suggest glimpses remembered from a festival, or a walk down a street thronged with pedestrians. They point to a world without naming it. By making the scale of the paintings roughly synonymous with the size of a person’s head, Lee suggests that he is making visible what lies behind the eyes.

John Yau