INTERVIEW WITH MINDY LEE
Marianne Walker, October 2019
Mindy Lee is an artist exploring autobiographical narratives through domestic routines, rituals and motherhood, to re-explore relationships through internal and external states. I first came across Mindy’s work at Camden Arts Centre, Peer Forum 2017/18 (supported by Art Quest) She was showing her work as a part of a presentation on the Contemporary Female body and the Grotesque. As part of her presentation she showed a piece called Reassembled Mother which seem an ideal piece to include when I was invited to curate a drawing show at the Blyth Gallery, The Flesh of Thought. We met up for a brew and a chat, which seemed like a good opportunity to find out more about her art practice, starting with her approach to drawing.
Mindy Lee & J.A.L.-B, Reassembled Mother, 2018, Acrylic, acrylic pen and thread on cotton,149 x 217cm
Marianne Walker: I consider Reassembled Mother to be a drawing, is that how you consider it?
Mindy Lee: Why do you think it is a drawing?
MW: Drawing is intention as much as the material used. If you intend to make a drawing with paint then it is a drawing. For me it is a drawing with paint; I can see it in the drag of the line.
ML: Thanks Marianne, it is interesting to hear definitions of drawing, as there is such a blur between drawing and painting. In terms of intention to make a drawing, I didn’t have a premeditated idea to make either a drawing or painting. I was working with a pre-given (the contribution from my son) which included both painting and drawing. I knew it had to keep my contribution brief and open, so I didn’t overwrite my given. Thinking about drawing really helped me with this. I am a heavy sketchpad user to catch and develop ideas. My sketchpad has compressed shorthand that lets the air in and out of things. A line can represent so much simultaneously… For example thinking about the head into the body in Reassembled Mother, the lines could be blood, unravelled Frankenstein stitches, thought lines, motion gestures... all of the above. This opens the image up to more possibilities. I was losing a lot of this when it came to translating the idea into paint. Fleshing things out closed possibilities down. I wanted to use a drawn language to extend or compress my painting language. Having said that, I now more consciously keep my sketchpad head on, without donning my Painting Cap so to speak, so the drawing can have more of a say. I’m thinking drawing when painting. I am sorry if that’s a drawn out sideways answer, its not very clean cut for me. For me it is both a painting and a drawing. I am going to use painting to talk about my work, the rest of the time, as my history is from painting, so it’s my habit, but you can also substitute drawing in its place if it helps.
MW: Did you want the work to be like a relic?
ML: I am glad you asked this. My paintings are very much like relics. For this piece the handling of the fragments of paintings also gives it a relic feel. Starting with rough cut pieces of cloth, or even soiled rags, if you like. She is then delicately and intricately stitched (back) together. I very much had in mind restoring and repairing a painting/fresco and leaving blank spaces where information had been lost. She could be part of some much larger tapestry, or banner. This enables the work to move from a present everyday into a charged mythology. It elevates its status to a significant moment, but not from one specific moment in time. So she could have been created two years ago, or two hundred years ago etc.
MW: It reminds me of an image that would not be out of place in a gothic church, would you agree? It seems to embody an eternal human story/truth.
ML: Oh I would love to see her hanging in a Gothic Church! Actually we spoke a lot about the Gothic in Peer Forum. There is a lot of the Romantic Gothic within the work; how birth/life and death are intertwined, as are passion and decay. Also the body is not contained, with a slippage between our inner and outer selves, and even the loss of the sense of self. There is also the appeal of reframing an everyday occurrence into something strange and uncanny. I agree with embodying an eternal human story. I am sourcing my own personal experience to make the work. Becoming a mother is a relatively new experience for me, but it is not a new experience in itself. Motherhood obviously goes back to the beginnings of us all. The cycle reoccurs over and over, engrained through time, and continually reforming over ghosts of our ancestors. Reassembled Mother needs to also be engrained with a deeper, timeless history. It is great you feel she could come from this place.
"I feel my work is a more deliberately messy and turgid affair. It’s lots of things all at the same time. It is complex and contradictory, elusive and emotionally subjective. "
Open Wide, 2019, Acrylic on cotton handkerchief, 39 x 38cm
Image Credit: Nick Manser
MW: I feel it has similar qualities to the Turin Shroud - residue and stains but also an effort to remind, remember and venerate.
ML: Yes exactly! It is both a sacred and profane painting. The image is revealed through what seems like soiled and sweated skin. The stains leave a ghostly image of an aftermath, as though it appeared on its own, rather than me/us making it. A mother re-assessing her own body and own identity after childbirth is a significant moment. It needed preserving to remember. It should be elevated and celebrated.
MW: What’s your son's involvement?
ML: Both my son J.A.L.-B. and myself made this piece of work. I have been working this way since before he could hold a brush, say since he was 6 months old. My son begins with playing paint games which capture his painting, drawing and physical movement across the surface (including his footprints, which you can see). I edit these and contribute responsively, mimicking the palette and some of his gestures as a way to align and fuse our painterly narratives. So basically, he starts the work and I finish it. As he has become more of his own person, his paintings have changed and become more complete, so I have been unable to find space or the heart to adapt them. This is one of the last pieces we have both contributed to. It was timely (I made it just before he started school) and I could already feel a shift and an end to working this way. The last few paintings gave me the opportunity to re-look at what had happened to me since becoming a mother and explore how I am beginning to re-emerge.
MW: How do you feel about the relation to Mary Kelly’s work?
ML: Do you mean her Post Partum Document?
