whitehot | May 2009, Interview with Evan Lee
Evan Lee, Still Life with Stones, Shells, Fish and Comb ($5), 2006, courtesy of the artist.
Brad Phillips: You recently showed me images from a new body of work called, provisionally at least, 'Flashers' - do you want to talk about that a bit?
Evan Lee: Sure. ‘Flashers’ refers to the incidental double-subject of this new work. I had collected "self-shot" nudes and semi-nudes found through web searches. These were usually taken in front of a mirror in a bedroom or bathroom using a digital camera or phone, and somehow ended up online. The found images were interesting as examples of amateur photography, digital-age boudoir photographs and self portraiture, but I was especially taken by the ones where the camera flash is reflected in the mirror, causing an overexposure that effectively blows out any recognizable trace of the subject.
With the new work, I am also experimenting with a new technique. I found some old, expired colour photo paper and thought I'd try printing on the back of it; I had been producing most of my recent photographic work as giclée prints. Unsurprisingly, giclée printing is completely incompatible with darkroom photo paper. The pigment just sits on the surface and isn't absorbed. But this allowed me to work it further using brushes. Also, the Kodak watermark on the back of the paper stays visible in the overexposed parts and becomes part of the image.
BP: It seems to be that you're often trying to distance yourself from photography, whether it's through using brushes, printing on the back of the paper, using the scanner bed as a camera etc. Do you think living in Vancouver, working here, with all the looming baggage of being a photographer in this city has forced you subconsciously or otherwise to extend your practice so that it skirts the boundaries of what is considered 'straight photography'? Or more simply, are you actively trying to break away from the "Vancouver Scene" - assuming there truly is one.
EL: I think the distancing is more a consequence of some kind of internal struggle. I started out with drawing and painting. As I learned more about art, I became very aware of the power of photography as a medium (thanks in part to many photographers from Vancouver), and that opened a whole new world of artistic ideas and an accompanying means of communicating them for me that I just could not ignore. In time I realized that despite this, I never felt fully and comfortably immersed in the medium, so I had developed a practice whereby I simultaneously questioned it, and also tried to reconcile it with the other things I am interested in, in the hopes that if I was successful in creating something new, I would be able to recover something that I had lost. I would also say that if there is any deliberate distancing on my part, it would be better found in one of my straight photographs. The more deconstructive gestures come more from my own natural restlessness and curiosity.
BP: Do you want to talk about the paintings you've been making? You showed a series of drawings of elderly people at Monte Clark in Vancouver last year. But I know you are also making oil paintings that I haven't seen. Are you still painting secretly?
EL: I stopped. I never even came close to finishing one. It was something to do in-between projects.
BP: Okay. You showed both photographs and drawings at your last show in Vancouver, and now you're sort of drawing on photographs. Or painting. Can you talk a little bit about the stellar curves and the dismantled cameras, the ginseng roots and the instances in which you've used the scanner as a de facto camera.
EL: Although I was always interested in experimentation and exploring alternatives to using a camera, I wasn’t trying to stop making straight photography; I was looking for workarounds to lens/film that could work in dialogue with it. During 2004-2006, I made a few bodies of work using a desktop scanner instead of a camera. The result was like a digital photogram, which I liked because it was new, yet traditional to the point of being proto-photographic, or in the experimental spirit of modernist photography. I discovered the scanning process by accident. The French curves, as you see in the Stellar Curve series, were lying on top my scanner. The top of the scanner was up, and the device went off. The scanner captured in high-res every detail down to the scratches on the objects. Even more intriguing was the space that the scanner ended up capturing: made up of faint ambient light, dust, fingerprints and smudges on the scanner glass. I felt that it was important that this kind of non-real space could be represented with photography, even if it’s just an illusion of it. Finally, another important aspect of this work became my choice of objects to capture. They were often inanimate objects that were supposed to be evocative of things that were alive – the anthropomorphic French curves (a motif I borrowed from Frank Stella) re-imagined as aliens/deep sea creatures, ginseng roots, fishing flies or dollar store items that were meant to equate precious objects found in traditional still life paintings. The dismantled camera piece, titled “Every Part from a Contaflex Camera Disassembled by the Artist During Winter, 1998,” was a bit different in the sense that the scanning—as a way of making a picture—helped bring closure to a very early undocumented performance where I took apart a camera piece by piece on a quest to “find something” within it, knowing very well I wouldn’t.
BP: It never occurred to me to look for suggested imagery in the scanner pieces - I only saw a ginseng root or a stellar curve, I never thought to look at what those images also suggested. But I'm interested in the fact that initially the stellar curve piece was accidental. I usually assume that there isn't a lot of room for accidental or serendipitous discoveries in photography, but then maybe you aren't a photographer per se, and maybe I don't know that much about what I think I know something about. Obviously there is room for intense beauty in these accidental moments, and you leave it open ended so that while one person might see a sea monster, one person might see a pastry, or just a ginseng root. A cigar is just a cigar etc. Besides the Flasher series, what are you working on right now, and also I'm curious, what images keep you company in your studio?
EV: The accidental and serendipitous are what keep me coming back to photography. Sometimes those instances are hard to find, but at times I also feel they are in abundance, almost to the point of being a cliché , and then I start to feel bad all over again.
I have a Chinese brush painting of bamboo (don't know by whom), and some paintings/drawings/photos from friends on my walls. There is a painting of my wife at age 14 done by Bob Masse, who is an artist who has been making those art nouveau-ish psychedelic posters for the west-coast music scene since the 60's. Otherwise I keep it pretty minimal. When I find an image or object I like, it's in my nature to put it away to keep it safe. I picked up a few books on expressionism recently for their reproductions and they are lying around. My computer's desktop is quite a repository of jpegs from the news (lately of alleged local gang members) I find compelling, other works in progress and snapshots.