Rhys Lee: Good Boy and Kevin Bourgeois: Wall of Sound
The Brooklyn Rail November 19, 2018
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In these two shows gallery visitors have the opportunity to view two very different, but very gifted artists. Rhys Lee is an Australian artist in his early forties; this show examples a series of paintings based on a 1970s New York City subway cartoon, made by graffiti artist Mitch 77, of an orange Pluto (the cartoon dog) wearing white gloves and a blue bowtie. Kevin Bourgeois is a New York-based, musically oriented artist whose work here consists of record jackets assembled with pieces taken from different covers. Usually the image contains only the record jacket components, but in a small number of cases, Bourgeois adds his own artistic effects. In the long hall of the gallery, the two artists occupy separate walls; together, they indicate two interesting directions in abstraction—in Lee’s case, the output is painterly in a rather abstract, improvised manner, while in the production of Bourgeois, the efforts are precise, incorporating parts of jacket photographs that are then put together in jigsaw-puzzle fashion. Obviously, a two-person show like this invites comparison, but the two bodies of work are not closely connected. Still, it can be said that both bodies of work exist primarily in the cusp between figuration and abstraction, in ways that extend the meaningfulness of both approaches in art.
Rhys Lee, Good Boy #1, 2018. Oil on canvas, 78 × 58 inches. Courtesy Olsen Gruin. Lee is a remarkably gifted painter; this sequence shows large works of art, generally tied to the subway cartoon described above. In most of the works, one senses a figure, but abstract forms complicate the picture plane. The balance between figurative and nonobjective art is remarkably effective; usually, the rather brightly painted components that are linked to Pluto’s figure occur against a dark ground; these components exist in haphazard fashion, sometimes touching or merging with each other, and sometimes disconnected from the other forms. Looking at the art for a while, it seems like the Pluto figure becomes an excuse for improvisation, an informal reading that exists as a spontaneous comment not only on the subway image, but also on the act of painting. Lee’s handling of his shapes is masterly, if also usually messy.
Two paintings bear out my point. Good Boy #8 (2018) is a marvelous compilation of pale colors and softly outlined shapes. A pale mauve hat occurs in the painting’s upper register; next to it are two tan-colored squares, beneath which is a hand and a strange, phallic plant shape. The body is orange-red, with undefined forms, of a light gray-green hue, with diffuse abstract shapes lining the bottom of the composition. It is more than difficult to see a close connection with this work and the New York image; instead, it makes more sense to treat it as a slightly wild abstraction at a considerable remove from the art that inspired it. The same holds true of the second work: Good Boy # 1 (2018), in which Pluto’s head, done in a light blue with a luminously green nose, is covered with a very dark blue top hat. His neck covering is white, and the torso consists of pink-and-red clothing; the entire background consists of a dark jade green. While the Pluto figure is indeed evident in the painting, it is also on the edge of abstract art. If one disassociates the components of the image slightly, they easily fall back into inchoate, nonobjective parts. This near merger between what is recognizable and what is not is key to Lee’s achievement.
Bourgeois, an American, self-taught artist, works with sharply defined collages made up of record jackets. In the gallery space, he put up the visual equivalent of Phil Spector’s wall of sound—four long horizontal rows of the smallish, diamond-shaped record jackets. The artworks contain both abstract and figurative elements, both of which have a photographic precision to them. 33 RPM #2 (2016-18) is a complicated image, filled with snippets of body parts: We see the parts of faces, hands, and lips, either of the mouth or the vagina. In the center of the composition, we find a flesh-colored jigsaw part, framed by what look like paisley patterns and small metal gears. The complexity of the image confounds the eye, just as the difficulty of describing it confounds writerly ability. But this intricacy is key to Bourgeois’s esthetic, which mimics the abstract qualities of the music he listens to. The other work to be discussed is 33 RPM #6 (2016-18), another image dominated by the sensuous presence of flesh. Here, a diamond frame, against a general background of yellowish cylinders outlined in black, surrounds the central image of something real but very hard to define--maybe hair. In both works, the visual interest lies in the use of figurative images to abstract ends. In most of the pieces, it is extremely difficult to figure out what is being seen in these photo-detailed imageries; as a result, the confusion, made particular by the details of the cropped pictures, is indicative of the random visual effects of urban life, as well as the suggested, but inevitable, eroticism, of the city. Bourgeois is remarkably successful at conveying the visually anarchic energies of New York, using the vehicle of the record jacket to embody the city’s fragmented sense of experience.
Bourgeois thus is tied to New York, just as Lee’s art is generated from a New York subway cartoon Lee’s pictures occupy a wonderfully inventive middle ground in which a recognizable image is rendered nearly nonobjective. The play, contrast, and opposition of these two ways of working make his work both inventive and contemporary. Beourgeois’s skill is artisanal, indicative of an abstract orientation, and reliant on sharp definition. His themes, which orient metaphysically, but also physically in light of his materials, show that a hard-edge esthetic, inspired by urban music, can be followed in ways that are highly original.