ML: There is a direct relationship, starting with the duration of making autobiographical art with our child from roughly birth to school age. We both incorporate our own and our child’s voice in our practice. Her work paved the way for me to be able to make mine. I even started this series with a working title of Post Partum as a respectful nod to Mary Kelly. But there are also lots of differences. Mary Kelly analytically documents an accumulation of evidence to quantify her experiences through vigorous cataloguing. It is a conceptually tight framework. I feel my work is a more deliberately messy and turgid affair. It’s lots of things all at the same time. It is complex and contradictory, elusive and emotionally subjective. There is no deciphering key or facts to quantify. I also have quite a gothic sense of humour in my practice.
MW: Why is it on a bed sheet, it is like your son was born on, or came out of it, or was conceived on it?
ML: Exactly for these reasons: The bed can be sensual and sexual, but also a place of comfort and for the subconscious to play out in dreams. It can cradle the body from birth to death. The surface itself has something to say, to contribute to the painting narrative, (rather than using a pre given we ignore, like stretched canvas, or a blank sheet of paper). The past few years I have been using domestic fabrics and clothing. They have a relationship with our skin and are affected by skin through daily wear and tear. These soft surfaces are a second skin. The bedding already holds a memory of the body on it, the surface is already charged with its own history before paint touches it.
MW: It is really big!
ML: It is.
MW: Why is it so big?
ML: Well, she is patch-worked together like an exquisite corpse of head, body and legs. Her shape and scale shifted through making, layering cutting and folding. She both grew and shrunk. Even through making, she was adapting and evolving to form a monumental Frankenstein hybrid. The experience should feel bigger than myself, bigger than an individual. It is a beautiful grotesque icon. I wanted a monumental relic as celebration of the female body's resilience and the ability to change.
Rainbow Taker, 2019, Acrylic on cotton handkerchief, 39 x 38cm
Image Credit: Nick Manser
Mindy Lee with Reassembled Mother.
Installed as part of Flesh of Thought, Blyth Gallery, 2019
Image Credit. Bachir Taouti
MW: Is it important is it disgusting?
ML: Yes. Life’s not a clean business. Memories bleed together into fused recollections, tainting and flavouring each other depending on where we are up to when we remember. We are visceral fleshy bodies that smell, sweat, weep, bleed and shed. These excretions can be taboo, but are no threat when translated into paint. Paint is beautiful and seductive, even when it looks disgusting. I need that in the work, a push and pull between seduction and disgust. It helps the work feel like real life and more humane to me.
MW: Your work walks a line between care and violence, can you elaborate on this tension/punch/battle of wills?
ML: It does walk the line. I think the battle of the wills is the perfect summation. My work is not an idealised vision of motherhood. It is just how it is, how it is experienced day-to-day in terms of the love and the grit. The manipulations we perform and/or endure to negotiate our way through the simplest of actions, like dressing or teeth cleaning. They are precarious moments that need navigating by both mother and child. They are also precious moments. It is about the shifting interactions and repositioning the overlaps. The ebb and flow of individual willpower to pull apart and come together through tantrums and loving trust, to be separate and united. Often it is on the knife-edge for the viewer to decide which way this is going to go. Again it’s a sensation of an open moment, not a prescribed, delineated narrative.
MW: Who are you looking at painting-wise in your own practice?
ML: Interesting you ask painting wise. I have been recently looking at Maria Lassnig, Emma Talbot and Nick Goss. I’ve just been introduced to Claire Tabouret’s work and saw her paintings for the first time at Almine Rich Gallery today. It’s a great show and well worth a visit. Oh, and I am also very into Hannah Murgatroyd's work. I am sure you are saying to yourself that there is also a lot of drawing going on in that mix of painters!
MW: Yes, I'd agree - I first saw Emma Talbot's work in the flesh at the Drawing Room last year and Hannah Murgatroyd's at the Draw Now fair earlier this year and I engaged with their works as drawings. Even though paint is involved in their construction I feel that it has been applied as a drawn mark, with the same immediacy of intention as works made in the traditional sense of drawing, with dry media. I am very aware though that I am not a painter, and have been concentrating on monochrome drawing for a good 17 years, so it would be good to know how you feel about my definition? Perhaps, if an artist is a painter, then the tools most readily to hand to make drawings would naturally include paint and why should we separate them? It is very hard to articulate that line between them and a very interesting line it is!
ML: The intention to make a drawing is a good way to put it. But intention doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what will happen in the end. Other things can sneak into play. For me drawing is a very direct experience between heart, thought, eye and hand. I cannot definitely draw a line between painting and drawing. I say, let them bleed together and collapse into each other.
MW: What do you do next? How do you develop?
ML: I still feel a loss not working with my son's painting, but I am finding and developing my own voice again, taking on board some tactics I have learnt from my son's approach to making. I am working on handkerchiefs. These by contrast are very small intimate pocket-able moments to carry with you. You saw a few of the hankies at the Ghost Changing Room exhibition at Wimbledon Space. They were a gift from my grandmother to my family. They have a great visceral history as well as patterns or insignias, which I am responding to. I am about halfway through this series, revisiting domestic events. I’m also making work on tea towels and pillowcases, some of which reference my family history. I’m looking forward to seeing them accumulate all together at some point, maybe in a solo show. For the moment what happens next in the work will mirror what happens next in life. Let’s see what the future brings.
The Flesh of Thought is a group drawing exhibition, curated by Marianne Walker. It explores how drawing is a form of incarnation, how it is able to put the flesh on the bones of thought.
Artists: Zoe Dorelli, Mary Griffiths, Mindy Lee, Robin Mason, Stephen Palmer, Cat Roissetter, Anita Taylor, Marianne Walker, Sarah Woodfine.
The Flesh of Thought
Blyth Gallery until 1 November 2019
Level 5 Sherfield Building
Imperial College (off Exhibition Road)
Ghost Changing Room
Wimbledon Space until 11 November 2019
Wimbledon Space, Wimbledon College of Art
Merton Hall Road