The Unnamable
By Ashley Crawford, July 2008

Rhys Lee claims he doesn’t have nightmares. That is probably understandable. By the time he hits the sack after a long day of painting his night terrors have been expelled, forcibly ejaculated from his subconscious to come to eerie life on his canvases.

These truly beautiful paintings are not for the faint-hearted. They haunt the viewer long after an initial encounter, floating like some dark ectoplasm in the back of the memory, seared onto the retina like some astonishing vision from a dark somnambulistic universe, brought into our world by inexplicable means.

These works stir the imagination in ways akin to a powerful ghost story by the fire. Despite their evident physicality, the sinuous brush strokes, the tactile, visceral mix of paint, they seem to float in an unearthly ether. A part of this is, of course, pure technique. Lee approaches his paintings with both an unorthodox palette and anarchistic spontaneity. He coats his perfect linen in deep stygian blacks and then works his way into the darkness to free his subjects. Odd metallics shimmer and stir within the surface. Colours that should never be seen side by side seem to embrace, creating a bizarre alchemical brew that, even in the dark, seem to step outside the realm of paint into the room, pursuing us for causes unknown.

In many ways this is a rogues gallery. Lee refuses to name these ‘portraits’ – perhaps giving them a name would bring them further into this world, giving them a soul. A name may give them too much power, enough that they would finally step through the portal, move beyond the frame.

But it is tempting to place them more distinctly in our world. We might spy Lazarus or the Golem, a figure from Goya’s Diasters of War or the vampire Lestat. The figure with the frosted, silvery hair and haunted eyes could be a scientist from John Carpenter’s deeply creepy 1982 film The Thing. Lee isn’t that specific, but there is an iconographic sensibility to these figures; somehow we know them, they are the creatures of the universal deep subconscious.

Many of these works were created in a tumultuous outpouring in a studio in Ludlow Street, New York. Anyone who has lived in Manhattan for any amount of time will also recognise these figures; they haunt the alleyways and street corners, they shuffle the streets of Gotham homelessness. They have passed over into a realm that you and I cannot begin to imagine.

It is, I think, the eyes that bring forth our strange empathy with these figures. They are haunted, they look back from the other side, almost imploring, telling us that they too were once on this side of the canvas.

Lee was recently curated into an exhibition at the University of Queensland Art Gallery titled neo goth: back in black alongside such artists as Susan Norrie, Dale Frank, Nick Mangan and Shaun Gladwell. An investigation into what the shows curator, Allison Kubler, defined as a Gothic sensibility. And Rhys Lee’s works are, indeed, deeply Gothic.

If Lee is an alchemist he is also a Resurrectionist. Much of the current knowledge of human anatomy can be attributed to the Resurrectionists, the grave robbers of Victorian England who would snatch bodies from the grave and supply them to fledgling surgeons – the precursors of the CSI team – to study the body. Whilst gruesome, and naturally illegal, their work supplied the foundations of contemporary understanding of the human body. The way in which Lee interns his bodies from deep blacks is not unlike excavating unexpected encounters in the dark.

But perhaps it is not so much the body as the spirit that we spy here and in this Lee’s work has a strange resemblance to the trend of spirit photography that gripped the world post WW2. The first ‘spirit photograph’ is usually attributed to William Mumler in 1861 who, while producing a self-portrait photograph, found in the finished print the figure of a young woman standing next to him. In fact something similar had occurred the year before when a gentleman by the name of W. Campbell was taking a test photograph of a chair. The result revealed the image of a young boy who had not been in the room. Spooky, but the notion of re-discovering lost ones via this technique became a major fad and was supported strongly by the Spiritualist movement. The ghost-like figures in these photographs are always difficult to recognise, their features blurred as though a lace curtain floats in front of them. Rhys Lee’s figures are not dissimilar, indeed one feels a strange pull of immediate recognition.

Rhys Lee claims he doesn’t have nightmares. He also claims he doesn’t read books. There may be a reason for that. Lee is a natural born story-teller himself. He doesn’t need others’ stories. His canvases are imbued with narrative. We just have to sit down and gaze long enough at these stunning portraits, wondering all the while whether or not we know these people, these myths, these odd relatives of our mutual memory DNA.

If Lee doesn’t read novels, then it is odd that in his own way he has created perfect illustrations for such authors as Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde. These works recall Wilde’s only novel, the 1890 The Picture of Dorian Gray with unnerving accuracy. Like Wilde, Lee is something of an aesthete, striking and handsome in appearance. Dorian Grey was ageless, his portrait savagely enduring his aging and obsessive depravity, while its subject remained ageless.

