Fabricated from the unassuming materials of commercial shop fitting and industrial design—MDF board and powder-coated steel—the works in Turn of Phrase speak the language of the almost-invisible structures that dictate our experience of public space. The immediate precursors to this exhibition are Triptych (2015) and Line on Display (2016), shown at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s Rear Window space and West Space in Melbourne, respectively. Like Turn of Phrase, both exhibitions contain interchangeable, moveable elements designed to mimic the slat-and-hook hanging systems used in many shops and window displays, but re-contextualised as the basis for rhythmic explorations of line and form. Their logic of customisability and modularity invites us to consider them as the products of a design process, elements of a carefully worked-out and optimised system—but one whose outcomes are, ultimately, part of the discourse of art.
Turn of Phrase is a continuation of Lee’s ongoing interest in the spatial and material character of the contemporary urban landscape. This trend begins with Composition and Line Works (both 2012), in which Lee used steel rods to create delicate traceries and frameworks, linear forms reminiscent of musical staves or line graphs. Later, in Tangential Structures (2013), Lee’s skeletal steel rods are clothed in the ephemeral clutter of the everyday: clothing, toilet rolls, coat hangers, magazines and plastic bottles. This eclectic tangle of objects reflects on how the un-noticed, “tangential” objects in our lives are in fact parts of a broad socio-economic and spatial matrix of production and consumption that influences our social space on every level.
Like Lee’s earlier Composition and Line Works, Turn of Phrase addresses the legacy of minimalism. The parallel lines of the MDF works echoes those of Frank Stella’s Black Paintings, but their insistent materiality and playfully ambiguous engagement with their own nature as commodities subtly complicate this apparent homage, suggesting the more playful tone of Tangential Structures. Lee’s works are not severe minimalist gestures, but rather physical objects situated in a space that is at once commercial and intellectual, public and private. However, they adopt aspects of Stella’s painterly language, and by recontextualising it in a product-design or commercial display context, suggest that late modernist sensibilities may in fact lie behind designs that we perceive as merely functional or optimised.
Lee’s most ambitious prior group of works is the In Transit series, consisting of In Transit (Intro) (2016), developed and exhibited as part of the Seoul Museum of Art’s NANJI residency program, In Transit (2016), exhibited at Alternative Space LOOP in Seoul, and In Transit (Arrival) (2017), exhibited at Te Tuhi in Auckland. In this major group of works, Lee expands on the combination of steel structural elements and found objects. However, rather than rods, she employs hollow pipes, an ambiguous material that suggests domestic fittings like drying racks and bedframes, but also echoes the forms of public infrastructure such as subway railings, traffic barriers and lampposts. By employing these markers of internationalist urban infrastructure, Lee is directly engaging with the way public spaces are designed to direct and control an individual’s movements and interactions. The other elements of the work—umbrellas, table-tops, lights and clothed mannequins—suggest the presence of the human in this industrial ecosystem, but rather than the unruly tangle presented in Tangential Structures, these objects are linked into and supported by the railing system, suggesting that their presence is carefully controlled and staged. Crucially, In Transit also shows Lee’s interest in interpreting and interacting with the exhibition space itself, as her system of rails echoes and interacts with the spaces of the gallery itself.
Turn of Phrase is also a site-specific installation, intended to echo the architectural features of the space where it is displayed. Hanging elements extend the lines of the ceiling beams, complicating the viewer’s lines of sight and directing their movements through the space. Extending the linear minimalist language of the slat-wall works into three-dimensional space, these elements speak to the way commercial and public spaces are constructed to channel customers and citizens into designated spaces, perhaps without their even realising it; however, by making the hanging a visually permeable screen, suggestive of wind chimes or op-art moire patterns, Lee softens the draconian potential of the gesture by inviting the viewer to look—and perhaps step—through.
However, to reduce Lee’s work to an exercise in tongue-in-cheek post-modernism is to miss the genuine lyricism that suffuses her works. Each hanging object, whether suspended from the ceiling or hooked into an MDF wall panel, is a small meditation on the poetics of gravity. Lee is comfortable with the idea that pieces of the works might become detached and fall, and that the potential exists for viewers to move (or replace) parts of the work. Unlike a minimalist painting, these works contain within themselves the potential for expansion, change and even dissolution; if Frank Stella’s paintings are a kind of frozen music, Lee’s works are improvisations on a theme, deft interventions that deal with timely questions about our use and understanding of the spaces we inhabit.