Contributed by Patrick Neal / The spacious new apartment gallery Nightshift in Crown Heights is in a charming pre-war brownstone. Hardwood floors with Celtic knot patterns, elegant banisters, inlaid lights, and period furniture appear to be complemented by attractive silver and gold metalworks that straddle the walls. Closer inspection reveals that these glistening low-relief wallworks are made of paper coated with graphite and metallic gouache. The illusion of metal is particularly radiant from different points in the entryway, where the shiny exterior textures of each piece capture the sunlight and warm colors of the surrounding room. These paper sculptures, along with drawings and collages, comprise Michael Aaron Lee’s “A Frame is a Line,” his inaugural solo show for the gallery.
His medium-scale works are largely monochromatic in black, white, or gold, although a few small collages made of playing cards retain the primary reds and blues of their source material. The drawings utilize matte inks and Flashe paint, and self-adhesive googly eyes appear in several pieces. Whether in two or three dimensions, Lee’s graphic works predominantly depict an ornate frame curiously absent of any central portrait or picture. Instead, the frames themselves become the subject, abounding with all manner of iconography and detail – art deco borders and flourishes; expressive fonts and words; and suggestions of carnival-esque gameboards and marquees, retro space-age paraphernalia, folksy album covers, and summer camp bric-a-brac. Allusions to Aleister Crowley-type black magic and occultism are also present, and cryptic phrases, numbers, and symbols accentuate and complement the frames. The drawings are cut into with ellipses, blips, and rounded corners. The paper sculptures, with their tiered decoupage formations, stand out as meticulous feats of craftsmanship.
Lee’s drawings, with their flat designs, suggestive of antiquated end papers and vintage signage, evoke Americana that might be collected on a transcontinental road trip. They too employ the vine and suit designs of the playing card collages and disembodied eyes, plus enigmatic notations like “Ohio 1929”, “5:55” and “4:44”. If the numbers and letters leave one guessing, the titles of the drawings – such as Future Specificity, Good and Dusty,and Alma Mater – provide better clues of the work’s sources and subjects. The drawing Freedom’s Just Another Word, featuring a frame adorned with reptilian scales and cobwebs, has the eerie, Gothic layout of a Ouija board or Tarot card, its center ringed with two keyholes and two empty portrait portals revealing a starry night in the distance. The hippy/carny stylings send a witchy chill up the spine, as if Janis Joplin had crossed paths with the Manson family.
The paper sculptures, with underlying metal armatures, protrude from the wall in layers of overlapping mattboard, like stepped pyramids or Popsicle-stick vases turned on their sides. These have dynamic, irregular shapes and compartments that resemble plaques, frames, emblems, grills, or badges. Works like Every Picture Tells A Story and Everybody’s Talkin’ are covered in bolts, rays, lattices, and starbursts suggestive of spotlights and proscenium arches. The patterned façades recall early American cinema, vaudeville, boardwalks, and speakeasys. Period references to literature, theater, and architecture abound: The Great Gatsby, the Ziegfeld Follies, the Chrysler Building. But the pervasive black graphite renders disparate sources equal, and the deliberate absence of any central subject makes a mash-up of familiar signs something more fetishistic and tribal.
Other sculptures, with traces of lenses, shutters, slots, capsules, or alien hieroglyphs, appear more sci-fi. The exteriors of the sister pieces Voyager and Voyager II suggest armor, aluminum, mercury, or acoustic tiles, and they incorporate human devices like foot and hand prints, arrows, and Morse code. There’s an implied tension between known artifacts and unknown regions: ice and water vapor alongside harsher chambers and labyrinths. The two pieces together unfold as lyrical ruminations on the mission of the Voyager spacecrafts to collect and relay data on outer space, and as manifestations of mankind’s own past, present, and future mythologies. A trace of gold at the base of each of the four portals in Voyager II suggest the Voyager’s Golden Records – discs intended to inform alien civilizations about life on Earth if they are ever discovered.
Lee has mentioned Tramp Art frames from the late Victorian era and Great Depression as an influence on his work. Made from cheap wooden cigar boxes whittled with pocketknives, these frames were gussied up with wood chips to show off family photographs. In reimagining the bygone frames, Lee segues from naive folk art to a more sophisticated pop appropriation mode, casting the frames as expressions of personal and national identity. Borrowing, replication, and self-conscious doubt raise issues about originality and authenticity in relation to received wisdom and cliché. Illusion is a central preoccupation, and Lee’s paper pieces suggest entrapment in The Matrix, where reality is a simulated jungle of signs and symbols.
His frames are thematically akin to Allan McCollum’s Perpetual Photos, Plaster Surrogates,and Shapes Project. By imposing a sociological reality check on the role of art in a capitalist culture, both artists challenge claims that painting and sculpture embody transcendence and universality. Both ponder the facts and fictions surrounding individual license, shared heritage, and pioneering spirit. Central to their critique are novel formats that ape the vernacular of Modernism and read as mere signals of something truly genuine. While McCollum’s works are austere, Lee’s are elaborate, extending his graphic materials to their full metaphorical potential. On this score, Joseph Cornell is among his artistic ancestors. Through a poetry of juxtapositions, found doodads, literature, and ephemera, Lee and Cornell capture a quality that is personal, profound, and distinctly American. Deftly navigating all the artifice, Lee emerges with his own sensibility and storyline intact.
About the author: Patrick Neal, a regular contributor to Two Coats of Paint, is a painter, freelance art writer, and longtime resident of Long Island City. His solo show, Anonymous: Oasis will be on view at Joyce Goldstein Gallery, Chatham, NY, from October 21 through November 25, 2023. Neal is curator of the group exhibition, The Mirror Blue Night, on view at Undercroft Gallery, The Church of Heavenly Rest, New York, NY, beginning in September 2023.