At other times Lee’s portraits could be illustrations for the myths of the Golem. The most famous Golem narrative invokes the 16th century Rabbi Judah Loew the Maharal of Prague, who created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto of Josefov from Anti-Semitic attacks. Made from clay, the Golem was animated by either slipping a word on paper or calfskin parchment into the Golem’s mouth or inscribing one of the names of God on its forehead, writing the word Emet (“truth” in Hebrew). By erasing the first letter, aleph, in Emet to form Met (“dead” in Hebrew) or by removing the slip of paper from the mouth of the Golem, the creature could be returned to inanimate clay.
It is little wonder that Rhys Lee refuses to name his strange portraits. They live too strongly already.

Andrew Frost
Australian Art Collector, 50 Most Collectable Artists - Issue 35 January-March 2006

"From wrong-side-of-the-law graffiti kid to respected emerging talent, Melbourne based painter Rhys Lee's latest works are esumptuous, colourful canvases featuring carnivalesque figures against backgrounds of acidic yellow, sky blue and washed out purple. Lee paints in a style described by art critic Edward Colless - a long time supporter of the artist's work - as 'hallucinogenic grotesque'. 'Lee paints with a freestyle energy that is still as spontaneous and brash as his graffiti roots, while his imagery has evolved into a captivating and emotionally nuanced bestiary of contemporary life,' says Colless. 'His washes and splatters of gelato colours can be exhilarating, but equally can be as subtle and poised as a ballet step.'

Working primarily in acrylics and enamel on canvas, Lee's paintings have evolved from gestural, illustrative works to rich, colourful pieces that explore pictorial space, defying and diving into the third dimension.

Reviewing his work in 'State of The Arts', Jo Higgins said of Lee's approach: 'With a primary interest in lines, forms, typography and colours, Lee's extensive body of paintings reveal an enthusiasm for the actual art of painting - rich, textural applications of paint, strong colours and an emphasis on the compositional elements of his works.'

After studying design at the Queensland College of Art in 1997, Lee exhibitied at the Loft Gallery in Fortitude Valley and then in Sydney at artist run space Rubyare Gallery in 2000. Since joining his Melbourne dealer Helen Gory the same year, he has had annual solo shows. Highly regarded by his peers and by collectors with an interest in new painting."


BIOGRAPHY
Lives and works in Melbourne, Australia.
   
1994-97 Bachelor of Visual Arts, Graphic Design, Queensland College of Art, Brisbane.
1993-94 Certificate in Visual Art and Design, Bundamba Institute of TAFE, Brisbane.
 
Selected Solo Exhibitions
2008

Scheduled - Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney
'Ripple People', Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane
Works on Paper, Apartment 2c, 152 Ludlow Street, New York

2007 Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne
'Snake', Tim Olsen Queen Street Gallery, Sydney
2006 Gaggedfix, Helen Gorie , Melbourne
2005 Twinkles Twinkle, Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne.
Solo Show, Art Galleries Schubert, Gold Coast
2004

Salads & Forecasts, Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne.
Squad of Crack two, Volume Gallery, New York.
Squad of Crack, Melbourne Next Wave Festival, Melbourne Mountain peaks but not always, Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne

2003 Capitol Hill Rooting King, curated by Hannah Mathews, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne
Try This In The Forest At Once, Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne
2002 'Thoop Bort', Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne
2001 'Dries Instantly', Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne.
'Untitled', Rubyayre Gallery, Sydney
2000 'Untitled', Loft Gallery, Fortitude Valley, Queensland.
'It's Not About Them', Rubyayre Gallery, Sydney.
'Stealing By Finding', Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne
   
Selected Group Exhibitions
2009
Heads, Rex Irwin Art Dealer, Sydney
2008
'Neo Goth Back in Black', University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane
2 x 2 Group Exhibition, Tim Olsen Gallery Annex, Sydney
'Figure in a Landscape', Rex Irwin Gallery, Sydney
  Contemporaneous: Australian Contemporary Painting 1, Wangaratta Exhibitions Gallery, Victoria
2007 Sceduled Group Show, Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane
2001 'Fresh Conference', Sydney Convention & Exhibition Centre, Sydney
'Aviary', Patrizia Autore Gallery Melbourne
2000 Rubyayre Gallery, Sydney
Swan Hill National Print and Drawing Acquisitive Awards, Swan Hill Regional Gallery
1999 The Hutchins Art Prize Tasmania.
Brisbane Power House Centre For The Arts
   
Collections

BHP Billiton
Australia, USA, UK
Art Bank
Sothebys
Bank of Switzerland
University of Queensland Art Museum