Models and Materialities: Confabulation and the Contemporary Still Life

extract from Models and Materialities exhibition catalogue (click to read...)

interview with Frances Woodley and Timothy Hon Hung Lee


“Every civilisation that disavows its barbarian potential has already capitulated to barbarism. Slavoj Žižek”

Asked to describe Tim Hon Hung Lee's ink paintings of sumptuous, knotted bouquets held in exquisite porcelain vases, one would likely call them still lives. Yet, this description might not be appropriate. Not at least if you consider still lives in the traditional sense; the practice of faithfully depicting objects from observation. It is telling that Lee's studio is practically devoid of any visual reference material. There are no cutouts from catalogues or magazines surrounding his workspace, let alone any physical items to study. Whilst they appear anatomically correct, the flowers, vases and creatures of his paintings are purely a construct from memory and the imagination. But if they are not studies from life, neither are the objects being deployed for their symbolic value, which is another of the key features of still life painting, particularly the tenebrous vanitas paintings that share a visual likeness with Lee’s work. 

If not still lives, then to decide what these paintings in fact are, we might turn to Lee's newer portrait work to aid our understanding. What is depicted in these paintings are not specific people, but rather the idea of a person, or possibly the idea of depicting a person: the idea of portraiture per se. The snaking, lugubrious forms that are shown seeping and sprouting from within the cavity left by the sitter's absent face are an assemblage of repeated layers of painting. Recurring motifs fight for space and worm their way grotesquely towards the surface. The slow, laborious, yet aleatory creation of these shapes provides the artist with a springboard towards a near meditative state within which to explore a torrent of ideas and emotions down to the most infinitesimal detail. This stream of sensations will then find their expression somewhere in the formation of these snarled, tuberculous faces. As a recording method this is of course tragically ineffectual, and the futile nature of even attempting to transcribe these undocumentable thoughts onto paper is not lost on Lee. The very nature of the works, the painting itself, then, becomes a residual skin which once was shaped and moulded by an onslaught of thought and feeling, but now provides only a hopelessly deformed and vague trace of what was once within. In this exploration of futility and meaninglessness, the comparison to vanitas paintings might not be so ill fitting after all. 

text by Steve Reed


Interview with Lawfully Chic :

Following on from the success of ‘Visitations’ at 9 Club Row Project, Timothy Lee’s exhibition ‘Nihilphilia’ is soon to open at the Cock ‘n’ Bull Gallery at Tramshed in Shoreditch.

Since graduating from Leeds University, Lee has already exhibited widely in London, Singapore, Toronto, and Amsterdam and gained his first US solo show in New York’s Gallery Nine 5. This new series of works, entitled ‘Nihilphilia’ – literally translated as “a love of nothing” – distorts the traditional historic portraiture and still life.  Lee has made a series of new paintings that further explore his interest in combining intense themes with fragile materials.

At first glance, the subjects of Lee’s highly contrasting, almost monochrome paintings appear to be disfigured portraits and delicately decaying still lifes. However, each composition is in fact constructed from memory alone, and attempts to create a balance between extreme polarities such as life and death, beauty and decay. Prior to the opening of the exhibition we asked Timothy about his practice and these series of works:

You use rice paper and ink. What significance do these traditional materials have to your work?

I’m not bound by tradition by any means. I think my work clearly states that. I’m paying homage to the past and also rejecting its values.

Your ‘portrait’ works are both not a portrait and a portrait. What brought you to this series of works?

I’ve always switched between painting figures and still life; it offers some respite from going over repeated territory. The approach has always been the same; I’m still trying to illicit a sensation from my work rather than to depict actual people or objects. I’ve never been a fan of realism or direct representation – I think it’s a fruitless endeavour to try to capture a subject’s true likeness.

Do you consider both your portrait works and the still life pieces as memento mori?

I wouldn’t say my works are memento mori-like, but if I had to summarise them then I suppose it is the closest term. It sits uneasily with me because it points too directly at death. For me, I consider them to be about the dichotomy of life and death existing at the same time rather than a reminder of mortality.

I’m interested in the act of making art as much as anything else. I know there’ll never be an answer as to why humans feel a need to create and that kind of has a sense of empty inevitability and futileness to it. My works are about everything and nothing simultaneously; co-existing like visual white noise.

The portrait works include what appear to be recognisable details from Old Masters – medieval headwear, a cardinal’s hat. What drew you to this period of portraiture?

It’s not really about the period or costume for me. I’m more concerned with the ‘Human’ that’s within the painting. I’m fond of the tones and visual tropes involved in, say, Flemish paintings, but on the other hand my work stems more from my dislike of staged court paintings and idol worship.

You paint the still life works from memory. What is the significance of this to your practice?

As I mentioned earlier I’m not a big fan of direct representation. There has to be some sensation in the work for it to resonate with me; I think a painting from a memory of flowers for example, will always give a more accurate and honest depiction of them than a like-for-like rendition.

I think art is much more potent when it has been filtered through someone’s experience, regardless if they make ‘sense’ or not.

writer - Amanda Gray 13/3/14