Walking into Austin Lee’s Long Island City studio makes you feel as if you could do just about anything without reprimand. The floor is covered in paint, even though he says he repainted it just two weeks ago. Art and supplies are found everywhere: stacked against the walls, placed prominently on the shelves, and strewn on the floors. The concrete slab used as a pedestal for sculptures, or as a placeholder for one of his tools, gives the whole place a strong industrial feeling.
“Art is the only thing I was good at,” says Lee—whose new solo show, Feels Good, is currently open at Deitch Gallery NYC. Born in Las Vegas, but having spent the majority of his life in Philadelphia, Lee found the studio the day after he moved to NYC back in 2013.
While in art school, Lee and his ex-girlfriend created art in a studio that doubled as a DIY gallery. “There was no art market in Philly, so it was about community,” he explains. Initially they put on group shows. This led to solo exhibits, and the hope that curating them would be less work. He laughs to himself when he admits they were just as much work. After attending Yale for for his MFA, Lee moved to New York. It seemed like the only choice for him.
Lee has always been obsessed with digital drawing and finding the right tool for the job. For now that tool is Sony Digital Paper, which, to him, comes closest to the tactile experience of drawing on real paper. “I like to work against the cliché of the blank canvas, and using digital is my solution,” he continues. “There is never a risk of trying something.” Lee endlessly experiments with the digital drawing until he decides to take a formulated idea to canvas.
“Drawing is directly out of your head. Painting is editing and making decisions, getting it just right,” he says. When he is painting, he starts to explore exactly the way he wants the final object to look, with decisions ranging from color choice to whether the presence of texture is needed.
“Work can come from anything I see, like people on the subway or the internet,” he continues. He chooses seemingly mundane subjects,but represents them in a whimsical manner that forces viewers to look closer. “If something stands out, then I investigate it more.” Further, many of his works evoke the emojis and bitmojis that have become part of everyday jargon.
One of Lee’s most striking works is a painting titled “Rose Rainbow,” featuring a tulip-like flower surrounded by vectors of rainbow colors. The stems of the flowers seem more like arms reaching out to hug the viewer, bringing them closer to the canvas and further into Lee’s beautiful world. A darker work features a depiction of a lion devouring a man, but if you look closely, Lee has hidden a little treasure in the canvas— inviting viewers in once again. It is almost as if his investigation of the subject becomes our investigation, which in turn expands our worldview.
One of his sculptural works is a fluorescent-pink Gumby-type character, with limbs askew and a bouquet of flowers sticking out from his nose. The figure, with dark sunglasses and a smile, stares up at the ceiling. For this, Lee employed a VR program called Medium. Here, he creates images inside the program and then uses a digital 3D printer to make them into real sculptures. Lee was proudest to show off a sculpture that appeared quite flat but oddly interesting in its own right. It demonstrated beauty in strange imperfection. Perhaps that is the best way to describe Lee’s work.
Words and images by Afrodet Zuri