Jinn Bronwen Lee at Regards
A painting show in Chicago plays with the gallery space and shows that painting still has a few tricks left to wield
Barbarita Polster is an artist, writer, and current faculty at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and North Park University, Chicago, IL.
Jinn Bronwen Lee
March 26 - May 7
You must keep an eye on Jinn Bronwen Lee’s paintings, because one might suspect they are keeping an eye on you — an unsettling observation, since the only recognizable elements in the smoky, eerie works are the occasional disembodied jaw, lined with rosy gums and dotted by a few teeth. Lee’s exhibition of seven paintings prompts unease, an awareness of a shifting movement at one’s back which no sudden pivot would reveal. Significantly, near the entrance presides St. Bartolomeo flowers (Joe McPhee Cosmic Love 2:22 to 3:10), a darkly textured, circular canvas hung above average height, appearing as both charred moon and oculus. Shrouded in the metaphysical fury of McPhee’s 1970 jazz composition, the title also conjures Bartholomew the Apostle, the martyr often depicted in duplicate, carrying his own skin draped over bare-muscled arm as a testament to his gruesome demise.
A similar doubling recurs throughout the exhibition, most overtly in folie à deux or “the (shared) madness of two,” a tombstone-shaped work revealing two sets of teeth floating in the murkiness, illuminated by an off-white rupture, like a damp campfire that casts smoke across the surface of the canvas. The illusion of space swirls from shallow to deep, the expression of the twin mouths from maniacal to anguished, as the ruddy, dashed textural marks toward the base of the work make no narrative commitments. Elsewhere, as in Lucia, the singular title stands in for two adjacent arched canvases, a set of reciprocal gray-toned works possessing related compositions and ghostly feathered marks, but squaring-off with inverse tones and hues–a carving from stone and its negative.
Bartholomew the Apostle lends the work not only his doubling, but also his membranous quality. Grimacing back at folie à deux is the slightly smaller work, Love Letters on Organ Alone, a piece at once smoldering and filmy, with a singular tooth-lined jaw hanging in the lower right-hand corner. Lighter in value than the other works, the translucent, wispy brushstrokes mirror and repeat, while the grin itself is mimicked in darker shape farther above in the composition. Like skin pulled across the stretcher, Lee worked the canvas in layers, painting at times from directly in front of the canvas and at others, from the left or the right. These physically embodied perspectival shifts lend a holographic quality to the paintings, reaffirming the sense that the work never quite lays still.
The most devious transformation occurs with subtlety, however: through barely perceptible architectural sleights of hand. In a number of sites throughout the white-walled exhibition space, corners have been rounded at the seams, casting the gallery into perpetual movement. These smoothed corners likewise suggest cobwebs, a reminder of the spider as the symbol of both trickery and the passage of time, par excellence. By underscoring the architectural rubric determining the installation and calling attention to the unique arrangement of the work, these interventions make the viewer keenly aware not only of the violated conventions of display but of her own body moving in space. St. Bartolomeo flowers and the companion circular canvas, Box–(pause)–three, spool—(pause)—five, hang suspended above the head of the viewer, operating more like small windows than art objects. The correlation between the two circular pieces draws attention to the mezzanine level of the gallery, with one painting installed above and one below, transforming the mundane act of passing up the stairs into a gesture of Ascension. Similarly, the remaining five arch-shaped canvases become the windows of a castle or cathedral, but with their characteristic slyness, it remains unclear whether one looks out or the paintings look in.
By investing the paintings with a sculptural presence, Lee transforms the gallery into a spellbinding cathedral. The trickery doubles as a form of transubstantiation. As in Roman Catholic transubstantiation, where the bread and wine are not merely symbols of the body and blood of Christ but the actual body and blood of Christ, Lee’s careful spatial conception transforms the phenomenological substance of the paintings into architecture. Rather than experiencing the works symbolically and positively as paintings on the wall, the entirety of the gallery space itself becomes positive, while the paintings gain interiority–or better perhaps, exteriority. They exist as entities unto themselves, capable of mischievously impressing themselves upon the viewer within the exhibition space, while also serving as points of withdrawal, offering entry into an analogous dimension. In this way, Lee shows that painting, in its ability to support multiple discourses — whether the traditional religious depictions of St. Bartolomeo throughout history or the present material cunning of architectural forms — still has a few tricks left to wield.