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Rhys Lee—the Melbourne-based artist who sculpts bronze heads smoking pipes with grinning faces, who paints murky, sometimes-disquieting portraits of people that melt and decay, who erects still lifes of tulips with headachy bright orange-pink variegations—is very busy, as usual. In a three month period, he is showing at Copenhagen’s David Risley Gallery, Stockholm’s Gallery Steinsland Berliner and Paris’ galerie du jour agnes b. He is working on a series of Bronze sculptures—his first in almost a decade—for a solo show at Nicholas Thompson in Melbourne. And right now, this moment, there is a Rhys Lee exhibition at Jan Murphy Gallery in Fortitude Valley. His hometown. For Jungle Rum Rumble, Lee has backtracked to a more graphic, pastel period, producing works that reference himself. Here Lee the loosening of his process and evolution of his practice.
SAMMY PRESTON Tell me about growing up in Brisbane. Where exactly did you live?
RHYS LEE I spent my childhood in Ipswich city. The suburb of Woodend was where we lived, in an 1890’s ‘Queenslander’—a house on stilts, [with] large verandas and a tin roof. The house was in a constant state of restoration, filled with antique furniture and wearing its original pink exterior coat of paint. (This pink has carried on in my work ever since.) Days [were] spent drawing from horror movie magazines making caricatures of local politicians, climbing trees, killing cane toads, rocking roofs and running around in the bush with a huge fruit bat colony overhead.
PRESTON How would you describe your experience of art school?
LEE Art school was about forming friendships and working out what I didn’t want to do. I studied graphic design and rejected the compromising nature of it, as well as the restrictions I felt it projected. Life drawing classes were a saving grace and offered a little freedom—the same freedom I attained from graffiti writing.
PRESTON [If I understand correctly], you began your career as a street artist. Tell me about the nature of your practice then, and the kind of work you were looking at.
LEE I never was a street artist—a graffiti writer and street artist are two completely different occupations. Graffiti was something I was pursuing … painting all surfaces, with the ultimate surface being a train.
PRESTON What was it that sparked your interest in graffiti?
lee It was in the mid 80s that I became interested in graffiti. A kid at school knew some older writers and he was my link to this newfound subculture. It wasn’t until 1988 when I saw the books Subway Art and Spray Can Art—bibles for any young aspiring graffiti writer—that my world changed and I became infatuated with the idea of painting trains and walls. In 1989, when I was 14, I painted my first piece with my partner in crime from high school. Although I was always practicing fine arts, graffiti was a very consuming occupation throughout the 90s.
preston What moniker—if any—were you operating under? How did you, and other artists you knew, develop your tag?
lee Can’t really say who, what or where! Tag names were developed from a feeling, the love of letter combinations, the look and sound of a word.
preston There’s an old Art Collector profile of you where your later time in Brisbane is characterized as a VB-churning, verandah lounging “slackers paradise” (or nightmare, perhaps.) How do you shift mindsets, and move from perennial hanging out to making work frequently?
lee I guess the shift in lifestyle comes when one wants more from life. Having friends die around you and watching others become entrenched in a dysfunctional lifestyle makes you realise that a change is needed … to fulfill other dreams and aspirations. Moving to a different state helped a lot—a new start and a clean slate.
preston Can you tell me about the transition from graffiti work to canvas? How did this happen? What was it like entering in to the Melbourne art scene in the early 2000s? There was an early commission at FAT 52, wasn’t there?
lee There was never a transitional period from doing graffiti to making fine art. I have always been drawing and painting. Graffiti was something I was involved in while doing other things as well. I have been drawing and painting a lot longer than I was involved in graffiti. I am always surprised how some people focus on the graffiti period in my life. In early days, I got a lot of support from the art and fashion community and sold drawings at the fashion store FAT 52. I had my first solo shows at Ruby Ayre Gallery in Sydney in 2000 and 2001. I then went on to have representation with Helen Gory Galerie in Melbourne from 2001 to 2007. I felt like I received an over whelming amount of support during this period.
Jungle Rum Rumble runs until 16 April at Jan Murphy Gallery.
preston Your portraiture work is otherworldly, effervescent with emotion, at times almost manic. What is the starting point of these caricatures and figures?
lee I often have an image in front of me that I like. It might be someone else’s painting, photograph on my phone or one of my own works. Anything to trigger the initial marks, then it’s about just reacting to what is going on with the paint and surface. I let the image tell me what’s next.
preston You’ve also said, in older interviews, you don’t have nightmares, but there’s a dreamlike, non-linear aspect to some of your work. Do you ever intend to create a narrative element?
lee I’m not sure what my intentions are.
preston For Jungle Rum Rumble you’ve returned to an earlier time in your career, and an earlier stage of your painting. I think it’s interesting you’re using a past state to inform present work.
lee I’ve returned to an earlier period with these recent paintings because I was interested in a specific transition in my painting from 2007 to 2008. I moved from a pastel palette to a darker and deeper palette. The dark palette was informed by a series of bronze sculptures I produced—self-portraits that were gothic and macabre. The new Jungle Rum Rumble paintings are filled with the old imagery and graphic structure that was typical of my pastel palette at that time. I had a lot of fun revisiting this period.
In recent times my work has become a lot looser. In the past I would work from my drawings to plan and structure the composition from the beginning of a painting. Now I start with no plan, just a trigger and then see where it ends up. It can be a frustrating process, not knowing where the work is going, but it’s exciting when you end up in an unexpected place. I think this method keeps me interested and hungry for more. I am always experimenting with materials and techniques. I make hundreds of works on paper every year, which allows me the freedom to be spontaneous and try new things.
Preston I understand you have curated a number of shows, selecting some artists’ work via Instagram. Who do you follow? How relevant or irrelevant do you think a digital presence for contemporary artists? How would you explain your own relationship with social media, and the whole business of self-marketing?
lee I have always been skeptical of social media. However, I got on to Instagram and I found it to be a positive place, full of inspiration and opportunity. Who do I follow? [Laughs] Too many great Artists. … I follow Joe Roberts, Chuck Webster, Manuel Ocampo, Marcio Matos, Josh Jefferson, Dmote, Mike Swaney, Allison Schulnik, Shai Yehezkelli and Rene Sinkjaer—just to name a few.