Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Lee Maxey

Lee Maxey. Tricky Triangle, 2022. Egg tempera on panel. 29 x 22 x 1.5 in. Imagery courtesy of Olympia.

By CLARE GEMIMA, December 2022

Lee Maxey’s most recent body of work invites sensations of suspense and expectation, and examines the experience of seeking meaning, even a type of magic, in the mundane. Through familiar subject matter painted with egg tempera, profound notions, such as longing for truth, transcend into lacklustre anecdotes, like looking to the clock for its time. I was fortunate enough to speak to Lee about her showcase with Olympia gallery at this year’s NADA fair in Miami, which is where I first saw her work. I also wanted to learn more about Lee’s personal experiences, and how they steer both her studio, and painterly processes.  

Clare Gemima: Lee, my first question stems from looking at your paintings, and remembering being dumbfounded by how close, and simultaneously divorced I felt standing in front of them. I would love to understand what proximity you had to the subjects you paint, and what the subjects are, exactly…

Lee Maxey: I choose subjects that are physically very close to me. The alarm clocks, for instance, are based on the same model I had in high school. I’m always looking and waiting for something in my everyday environment to jump out at me and show itself as odd or unexpectedly compelling. I was struck by the Tricky Triangle game after it had been hanging out on my black kitchen table for a couple of weeks; I suddenly noticed that the long shadows it cast were multicolored and made it feel towering, ominous. The several paintings of shadows first came from watching the same light move across the wall night after night during periods of insomnia. Those paintings are about time, and many of the other paintings are about our expectations of time. Sometimes I will place a drawing in a setting I live in or have seen, like the shooting stars in Fallout or in Christian science; it’s a way to play with my environment and make the familiar strange. Remarkable mystery can be felt most in the seemingly small, ordinary parts of life. 

CG: I have been told countless times about a religious background of yours. Does your biography play a large role in the work you exhibited in Miami?  

LM: My childhood was very focused on the future—the end of the world, the afterlife—instead of the here and now. In contrast to that, I want to show that the routine present is full of mystery, beauty, and is more worthy of our attention. People are hungry for an explanation of the world and their lives, so many turn to things like religion or conspiracy theories for easy interpretations. Seeing signs of a larger “plan” in the everyday world can lead to fear of it—at least that’s been my experience with my own family, and that mentality has invaded our larger political culture. My recent work intends to highlight that pervasive unease, while also demonstrating that the everyday, humdrum world is a plenty interesting place to exist without outsized meaning. 

CG: What was the experience of showing at NADA with Olympia Gallery in Miami like last month like? I actually saw you at a coffee shop at one point before the fair had opened, but didn’t stop you because you looked so ~professionally~ frantic. 

LM: I wish you’d said hi! I wasn’t sure what to expect of Miami or my first fair. It turned out to be a very positive experience; many people saw my work who might not have been able to elsewhere. It was also wonderful to be introduced to so many artists whose work I hadn’t seen before.  

CG: What other booths stood out to you at NADA, or any other fair during Art Week? 

LM: I was intrigued by Teresa Baker’s presentations at NADA and Basel; Oren Pinhassi’s sculptures at Basel; Magnus Maxine’s wonderful, dense works on paper with Sebastian Gladstone at NADA; and Chris Sharp’s cross-disciplinary booth at Basel. 

Teresa Baker. Trace, 2022. Willow, spray paint and yarn on artificial turf. NADA 2022. Image courtesy of the Artist & de boer, Los Angeles. Photo credit: Jacob Phillip.

CG: What is your process? I love the way your subjects fit right to the edges of your panels, almost like the subject has been photographed, and then cropped not so perfectly, and then painted meticulously. What on earth are you doing in your studio? 

LM: I usually start with drawing, often several until I find the right composition. I’ve found I have the best results when I sketch from life, when that’s possible. That process helps me weed out bad ideas. It also helps me find the perspective and composition with the most tension, which I usually am looking for. Then I use my drawing, and sometimes watercolor studies, alongside photographs as references. Egg tempera is very versatile, but for images like I am making, beginning with a precise sketch works best.  

CG: Which painter never fails to help you get back into the studio? 

LM: Right now, El Greco is my jam. Ellsworth Kelly is very generative for me too. I’ve been particularly enthralled by his collages, where you can see him experimenting and working through ideas. Quattrocento Sienese painting is my constant reminder that painting can be weird and is better for it. 

Osservanza Master, Saint Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness, ca. 1435. Tempera and gold on wood. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection.

CG: You painted almost all of your paintings last year. How long does it take you to finish a piece like Two Bushes say, compared to a more graphic painting like Facts to Face? How does your paint dry?

LM: Egg tempera dries almost immediately, which is the reason I first fell in love with it. The drying time allows me to build up layer after layer of color in a single painting session. Surprisingly, Facts to Face ended up being one of the slowest paintings of the group, because it took several tries to find the right color scheme. Luckily, that process paid off in the painting’s uniquely textured, bumpy surface. Two Bushes was slow in a different way; the grass and leaves required many layers to get those subtle color shifts, and to create the right textures.  

CG: Four, Time Will Tell, and To a Degree all depict different messages from the alarm clock. What significance does this old-school digi-device carry in your painting?

LM: We look to clocks to tell us a specific fact, the time, and I wanted to exploit that expectation of a clear message. All three of the paintings you mention use the language of the alarm clock—glowing dots or lines, but the messages are illegible. Yet it still feels like a sign. It’s open to interpretation. In the large grisaille Time Will Tell, the five dots could read as a constellation, phenomena to which people have assigned meaning for millennia.

Lee Maxey. Time Will Tell, 2022. Egg tempera on panel, 18 x 44.25 inches. Image courtesy of Olympia.  

CG: Which of your paintings satisfies your conceptual inquiries, or general intentions the most? 

LM: All of the work I showed in Miami came together to create a larger message, and in that sense, each of the paintings add context to one another. On Hold is ostensibly an image of a shell held between two fingers. The shell itself has holes from boring worms, but I’ve oriented the image in a way to encourage the shell to read as a landscape, night sky, and the holes as a constellation. Exhibiting that next to Time Will Tell and the circles of braille in the painting 4 suggests that all could be understood as signs of some larger, unstated message.  

CG: What’s happening now that Miami is over, and you’re back in New York. Where will your work be next? 

LM: I’m back in the studio and thinking about my next body of work. New ideas are stewing, and I’m picking up on the thread of the Miami work. I have a solo show at Olympia in early 2024 that I am planning.  

To read more about the artist and gallery, visit: https://olympiart.org/nada-miami-2022 WM

Clare Gemima

Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.

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