Moving fluidly through the landscape
Catherine Lee grew up in the Panhandle plains of Texas and spent the last 30 years in New York City. Recently, the acclaimed artist came back to Texas and decided, of all the places she could live, the Hill Country was where she felt most at home. Now, Lee has a pair of prominent projects showing locally: a two-person exhibition with Bodo Korsig at D Berman Gallery, opening this week, and the display of her work Raku Amends at the Blanton Museum of Art.
Lee's work is rooted in minimalism and postminimalism, but there's nothing minimal about the abstract language she creates using colors and forms. Lee moves between various sculptural mediums and processes: everything from raku ceramics and fiberglass to bronze, concrete, and steel – sometimes within the same piece. Looking at the work, her choice of colors and sense of texture took me back to high school art assignments, arranging various shapes of different colors into compositions, as well as finding pieces of American Indian pottery in Pot Creek, N.M. – a primitive language of utilitarian objects and symbolic shapes left behind.
The connection between Lee's sculptural work and a place is not apparent on first glance. But after spending a day visiting her studio in Wimberley, I was stunned by the way Lee moves fluidly through the landscape, walking her dogs by the Blanco River, noticing the shapes of the cypress tree trunk and roots, which relate to the shapes and language in her work. After the visit, she spoke to the Chronicle about her career, her process, and what she's learned.
Austin Chronicle: Can you talk about the two current projects in Austin and how they came about?
Catherine Lee: [Bodo Korsig] and I have known each other since the Nineties. We have been discussing ideas and art for years, hence the title of the show, "Exchange." Raku Amends just went on view at the Blanton Museum of Art. The piece is in their huge and glorious foyer, so it's the first thing you see when you enter the museum. I have kept my profile very low for the last 13 years in Texas, because this was my retreat from the art world, a place where I could just work. I can make things here that aren't allowed in Manhattan: welding, casting, kiln firings, etc. Everything I do seems to be fire-related, none of which was too popular with my neighbors in New York City. Now that I live in Texas full-time, it feels like the right time to share my work with this amazing community.
AC: How do you construct a title, and what do you like to get across with it?
CL: Titles are the fun part; all the rest is work. They almost always come after the piece is completed and not during the actual making of a work. Once the piece is finished, my relationship to it changes and a certain respectful distance develops. It may sound odd, but if the piece were not complete, then that sense of respect or worthiness wouldn't occur at all. I would have to keep working on it. Sometimes that is how I know when a thing is finished. Once complete, a title will reveal itself to me.
Most of my titles are a bit oblique. For example, the Hebrides sculptures: To me, it is relevant that these were spawned in the Outer Hebrides, [Scotland], where there are some amazing Stonehenge-like structures and massive menhirs [standing stones]. They are not meant to mimic any of these things, they are not representational, but they address that sense of awe I felt when I was there. In another series called the Clad Sentinels, I think they contain a sense of sentries standing guard, and the raku-fired ceramic facets that cover them are akin to armor, as if they are samurai or medieval warriors. To someone else, they might seem like ghosts, fence posts, or a dream they once had; you never know. We see what we need to see.
AC: After being an artist for more than 30 years, what keeps you inspired each day? And do you have any advice for the younger generation?
CL: Wow! OK, yes, advice. If you don't have to make art – and I mean really, really have to – then don't. You will spend years doing a thankless task, and maybe one day it'll be recognized, maybe not. It's only if you are compelled to make something that that kind of risk makes any sense at all, and even then it doesn't. Also, you can't do it part-time, though we all have to in the beginning, of course. But in the end, you have to give it everything you have, or else you'll end up making decorations and not art. There are other more important and noble things to be done anyway. My mother was an RN, and I have a sister who is an ER nurse, and I see every day how great a service they provide to this world. And yet I have to do this, so I do.
Staying inspired is never the problem; what I need are breaks. At 57, I realize there's no way I'll ever get it all done, never finish, never catch up, so I'm always at it. Sometimes I wish I could take a vacation, but my work just follows me around wherever I go. Artists don't really get weekends. And retirement? Forget it. What I do, making art, for me it's a good thing and a necessary thing.
"Exchange: Catherine Lee and Bodo Korsig" is on view Jan. 17-Feb. 23 at D Berman Gallery, 1701 Guadalupe. For more information, visit www.dbermangallery.com.