by David M. Roth
Art that calls out injustice and hypocrisy seems to take one of two forms: gut punches aimed at eradicating ignorance or poetic appeals aimed at the heart. Hong Kong-born Bovey Lee opts for the latter approach. Her intricate cut-paper lattices, depicting complex human and environmental narratives, derive from the ancient Chinese folk tradition of paper cutting, a communal activity by performed by women who typically produce scenes of village life, often working anonymously and without credit. Lee brings that practice into the present by making it personal and by using a computer to create visual templates that guide the path of an Exacto knife. She uses it to carve labyrinthine constructions out of single sheets of rice paper, endeavors that can take anywhere from weeks to months to complete. It is impossible to view them without being wowed by the virtuosity she brings to the task. You may also feel pangs of empathy for the subjects pictured, as you become enmeshed in both the delicate skeins that comprise them and the dramas enacted therein.
Over the past decade Lee has focused her output mainly on China, on urban environments and on workers laboring in factories and fields, the common thread being networks that bind people together. Her current cycle, We Are All Mountaineers, examines the immigrant experience, portraying it, alternately, as a perilous ocean journey and as a radiant hillside city — constructed more as an obstacle course to be navigated than a place to inhabit.
We see the first in a quartet of star-shaped cutouts. Each contains a child treading water accompanied by various emblems of the American dream: an eagle, a toy house, a gavel. (The star shapes are, quite obviously, intended to represent those of the American flag.) It matters little that most people seeking refuge in the U.S. do so by land. Lee is more interested in universal truths than in demographic facts. As such, her depiction of castaways mirrors the reality of the U.S. where the government continues to incarcerate thousands of children who have been illegally separated from their parents. And while the artist doesn’t represent that saga directly, the delicacy and fragility of her entire enterprise and the obvious vulnerability of the children strongly suggest it, effectively bridging the gap between what’s seen and what we know to be true.
Elsewhere, Lee employs the shape of a tiara as a framing device for another symbolic piece of Americana, the white picket fence. However, in two such pieces on view, it’s the tiaras that stand out. They call to mind modern-day beauty pageants as well as one particularly trashy TV
show dating to the mid-1950s called Queen for Day in which housewives, plucked from the heartland, were awarded prizes (appliances, shopping sprees, clothing and vacations) based on the audience’s assessment of how dire their needs were. I doubt very much that Lee knows it, but for those of a certain age, the show will forever stand in memory as one of the more humiliating spectacles ever televised.
Lee, who arrived on these shores 1993 to study art, is a keen observer of American mythology and a fluent conjugator of its most potent symbols. She is also, judging by the “floating” character of her compositions, well-versed in calligraphy and traditional Chinese landscape painting. The exhibition’s twin title pieces – We Are All Mountaineers – Entry and We Are All Mountaineers – Exit – demonstrate her proclivity in this regard. Each portrays what Ronald Reagan, quoting John Winthrop, called “A shining city on a hill.” The first shows Greco-Roman columns festooned with doily-like floral shapes, tweety birds and toy cars. The second is modern city with skyscrapers similarly surrounded and adorned. These might be alluring images were the promise they offer not foreclosed by wrought-iron gates (in Entry) and by a towering wall near the top of Exit that looks a lot like the one being proposed for America’s southern border with Mexico.
Here it’s worth recalling Reagan’s 1989 farewell speech to the nation:
“I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.”
Needless to say, few people today see it that way. Bovey Lee certainly doesn’t, and neither, I suspect, do many foreigners seeking asylum in the U.S. Like the mythical city on a hill, Bovey's creations do indeed shine. What they illuminate, however, is injustice, cruelty and bald-faced lies.
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Bovey Lee: “We Are All Mountaineers” @ Rena Bransten Gallery to February 22, 2019.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.