When I first encountered Adam Lee’s work at Volta Art Fair in New York I had an instant sense of familiarity. On learning he was Australian, I wasn’t surprised, as I have family in Western Australia. In other words, there was a connection based not alone on his strong visual language – which, having now seen his new work I would even call immaculate – but also predicated on family roots and non-intellectual, emotional bonds to a far-away country. So far so good, but then I encountered a problem. Let’s say it wasn’t easy to come up with questions to ask Adam Lee. I couldn’t even put my finger on why, but in the end I realized it was due to the symbolic unity of this new series and the truth they carry in them in terms of their form, their content and their visual language, which anyone can understand but which first needs to be encrypted. It felt like a riddle that suddenly becomes easy once you have the code.
The paintings have an archaic feel and there is a lot going on in them, yet no stroke of paint or tiny particle of light is extraneous. Works like This Earthen Tent (which lent its name to the series), Self as Hermit and Monument communicate with the viewer more on a meta-level than anything else. I realized it was so „difficult“ to find the right questions as Adam Lee’s works already have the answers in themselves and thus also the questions. So I had to let go and allow his paintings to work on me a few days, returning to them from time to time to gaze at them for a while time and without any movement of thought in my head. It can be scary to let go, especially if you think there is no concrete direction and you have a deadline to keep. But it wasn’t as if nothing were happening, it’s just that it happened on a different level – I suppose by connecting to my inner – let’s call it higher – self without doing so consciously. I also realized that this is part of becoming really aware of your body as a tabernacle, as a vessel that holds all the answers you will ever need to know was a big part of it, as there is a difference between thinking about this concept and truly understanding, feeling and then in consequence letting it take over.
What is home in your view? Also in terms of, if you leave out for example a location, a physical concept of home, what´s left for you?
It’s an interesting question, which I’ve tried to grapple with in my recent work. I have always suffered from quite intense homesickness whenever I travel, ever since I was a young boy. I’ve often wondered at what it is about “home” which affects me so deeply – is it the people, my family, my house and its surroundings, the culture and language, the familiarity? I think it’s all of those things, but as a concept, for me, “home” is about something much larger and deeper than those things. I believe it has something to do with what we carry inside of us, wherever we go, and how we relate to the world and how we find our place within that.
All of those other things come out of this larger thing.
And I wonder if that has something to do with human desire for connection with a wider world of what I often call a divine reality.
In your works i feel or see a lot of intuition. How is your creative process, where do you start?
For me a work can start in almost any way. More and more paintings seem to find their genesis in seemingly subtle things – a small glimmer of an idea, a moment with my daughter, or an image which comes to me often at unexpected times. I do draw and read a lot, and collect a huge amount of images, but these really just feed into the works and are not used so much as stationary sources for compositions or anything like that. It’s like a whole world of images and words which all feed into a group of paintings, but it’s the actual process of painting the pictures in which all this starts to make sense.
There are four paintings that particularly grabbed me, starting out with Self as Hermit. The question I asked myself was, when is a hermit really on his own? Being surrounded by the world, this earthen tent, is he enough unto himself? He lives within this tent, but he is also part of it, which I see as symbolised in the painting by the small particles of light forming and surrounding his head.
So is the hermit referring to a feeling that he, Adam, knows for himself?
Yes, I’ve been fascinated with the image of the hermit for some years now, as a symbol for something larger. I’m still trying to understand it myself, to be honest. In some ways it is certainly used in my work as a kind of self-portrait, embodying a feeling of positive retreat from the world, a building of my own interior world and experience. Connected with this is the fact that there is something monastic about working as a painter, spending long hours in the studio alone, something which does require a certain amount of isolation or a feeling of „drawing aside“ from the wider world.
The hermit is an opaque figure, shrouded in a certain mystery.
This leads me to Tabernacle. Do you think of our body as the tabernacle that holds all secrets and all wisdom, as in the Jewish belief system? There is a higher level of reality concerning the concept of the tabernacle, as seen in the idea of God taking up residence in the human body.
Yes, the imagery within the Jewish and Christian traditions are of the human body (and the community of people as a „body“) existing as something embodied by God’s spirit. I find the powerful symbolism of this totally fascinating.
And then there is a feeling of closeness. The earth is our home and we always carry this home with and in us.
How did Tabernacle, Self as Hermit, Monument and The Earthen Tent in particular appear in your mind? How did they take on form and how did you manage to finish these works, which I see as immaculate in terms of their timeless truth?
I can’t really answer that very clearly. These works started out as something which I could not fully grasp and via a journey of sorts, they arrived where they are. It is for me as much a road being travelled, which I have not walked before. This is both thrilling and frightening.
Can you explain Monument in combination to the other paintings, or does it stand on its own? What is going on in this work?
Monument as a work (like all works) needs to be experienced in the flesh.
There is no real way that a camera can catch the surface or presence of a work like that.
It is probably the most sparse painting I have ever made, referencing religious artworks often encountered as part of altar pieces. It ties all the other works in this show together, in a sense.
Tell us a bit about how you started becoming an artist, and which painters or era in art history inspired you most when you were growing up or coming of age as an artist?
I went straight into art school as an eighteen-year-old. That had an enormous impact on me, both positively and negatively. Eventually I kept going with my studies right through to completing a PhD in fine art. But it was the journey along the way of making many, many „failed“ paintings which I probably learnt the most from, and just learning the discipline of studio practice. Over that time I have been influenced by so many periods in art and specific artists. Artists I am currently looking at almost every day include R.B. Kitaj, Chris Ofili, Anselm Kiefer.
If you imagine growing up in Germany, for instance, could you have become the artist you are now?
Well I think that one’s environment and upbringing shape so much about whom one is as a person, and this is true of being an artist too. The history of German art, particularly 20th-century German art, has been one of the most influencing periods for me.
What is next for you?
I have just finished a studio residency in the South of France, and have a solo show opening at my London gallery, BEERS, this month. After that I think I will have a bit of space and time to slow down a bit and take more time with the new paintings. Another major show will be following in Toronto at Angell later next year.
What do you wish to leave behind as a person and artist?
My family (my wife, my child) and the presence I am to them as a husband and a father, I have no doubt, will be the greatest.
Adam Lee: This Earthen Tent
Preview: Wednesday 23 August 6-8pm
Exhibition: 24 August – 30 September 2017