By BROOKE NICHOLAS April, 2022
Austin Lee is a classical painter, who happens to use cutting edge technology like Virtual Reality, 3-D modeling, motion capture, and 3-D printing. His work explores the contemporary condition, offering a mirror to consider what it means to be alive right now alongside the technology that shapes our collective experience.
I talked with Lee on April 4th, 2022 at Jeffrey Deitch (76 Grand in NYC), on the occasion of his exhibition, Like It Is. The show is on view until April 23. Below is an excerpt of our conversation for Whitehot Magazine:
Brooke Nicholas: When you were making this work, what felt important to you at the time?
Austin Lee: I’ve been trying to understand myself. I don’t always understand what I’m doing at the moment I’m making something. I have a lot of older works that I revisit now and understand so much better. I like how work can take on new meaning over time. I love that; the ability to have a little clarity, to see what I was dealing with unconsciously at the time. I know that to be true, that it’s still all in there, whether I knew it or not at the time.
B: That makes sense - and of course, the subconscious seeps into everything, but I am curious about the conscious parts of your work in, “Like It Is.”
A: The title of the show kind of references that. Not how it is but, “like it is”. Some resemblance of something filtered through me but not quite it. I consciously did something in this show that I don’t usually do. I referenced specific images in a straightforward way. I didn’t obscure them too much, I allowed these images' original meaning to be there, letting that meaning lie there, poking at it. That’s some of what I was doing, but like all of my work, this show is a mix. I like to take lots of ideas and I allow it all to form a little soup.
Alongside the popular images and art historical references in the show, I was also influenced by Rorschach Tests. I really didn’t know about them before! I started researching them and I learned that they aren’t just random inkblots, there’s actually one group of ten or so, the founder who made them, created a standardized set of them. I wanted to share with people what I was seeing when I looked at the tests. I wanted to make paintings that let you see what I see. It made natural sense to me also because in VR, you can make symmetry drawings. What I see in the tests is usually optimistic positive images. The way I deal with reality, apparently.
B: I wonder, with this exhibition, if the dark-side of being online is also part of this set of works.
A: In a way, yes, I like to acknowledge difficult things and find optimism. That’s my viewpoint, who I am as a person. I might lean more into the positive, superficial part. If I’m dealing with something difficult I might try to see the positive or optimistic point of view.
B: Do you really think it’s superficial? It feels more like “candy-coated” to me.
A: Just in how it looks, yeah, that’s the superficial I’m referencing. But if you go deeper... But, yes, it’s true. I use humor to deal with things, difficult and easy things. It’s not like the difficult stuff is removed. It’s still there. I'm just optimistic. Really, it’s that I think it’s important not to be cynical. Some of the paintings, like the Bill Gates painting, is a straight forward look at this attitude.
B: (Laughing) The original picture is strangely horny!
A: Yeah, I’ve always thought that photo is really funny! (Laughing) I was trying to think about the mindset of the ‘80s with technology and all that, and what the Windows team was thinking when they put that photoshoot together. They wanted to make computers look like this seductive thing that will solve all your problems. And yeah, computers do solve some problems, they do make some things better. Using that image of Gates felt symbolic for how we use computers now. Sure, it's a somewhat seductive experience, but it’s also really awkward and weird and we don’t totally understand it. I’m being playful about that experience, but I am examining how a few people can invent something that affects everyone it touches. I wanted to make a painting about that, how there are a few individuals that influence culture so much. It’s crazy how that works. It’s not just in the hardware. It’s the software, the things we interact with online or through programs that shape how our brains function. Like how instagram is designed. The incentives of a thing like Instagram really can create a whole new way that people live or how they think. It seeps into the culture. There are certain behaviors that are encouraged or manipulate behavior that become second nature. I understand that someone writing that software can be innocent or have okay intentions, but whatever they produce, depending on the scale, can change everything. I wanted to look at that part of life. My work is not a warning, it’s an acknowledgement, it’s just where we're at right now.
B: How did virtual reality become part of your work?
A: Rachel Rossin (rossin.co) introduced it to me, she showed me this VR world that felt like the old internet. It was really exploratory, it felt free, very cool. Being able to use the tech, and knowing about design and painting, helped me think about how the websites we use really influence our social behavior. VR, when I first learned how, was about discovery. I thought it was really great. Those moments on the internet have become so brief, like a discovery or a new technology will come out and before you know it, it becomes monetized and controlled. Maybe it’s human nature to do that. But I look for those brief moments with tech, the new idea that hasn’t been ruined yet.
B: Like an internet “utopia’? ...I realize that's not a one-size fits all word, one person’s utopia is always someone else’s dystopia.
A: Yeah, that’s a tricky word. I wouldn’t use utopia, though it does feel like we're in someone else’s utopia right now...
B: How’s this instead – You sound hopeful that people who develop the internet can expand into spaces that will be untouched by commercial interests
A: I do think it's possible. I wish more companies asked what's best for humans instead of what will be most profitable. But, even with good intentions, some great idea can draw people in, and then before you know something else is going on.
B: In the past few years you’ve produced immersive exhibitions that expand beyond the artworks. I’m curious if you could speak a little about the role of installation in your practice.
A: I don’t see why someone wouldn’t do that! B: (Laughing) - I think it's just a natural way I think about it all together. I have friends who are die-hard painters, so the entirety of the work is inside the painting.
It’s nice to use the space to support how someone is going to experience what you made. How paintings talk to each other, how the room is painted, every detail, it all affects how someone is going to read the work. After I finish making a body of work, I try to find the connections between each of the works, the overlaps, theme, whatever. It’s another opportunity to play with the meaning and intent of the work. I’m not trying to control what the viewer thinks, I’m trying to leave clues that affirm them if they are on the same page as I am. The installation part feels like it's the process of making sense between so many different pieces.
B: What is the exchange between digital and traditional art processes in your practice?
A: I love painting, I consider myself a painter first. But, I'm trying to figure out what “digital” even means to me. I’m exploring animation and sculpture more too. When I make a painting from a digital drawing I made in VR, I’ve rendered it in Blender and transferred it or 3D printed it, yes, there is an exchange between every part of that process. There are digital files that go with these paintings. They are more than what you see in the paintings. The paintings are a result, a choice to distill what I’ve created in VR into an art object. For example, the little blue figure, he came from an animation, you wouldn’t understand how he came to form without that information. So this show, and my last two shows, I’ve focused on granting people more access to the different parts of how I make my work, I’m peeling back the layers a bit.
B: What was your relationship to technology as a kid?
A: My dad had a nerdy friend that convinced him to get a computer. I didn’t really know anyone else who had a computer so it was really special. I loved making images on it and I'm sure having access to that at a young age influenced what I'm making today.
B: Would you say in that way, using VR is more of a return than a discovery?
A: Yeah, it feels natural. I used to make paintings with drawing tools and photoshop, I used to be interested in a kind of flatness because of those tools but now I'm interested in rendered shapes and atmospherics spaces. Just different ways of seeing an image. I like to keep my practice expanding, I don’t relate to a genre necessarily. I hope it keeps growing. It’s an important part of the work, being open minded, and sharing what I’m feeling and thinking. WM
Brooke Nicholas is an independent curator based in New York City.view all articles from this author