Rhys Lee: Heavenly Creatures - Art Collector

Issue 33, July - September 2005

Download PDF

As Rhys Lee moved from street to canvas the flamboyant but precise illustrative talents he employed as a graffitist, along with his ability to work fast with whatever space, surface or time were available, have resulted in these heavenly creatures. Story by Edward Colless.

Rhys Lee is recalling the end of the 1990s in Brisbane. He’d come back in 1997 from a four month camping trip through Scandinavia, which finished when he woke up one morning and found an inch of ice on the outside of his lightweight Australian tent. Back in Brisbane’s welcome, heavy humidity, Lee spent a year or two, as he says, lounging on the verandah of a broken down old Queenslander knocking back one VB after another and eating pizza day after day with the same people, talking about the same things. Hanging out on the dole, smoking way too much weed, and hearing about the latest bust or raid on a friend’s house. A slacker’s dream life, or a bad trip? “I saw friends turning into nothing,” Lee reflects. “It was a downward spiral. I had to get out, so I packed up and moved to Melbourne.”

That lotus-land verandah is a world away from where he is now, only a few years on, standing in his industrial Northcote studio in front of a dozen large paintings, all confidently under way for his latest solo exhibitions coming up soon in Melbourne and on the Gold Coast. Now he’s surrounded by well-loved house plants, he chugs coffee while he works – not beer – and thrives on organic food. He jogs too. But don’t be mistaken. While Lee says he’s feeling happy and healthy, his paintings aren’t healthy things at all. And if the carnivalesque antics of their inhabitants resembles happiness, then it’s a state of euphoria fuelled by stupefying or enraging intoxicants and otherworldly possession. Fun at the brink of mania. Take a look at the loopy, twitchy angels and suave demons posing, lounging, snarling and snapping in his paintings and you’ll see a demi-monde crew that are more at home in a cannibalistic orgy or a psychedelic nightmare than at a heath spa.

Lee’s work has always had this vivid graphic presence, verging on grotesque fantasy and cartoon macabre. His style is as speedy and nervous as it is spontaneous; qualities that no doubt come from the urgency and exuberance of the graffiti art that he passionately practiced during his teen years in Brisbane. “I was doing stupid shit, being crazy,” he says, “…very passionate about going out and destroying property: bombing warehouse walls, painting trains. Hanging on the back of trains, or opening train doors and swinging into thin air to tag the outside of the train. It’s a lot of fun … when you think you’re invincible.”

The artistry in the graffiti tag – or signature – turns this simple gesture of making your mark into a complex and even paradoxical emblem. The tag has to be a coherent, synoptic sign – identifiable in a split second as you see it going by from a train window or while driving along a freeway. It needs to be an abbreviated action, too; since it will often be produced in risky if not perilous circumstances. But it also is identifiable as a stylistic flourish, and this necessitates an ornamental, graphic excess on top of a recognisable generic form. The ubiquitous “blockbuster” graffiti style, for instance, uses block letter fonts with three-dimensional projection or drop shadows, usually ornamented with rounded corners and chrome effects, bevelled edging and three-dimensional cracks, all to make the letters appear monumental. A good tag needs to finesse the contrast between the abstract vivacity and economy of a signature written on the fly, and the audacity and design sense of a corporate logo writ large. Like Rhys Lee’s paintings, the graffiti gesture is a manneristic filigree that keeps its cool and its verve at the scale of a billboard.

And Lee works easily on a grand scale. Last year at Volume Gallery in Brooklyn, he covered a sixteen by four metre long wall in just two days with a hellishly funny scene of contorted jabbering blank-eyed creatures whose saw-toothed mouths seem to leap off their faces and float in the air like ravenous piranha fish. Lee’s large – sometimes gigantic figures – are transposed from modest, impromptu and virtually automatic sketches, often taken from photographs of friends or of models in fashion magazines. Just as his drawings effortlessly turn photogenic beauty into leering, bizarre, hallucinatory gargoyle-like caricature, they launch from the sketchbook straight onto the blank canvas or wall surface, without any rehearsal or preliminary map. Even at their largest scale, these remain freehand figures with vigorous, sweeping sexy outlines overcharged so they drip and dribble. But Lee also builds the forms of these figures up by enclosing zones of negative space and flat, broad floating washes or panels of hot, synthetic colours so that these figures assume the poise and composite appearance of hieroglyphic characters or hieratic and hybrid totemistic figures.

