The University of Queensland Art Museum presents a stunning 3-decade survey of Australian artist Lindy Lee’s practice. 

Entitled “Lindy Lee: The Dark of Absolute Freedom”, the first major survey of Lindy Lee’s work reveals a meditative, fluid oeuvre that transforms along with the artist’s philosophical pursuits. 

Lindy Lee working in studio. Photo by Lee Nutter. Image courtesy the University of Queensland Museum.

Lindy Lee working in her studio. Photo by Lee Nutter. Image courtesy the University of Queensland Museum.

Australian artist Lindy Lee came to prominence in the mid-1980s. Critically praised since her early years, Lee continuously reinvented and developed her art over three decades. A stunning retrospective comprising 48 works from public and private collections showcases a diverse and profoundly philosophical practice.

Entitled “Lindy Lee: The Dark of Absolute Freedom”, the exhibition follows Lee’s ongoing pursuit of identity, authenticity and selfhood. Her Buddhist faith and Chinese heritage are interwoven with meditative ruminations on spirituality, life and the universe. The show is curated by University of Queensland Art Museum Associate Director Michele Helmrich and runs until 22 February 2015. 

Click here to watch “Lindy Lee: The Dark of Absolute Freedom” from UQ Art Museum on Vimeo

Fire in darkness

Curator Helmrich chose to portray Lee’s works in a backward chronology: viewers encounter the artist’s most recent works first, as they enter the gallery. These remarkable compositions utilise fire, pyrographic techniques and flung bronze to evoke the infinity of the universe. Helmrich remarks poetically in the exhibition press release (PDF download): 

To step into a room filled with Lindy Lee’s recent artworks – those works of metal or paper whose surfaces have been ruptured so many times by fire – is to step into a world of night in which every surface glints light from fresh rain, and stars radiate in their thousands overhead.

Lindy Lee, 'Cosmos - A Life of Fire', 2014, bronze, 300 cm diameter. Collection of the artist. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

Lindy Lee, ‘Cosmos – A Life of Fire’, 2014, bronze, 300 cm diameter. Collection of the artist. Reproduced image courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

In these works, cut metal is burned to create different patterns. The resulting pieces are comprised of fragments of glinting bronze, empty space and introspective shadows. The variety of forms and patterns pays tribute to the all-powerful might of nature, a force the artist is well aware of and celebrates through her art.

Portraits of history

The second room switches from fire to waxed canvas, dimming into rich, atmospheric colours. As a development from the earlier carbon photocopies she was first known for, showcased in the third room, Lee uses existing images of ancient figures and makes them her own. The reinvented waxed portraits feature grid formations, introspective repetition and a masterful handling of stark, minimal colours. 

Lindy Lee, 'Fire and Water', 2006, synthetic polymer paint and wax on board, archival inks on paper mounted on board, 17 panels: one 81 x 60 cm; 16 panels 40.6 x 30.2 cm each; overall 162.5 x 150.5 cm. Collection of The University of Queensland. Gift of Lindy Lee through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program, 2013. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

Lindy Lee, ‘Fire and Water’, 2006, synthetic polymer paint and wax on board, archival inks on paper mounted on board, 17 panels: one 81 x 60 cm; 16 panels 40.6 x 30.2 cm each; overall 162.5 x 150.5 cm. Collection of The University of Queensland. Gift of Lindy Lee through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2013. Reproduced image courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

Lee states in the press release that the colours call out to her. Speaking of the transformation of her work, Lee says:

The materials, especially the colours, are a kind of autobiography. Black is the constant. I started my artistic career using only black. At that time, it was the colour of loss and mourning and now it is the colour of cosmos and mystery. The most personal and poignant colour for me is the green […] It evokes tradition on one hand, but I knew instantly when I started to use it that it was the colour of ‘the ocean of birth and death’.

Lindy Lee, 'First Principle', 2001, synthetic polymer paint, oil, wax and ink on board, 20 parts: each 41.5 x 29.5 cm; overall 166 x 147.5 cm. Private collection, Sydney. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

Lindy Lee, ‘First Principle’, 2001, synthetic polymer paint, oil, wax and ink on board, 20 parts: each 41.5 x 29.5 cm; overall 166 x 147.5 cm. Private collection, Sydney. Reproduced image courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

The flawed and the beautiful

The third room of the exhibition showcases Lee’s earliest works. The artist photocopied existing found images and printed them on different materials. She then proceeded to leave her own mark using paint, shading, gridding and repetition. Referring to these early works, which defined the artist’s artistic vision, Lee says:

I loved the flawed copy, because it was a representation of what I was; I felt split and divided, and it was supremely painful.

