Tim Lee’s large-scale ink drawings and paintings on rice paper are, at a first glance, tightly bound with the visual aesthetics of Chinese painting, while simultaneously referencing elements of traditional European art. The conflation of these visual cultures is unsurprising: Lee is a British artist of Chinese descent.
But the work does not just amount to a reverential homage to these past cultures. The construction of this work is a slow meditation on composition, where the artist enacts an exploration of the pictorial space (and a very physical one: at certain points moving back from the work, assessing it under altered light conditions, even making “passes” of the hand over the paper, feeling, in a literal sense, his way through the construction of the image). The works do not grow from background to foreground as in traditional painting, and are not planned as an overall image, but are in a sense unveiled through a nomadic meandering across the paper, where entire sections are completed before stepping back and deciding which direction to take next. This lack of a dominating, pre-established composition can explain why these paintings often operate best when the eye is allowed to roam slowly across the surface.
The elements that give this work a sense of melancholy are overt and manifold: monochrome or muted palettes, the delicacy of the materials and of the technique, traditional symbols of the frailty and finitude of human life (flowers, butterflies, skulls, dead animals). But this is a melancholy intrinsically linked to a sense of loss, a nostalgia. In one respect the cause of the nostalgic sentiment is apparent: the loss of the artist’s link to his cultural heritage, or the loss of traditional craftsmanship, for example. But unlike many contemporary approaches to nostalgia, the emphasis here is on the ‘-algia’ –the pain, the regret – of the term.
These preoccupations with sadness and loss are of course ultimately explorations into what defines us as humans. But further to a habitual questioning of the human condition, (life and death, good and evil) Lee’s work seeks to address its extremes, the limits of “humanity” and what the human becomes once those limits have been transgressed.
I’m not looking for perfection, I like the near misses much more.”
Tim Hon Hung Lee