ART PRIZE CANADA PHOTOGRAPHY
The Sobey Art Award is Canada’s leading visual-art prize and its aim is to throw a spotlight every year on the work of one of this country’s most promising emerging artists. So when the announcement was made in the Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal in Toronto last Wednesday night that this year’s prize money ($50,000) has gone to the Vancouver artist Tim Lee, the moment held a subtle irony. As emerging artists go, you’d have to say Tim Lee is about as emerged as they come. Making work in the large-format Cibachrome photo medium of the international A-list (he also makes video and sculpture), Lee has already leapfrogged over the Canadian gallery system to find representation in the leading commercial galleries of the United States and Europe (Cohan & Leslie in New York, Johnen + Schottle in Cologne and Lisson Gallery in London). The 32-year-old is one of Canada’s most internationally acclaimed rising stars, his talents developed in a local art scene that some outsiders see as insufferably self-valorizing and others see as admirably supportive and nurturing. (The truth lies halfway between the two.) Following in the traditions of his hometown elders Jeff Wall, Ken Lum (who taught Lee at the University of British Columbia), Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas and Ian Wallace, his art is deeply rooted in the conceptual-art tradition of the seventies, but freshly minted with his own inquisitive and eccentric wit.
Competition for the award was stiff, with other contenders including the brilliant Winnipeg artist Daniel Barrow, who enthralled his Toronto audience last Tuesday afternoon with a performance titled Every Time I See Your Picture I Cry, involving his live narration and a sequence of multi-part cartoon drawings illuminated by an overhead projector. (The story involved the artist’s fictitious account of his childhood days, a complex meditation on vision, loneliness and personal identity.) As well, Lee was up against the New York-based Canadian Terence Koh (a.k.a. asianpunkboy), whose stylish white-on-white installations and bad-boy posturing have made him a darling of the international art press.
Sitting down to talk just moments after the announcement, Lee was still carrying the champagne bottle that someone had given him and looking a little startled. Notwithstanding his many successes, he has the quiet, slightly introverted air of a scholar pulled involuntarily from the stacks of a library to blink in the spotlight.
I had a few practical questions about the work in the gallery upstairs, where the ROM is showcasing works by Lee and the other shortlisted candidates. One of his large two-part photographic works from 2006, titled Untitled (Neil Young, 1969) is a self-portrait of Lee playing an electric guitar, his slope-shouldered pose echoing Young’s trademark stance. Lee’s body, though, is pictorially segmented into its upper and lower parts, which are framed separately. Close inspection reveals that the grey band running vertically up the left side in the two shots is actually a concrete floor, snaked over with electrical cords. Correct for this and look at the pictures sideways, though, and Lee’s body is now hovering parallel to this floor.
Did he use digital manipulation to produce this gravity-defying effect? No, he explains, he shot the work in two parts, so that the upper and lower parts of his body, respectively, could be supported off-camera. It’s a photograph that lies, suggesting the simultaneity of one take when, in fact, it’s the product of two.
This approach to photography – taking an instrument assumed to be truth telling and making it bend reality – is of a piece with Lee’s Vancouver roots, whether one thinks of Jeff Wall’s digital manipulations for his giant backlit Cibachromes or Rodney Graham’s flamboyant looping narratives and sly simulations of historic materials.
Lee’s work will be featured at the upcoming Biennale of Sydney, Australia; in a fall 2008 solo exhibition at the Hayward gallery in London UK; and a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, Texas. Tim Lee is represented by Cohan and Leslie Gallery in New York, NY; the Lisson Gallery in London, UK; and Johnen & Schöttle, in Cologne.
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