One of the clichés of art appreciation is that a work of art must speak for itself, but that is only true to a point. The knowledge that we bring to a viewing greatly determines what the work of art says to us. The way an artist thinks about her work does not have to be controlling, but it is usually helpful and insightful. Just so a two hour conversation with Jocelyn Lee.
As a fine art photographer, art educator and proprietor of a not-for-profit gallery space, Jocelyn Lee has established herself as one of the most important photographers working in Maine in the 21st century. Though I had a chance to write about her body of work Portraits of Women and Girls briefly in Photo District News in 2014, I had been waiting for an opportunity to engage with the artist and her art in more depth and her major exhibition, The Appearance of Things, at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland (June 16-October 14) provided that opportunity for dialogue.
The Appearance of Things was a novel exhibition, or perhaps even a novel of an exhibition, featuring some 40 of Jocelyn Lee’s gorgeous chromogenic prints, saturated in color, full of images of flowers, fruit and females, all presented in constellations of prints hung against gallery walls as dark as the night sky and the unconscious mind. Though some of the images are drawn from Lee’s archive, the exhibition was not a retrospective, rather it was an edited selection of work old and new that amounted to a poetic, feminine narrative of the human life cycle, women and girls, flora and fruit in bud and bloom and decay.
“The show is not about individual identity but rather the shared material truth of all living things,” says Lee. “I tried to blend and overlap all the genres–portrait, still-life and landscape – to describe the continuum of the sensual world and our place, as human beings, in it. It’s about life cycles, the Buddhist concept of samsara: the unending cycles of birth, death and rebirth, that are almost like a dream. It is also about perception and our ability to know and make meaning of the world, based on our sensory apparatuses: eyes, skin, nose, ears, sense of touch and nervous system. We understand the world because we apprehend it through our senses. ”
The path to photography
I first saw a preview of The Appearance of Things at Speedwell Projects, Lee’s non-profit gallery in the Woodfords Corner section of Portland, and it was there that I got to sit down with her for a few hours in August.
Jocelyn Lee, 56, carries herself with the grace of an athlete though her dark-rimmed glasses can give her an academic look. Indeed, she is an artist, an athlete, an activist and an academic. Born in 1962 in Naples, Italy, where her father was employed at the time, she grew up in Larchmont, New York. She comes by her athleticism as a birthright, her father having been an All-American basketball player at Yale, one good enough to be drafted by the New York Knicks and to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. She comes by her activist streak by way of her mother, a pioneer in the hospice movement as well as in promoting the Equal Rights Amendment.
Lee came by her devotion to art, however, only by overcoming parental resistance to such an impractical calling. Though she first discovered and fell in love with photography at Mamaroneck High School, she was recruited to Colgate University as a diver. It didn’t take long, however, before Lee realized she was more interested in creating than in competing.
After dropping out of Colgate, Lee took a year off to redirect and focus on art making and dance. She took photography courses at the State University of New York in Purchase for a year before enrolling at Yale to study philosophy and studio art. As an undergraduate at Yale, she managed to sit in on graduate courses and crits, the Yale MFA program being one of the country’s premier photography programs.
“I sat in on all the graduate photography critiques, all the sculpture critiques and the painting critiques,” recalls Lee. “Yale gave me a chance to meet people who had made the decision to commit their life’s work to being an artist. I did not come from a family where this was even in our vocabulary.”
In addition to photography, Lee studied modern dance at Yale and, after graduation in 1986, she moved to New York City where she studied with pioneering choreographer Erick Hawkins, who danced with and was briefly married to Martha Graham.
“Being a dancer and a diver is about one’s body and space, and understanding living form,” says Lee. “My photography work is so sculptural and form-based that, although no one ever makes this connection, I think it is deeply rooted in my history with dance and diving.”
Lee had progressed to the point where she might have become a member of a dance company when she had an epiphany that propelled her in a different direction.
“A turning point for me was one day while I was walking the street of New York City,” she explains, “and it occurred to me that as a dancer I would be the tool for someone else’s creativity. As much as I loved the Hawkins’ technique as a dance form and practice, I didn’t love his choreography. It was a pivotal realization. I made the decision right then to go back to school for an MFA.”
Because she was working in New York as an assistant to British artist, writer and photographer John Coplans, a founding editor of Artforum, and because she had already experienced Yale, Lee enrolled in the MFA program at Hunter College, which at the time was under the influence of post-modernism groupthink, the new orthodoxy that valued ideas over images, concept over craft.
“If Hunter gave me one thing,” says Lee, “it made me clear about what I wanted to do because I had to defend myself every day. I became very strong, but it was a fight.”
Initially, Lee went down a documentary path, pursuing a self directed project on teen-age parents in Boston and Texas, which led to being invited by Harvard child psychiatrist Robert Coles to photograph teenagers for the book The Youngest Parents (1997).
“I’m really interested in people and making psychological portraits,” says Lee, “but after doing the teen parents photographs I realized I didn’t want to do documentary photography. I was more interested in the poetic than a rigorously truth-based genre. I also felt very restricted and responsible to the subjective truth of the subject – the story they wanted to tell was not the story I wanted to tell.”
The road to Maine
Having taken courses at the Maine Photographic Workshop and having been a summer visitor to Maine, Lee jumped at the chance to teach at Maine College of Art after she graduated from Hunter in 1992. What began as a one-year sabbatical replacement position turned into a nine-year stint at MECA (1993-2001) after which she taught at Princeton University (2003-2012).
In Maine, the landscapes became Lee’s studio and she made the switch from black and white to color. The colors in some of Lee’s photographs are so visceral and rich that they seem to bleed color. And in a digital age, she is still married to film. Though she owns a Leica digital camera, she primarily shoots with a medium-format Mamiya RB 67 and a Mamiya 7, creating images that she outputs on a large Epson printer at Speedwell projects.
“I don’t like the way it [the Leica] represents the world,” says Lee of her preference for film. “The world that I capture with my camera has been consistent, because the lens on the world has been consistent.”
Lee values the deliberate, laborious technology of film over the instant gratification of digital imagery.
“The thing that struck me about photography at 17 was that it was a way for me to slow the world down so I could think about the nature of the world,” she says. “The world just went too fast for my sensibility.”
When I tell Jocelyn Lee that I signed many copies of my 1990 book Maine Art Now with the words, “The work of art is the search for meaning,” she gets goosebumps. The only way I understand art is as a form of personal and philosophical inquiry, every bit as rigorous and fact-finding as science”. And that is how Lee practices her art.
“This is really about me trying to make sense of the world” Lee says. “I tell my students that art is how you make meaning in the world. It is an investigation. It’s about what matters to you, not about making pretty pictures.”
The mother of two, Lee lives in Cape Elizabeth with her husband Brian Urquhart. While she is privileged to show and sell her photographs at Pace/McGill Gallery in New York City and Flatland Gallery in Amsterdam, she is well aware that the vast majority of fine artists struggle to find a venue and an audience. It was for that reason that she and her husband purchased the large building at 630 Forest Avenue in Portland which had previously housed a stained glass studio and turned it into Speedwell projects.
Since Speedwell projects opened in 2016, the gallery has presented exhibitions and events related to such challenging topics as mental illness, gay love, our throw-away society, empowering women, the abstract interface of music and art, and a cadre of poets speaking and reading in response to the 2017 presidential inaugural.
“We created Speedwell Projects so we could show the work of artists who are under-represented,” Lee explains. “First we thought we would focus on later career artists, but now we feature emerging artists as well as mature artists and artists who have experimental bodies of work. We want to do whatever we can to help artists get to the next step.”
The Appearance of Things
Jocelyn Lee’s The Appearance of Things was exhibited at Huxley-Parlour Gallery in London in April and May and was previewed at Speedwell projects before its four-month run at CMCA. A catalogue with an essay by Bill Roorbach is in the works.
The preponderance of female figures young and old and the sumptuousness of the floral still-life photographs, some created by Lee floating her wedding bouquets in a tub of water, make it easy to overlook the fact that there are no male figures in the exhibition. When men do appear in Lee’s photographs they tend to be older males, often pot-bellied and bearded, men of an age to have dropped the macho armor to allow themselves to be sensitive and vulnerable. Lee’s penchant for older men may owe a bit of a debt to John Coplans, who is famous for photographing his own body as a study in aging.
Jocelyn Lee belongs to a new wave of photographers, in particular women artists, who are redefining and challenging cultural norms about the lives of women. Her images of women and girls are part of a contemporary photo-dialogue that includes the work of artists such as Sally Mann, Katy Grannan, Justine Kurland and Catherine Opie. Lee’s photographs of Rubenesque women and older women subvert conventional notions of female beauty.
“I think they are beautiful in the deepest sense,” says Lee of the women she chooses to photograph. “If there is anything political in my work it is showing all body types, people who are at peace with their bodies and who have a real connection to the earth. It’s a radical acceptance of the human condition, a radical empathy.”
The male gaze is lustful, seeing the female body as a thing of sexual pleasure. The female gaze is more respectful, able to see the female body as sensual without reducing it to a sexual object.
The Appearance of Things then was a sensory experience of the feminine imagination, images untitled and unnumbered free floating in the dark space of Jocelyn Lee’s subconscious. Though she prescribed no sequence to the images, now one way of seeing, Lee herself knew where the exhibition beings and ends.
“It ends with an image of my mother with her eyes closed,” she says, referring to a photograph of her late mother sitting, eyes closed, against a simple landscape horizon, her body against the green earth, her head in the milky white sky, “almost as though she has dreamt this world.”
No, exactly as if she had dreamt this world.
(Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer in Brunswick. He has been writing about the Maine art scene since 1978.)