Lee’s facility with the contrary drives behind the gestural and the iconic – derived from his experience with graffiti – probably led him in 1994 into his tertiary art studies in graphic design at the Queensland College of Art. It seems appropriate that his flamboyant but precise illustrative talents might take him, as it did many other graffitists, into more durable and marketable applications of his street-wise idiom and ad hoc techniques for working fast and furiously with whatever surface, space and time make available. “It was awesome to learn so much about the skills and principles of design work,” Lee explains, “but while I could see how designers could get off on the deadlines and demands of briefs, working to client specifications, and solving other peoples’ problems … I realised that I preferred to solve my own. That’s why I paint, and through the course I was spending a lot of my time just drawing and painting.”

Ambivalent as his attitude to graphic design may be, Lee partly owes his entrée to the Melbourne art scene in 2000 to his design background. Shortly after arriving in Melbourne he made friends with the owners of what was then the small but very hip fashion store, FAT 52, on Johnson Street in Fitzroy, doing some graphic design for them. They also let him put his drawings in their store, and Lee ended up selling work through FAT to people in the fashion scene. FAT then opened another shop across town in Chapel Street, Prahran, just near Helen Gory’s gallery. When Gory held an exhibition with some of the local fashion designers, Lee had work in it through his affiliation with the store. Gory liked what she saw and offered him a show. He’s had a solo show with her every year since then, and every one of them has understandably been a sell-out. At the same time, he’s worked with the streetwear label Schwipe, producing designs for tees and hoodies. This collaboration started out with Scwhipe’s now legendary goth-metal skull with a handgun pointed at it (with the defiant logo, “Kill Schwipe”), and has ended with the recent rat and brain camouflage motifs and Lee’s delirious icon of the “acid sex king” – a demonically wasted smiley face sporting a crown that resembles a paper party hat.

From goth grunge to hallucinogenic grotesque: that’s been Rhys Lee’s trip and his visions are convincing enough to take us with him. On the way, Lee consorts easily and candidly with the sort of melancholic sentiment in Picasso’s early paintings of displaced circus performers, sad clowns and destitute acrobats. But Picasso’s retinue were social outcasts, isolated in a dream or twilight world drenched in sombre versions of the pinks and blues that Lee electrifies into high key euphoria. While Lee’s figures may not belong in this world, they aren’t mute outcasts. They look like they want and can hold the centre of attention. They’re invaders. Gatecrashers. A loutish, strutting goon squad that could have been recruited from the professional wrestling ring, from a fashion catwalk or from a masquerade party. They have the predatory appetites of the frolicking demons in the visionary panoramas of punishment by Lee’s other mentor, Hieronymous Bosch. And their dunce’s caps, devil’s tails and clownish make-up all suggest a conspiracy of mischief that makes them as alluring and comically sociable as they are threatening.

Of course these bestial beaks and multiple spikey, spastic claws appear because these are creatures sliding between shapes as well as between species. Their forms are the outcomes of the forced accidents that Lee imposes on his working methods. “I thrive on accidents. Through practicing and trying to perfect your technique if you make mistakes that are happy accidents then it’s beautiful. I’m constantly trying to make good mistakes.“ The good mistake is the doorway to a perception of the alien comedy that lies behind appearance, and Rhys Lee opens that door for us. Come in, it’s party time.

Rhys Lee’s exhibition Twinkles Twinkle will be showing at Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne from 4 August to 27 August 2005. Art Galleries Schubert on the Gold Coast is also exhibiting Lee’s work in August this year.

Share this page: