Calvin Lee, talking once or twice with him
Words are great at a studio visit, in fact language is sort of mandatory. Tricky and open to misinterpretation as words can be, I find that looking and being present with an artist can have subtle and long lasting effects on my thoughts. Understanding requires a base experience of being in the moment, layered with a discourse that develops ideas together. For the best results this sequence must be repeated, and regularly.
Calvin Lee and I worked together on a project called, “Last night I was kidnapped by a midget…” which resulted in a post on Notes on Looking with the same name. The work that he showed me at the time was from a series he refers to as “the Rodeo Drive work,” and for that on location studio visit he took me walking along the famous street in Beverly Hills. For this work Lee inhabits the edges of paparazzi-dom, over the course of the project he has photographed celebrities, retail workers, storefronts and other signifiers of wealth and ultra chic consumables.
Some of this Rodeo Drive work is currently on view in an exhibition at Cirrus Gallery. “Livin’ L.A.” is Part 2 of the “Once Emerging, Now Emerging” Pacific Standard Time related series, and has been curated by Aaron Wrinkle and Jean Milant, Director and founder of the 40 year old exhibition space and print edition publisher.
When I spent time with Lee this week, I thought that his work is evolving, and it feels like he is expanding his ouvre and questioning his practice. I hasten to remind you that only smug fools do not question the work they make – this is not a matter of doubt, rather asking questions is necessary. It might be that working in the studio is a bit like reinventing yourself each time. Also, sometimes you must reverse engineer the work you have made to understand what you were doing.
I had the insight that Lee’s actions as an artist making photographs are very much about the adventure of wandering the streets and looking. He stays to the edges of celebrity actions, with his camera he skirts, observes, and captures on film the moments when flash bulbs go off. There is an adrenaline rush here somewhere and I get the sense of this when looking at the Rodeo Drive pictures. I think that it is not only because I have also spent time in the Golden Triangle, watching and wandering, that I find a delicious tension in Lee’s photographs. Even the absence of celebrity is tantalizing.
On his website, one can view 3 or 4 photographs at a time in a horizontal band, and this way it is possible to compare and follow – or create – a story. To me, one story is of complete self-awareness – the people, the shops, even the palm trees seem intensely considered, they seem as much to be stalking Lee for his attention as he is them. Perhaps though, stalking is not the correct term, for while the people do seem aware of their own power, and gathering attention brings them more of this, many of them also seem very open to Lee’s questioning eye.
In conversation it became clear that Lee sees his website not as an online gallery of his work as it might be exhibited, but rather as a supplement to the photographs and objects that he makes. On his website, Lee explores ways that a web-based photographic archive can function as a work of art.
You may view more of Calvin Lee’s work on his website: http://www.cleancalvin.com/index.html
Cirrus Gallery website: http://cirrusgallery.com/exhibitions/main.htm
Once Emerging, Now Emerging website: http://oncenowexhibition.com/
Calvin Lee on Notes on Looking: http://notesonlooking.com/?p=7761