Lindy Lee, 'Philosophy of the Parvenu' (detail), 1990, photocopy and synthetic polymer paint on Stonehenge paper mounted on board, 14 parts: each sheet 30 x 24.5 cm; overall 68 x 170.8 cm. Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2011. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

Lindy Lee, ‘Philosophy of the Parvenu’ (detail), 1990, photocopy and synthetic polymer paint on Stonehenge paper mounted on board, 14 parts: each sheet 30 x 24.5 cm; overall 68 x 170.8 cm. Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2011. Reproduced image courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

Helmrich explains that Lee suffered from racism as a Chinese born in Brisbane in 1954. She was forced to assimilate when she felt lost and exiled, deprived of an identity. The curator recalls Lee telling her that “being an artist had not been a choice as much as an ongoing need or desire to find belonging and completeness.”

Lindy Lee, ''Untitled (After Jan Van Eyck)', 1988, photocopy and synthetic polymer paint on Stonehenge paper on foamcore, 15 part: each sheet 42 x 29.7 cm; overall 146 x 183.5 cm. Collection of The University of Queensland. Gift of Mary Dwyer in memory of Paul Dane Tilley, 1995. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

Lindy Lee, ”Untitled (After Jan Van Eyck)’, 1988, photocopy and synthetic polymer paint on Stonehenge paper on foamcore, 15 part: each sheet 42 x 29.7 cm; overall 146 x 183.5 cm. Collection of The University of Queensland. Gift of Mary Dwyer in memory of Paul Dane Tilley, 1995. Reproduced image courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

The press release quotes the artist:

The defining experience of my life is one of being fractured […] Everything I do is related to my longing to heal the split […] I think the fundamental and persistent question in my work is not ‘who’ am I, but ‘what’ am I – what is real?

Lindy Lee, 'Spirit of Eternal Place', 1985, photocopy and ink on paper, 34.4 x 27.7 cm (sheet). Collection of the artist. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

Lindy Lee, ‘Spirit of Eternal Place’, 1985, photocopy and ink on paper, 34.4 x 27.7 cm (sheet). Collection of the artist. Reproduced image courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

Family and heritage

The last room of the exhibition is the most immersive and dramatic. Propped up cards of Lee’s family portraits create a rich red glow in a darkened room. The repeating, duplicated images and subtle shades of red and black evoke a haunting, yet calm and reverent atmosphere. The artist is at peace and protected among her family; finally, she belongs. 

Lindy Lee, 'Birth and Death' (installation view), 2004. Image courtesy the University of Queensland Museum.

Lindy Lee, ‘Birth and Death’ (installation view), 2004. Image courtesy the University of Queensland Museum.

Helmrich remarks about the continuity within Lee’s wide-ranging media, including carbon photocopy, wax, fire and metal:

Despite the transformative moments that punctuate Lee’s works, currents of continuity can also be observed: repetition and the grid; obsessive approaches to image making; darkness and light; form and the formless (in Buddhist terms, emptiness); and images that unfold endlessly […] a deep current underpins the work.

From darkness to light

Apart from showcasing Lee’s diverse media and techniques, the thirty-year survey provides an insight into the artist’s life, influence and philosophical pursuits, which include Zen Buddhism. Helmrich muses that perhaps “[t]he darkness and pathos of the early works has […] evolved into a sense of light and transcendence.” She says in the press release:

Today, Lee’s quest is for a cosmos that continually unfolds and a darkness that is, at once, light […] While it may be too simplistic a reading, one could say that Lee began with blackness and now finds herself in a search for light; in her flung-bronze works and firestones, shiny formless forms stand in for an energy of existence, just as the faces that stared out from her earlier repeated photocopies stood for lives once lived.

Lindy Lee, 'Terrace of the Immortals', 2012, black mild steel and fire, 120 x 214.5 cm. Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2013. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

Lindy Lee, ‘Terrace of the Immortals’, 2012, black mild steel and fire, 120 x 214.5 cm. Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2013. Reproduced image courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.

Helmrich also declares that Lee’s work developed almost in tandem with shifts in Australia’s psyche, reflecting “the postmodern cultural debates of the 1980s, the turn to Asia and multiculturalism in the 1990s, and an increasing openness to ideas such as those offered by Buddhism.”

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Australian artists, fire art, metal, wax, museum shows, events in Australia

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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