Michael Aaron Lee: Lost and Found in America
*Michael Aaron Lee: Cryptographics, Dineen Hull Gallery, Hudson County Community College, Jersey City, NJ *
In the Spring of 2023, the artist Michael Aaron Lee had a, solo show, A Frame is a Line, at NightShift Gallery in Crown Heights, Brooklyn1. Visiting the gallery, it was instructive to track the evolution of Lee’s work —from small-scale collages made from playing cards, to complex, wall sculptures made from stacked paper. This exhibition explored the manipulative possibilities inherent in found objects, and Lee’s initial curiosity and creative play would enlarge and expand into something more complex and all encompassing. The collages, drawings, and low-relief paper sculptures that comprised A Frame is a Line reappear in Lee’s new exhibition Cryptographics, on view at Hudson County Community College this Fall. But now we are treated to a more comprehensive overview of Lee’s accomplishments as a draftsmen, and the wider breadth of time sheds light on the genesis of his creative vision.
Before addressing some of the works in Cryptographics, I found it useful to go back in time to understand how Lee arrived at three dimensional sculpture after so many years working on two dimensional graphic pieces. His paintings that span the years 2010-2015 have some of the primary hues of his playing card collages, as well as much of the reductive black, white and silver that he continues to employ. These early paintings reveal an interest in different mechanical processes and slick and shiny materials, and the compositions speak to the artifice of artistic production itself. Works of acrylic paint on mirrored plexiglass, collage, and urethane on canvas and panel embody simple, minimal subjects, like smoke and mirrors, woodgrain or brick walls. Clouds, rain, lattices, fences, stretcher bars, and keyholes are rendered with a stylized ambiguity that differentiates illusion from material fact. This melange of props is cast like characters in staged vignettes, and through their various interactions, evoke the mystery, riddles, or puns of a René Magritte painting. There is a mischievous quality to the narrative aspects of the subject matter that encourages imaginative roaming, before Lee wrests us back to the reality of impenetrable, concrete substance. As an example, the drawing Late Night With Modernism presents us with two cinematic views of a Brancusi-like sculpture that is dramatically spotlit. The dark sculpture fuses with the black background and its own cast shadow while a beam of light reveals a patchwork of details. The presentation feels both sacred and arcane as we marvel at the grand austerity of the artwork, even as it recedes into a rhythmic jungle of surface activity. With this body of work, the pleasure in mark-making is apparent, as Ben Day dots and half tone patterns mix and mingle with all manner of dabs, contours and grains. The dichotomies of front/back, negative/positive, and material forms (liquid, solid and gas), are pondered with the same wry humor found in Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop art paintings.
This earlier work leads directly to Lee’s Black Drawings, a series that enhanced the physicality of a work in the process of being made. Lee continued to depict subjects with distinctly tactile surfaces and grains—mirrors, boards, embossed tin, and rope, using oil pastel and china marker on cut and incised paper. Motifs like cards, folding screens, tiles and bulbs are bent, cracked, toppled or leaning, and there is an abundance of decorative patterning with intermingled forms. The subject is broken down into flat signs and symbols, including the ethereal illusions of shadows, reflections, space and depth. Broken Men’s Room Mirror (for Patrick Caulfield) is a tour de force of physical matter over mirage. It’s as if Lee has taken the reserve lines of Frank Stella’s shaped canvases and repurposed them to depict the tiling and grout of a men’s room wall on which a cracked mirror is hung. The sloped perspective of the wall, shattered glass, beveled pane, and corner screws that attach glass to wall, situate the viewer in a “hall of mirrors” interior. What are most physically apparent in these drawings are the waxy scuffs, streaks and deposits of pastel and marker, along with the irregular shapes and borders of the incised and cut paper. Other Black Drawings introduce words and titles like Frenchy’s El Morocco and Oui! that exist alongside symbols and are early indicators of Lee’s interest in simulated reality. Colorful logos and phrases serve as barometers of nostalgia that encapsulate and package history into ready-made soundbites or ideograms.
Lee, who received an MFA in painting from Hunter College in 2000, would likely have absorbed all the lessons of postmodernism, including a promiscuous embrace of past styles, innovations and cultures. Such a mindset honors artistic movements of the past while attempting to break new ground, without lapsing into outmoded representational idioms. A young artist might be skeptical to engage painting as an illusory window onto the world, without giving up on the expressive power of images entirely. An expansive, rather than linear, ethos many New Image painters were considering at the time, and clearly an aesthetic preoccupation that continues to excite artists working in the early twenty-first century (Marshall 7-13).
Despite their much smaller scale, Lee’s Black Drawings share an affinity with the monumental works of painter Donald Sultan, an artist who has sometimes been grouped with the New Imagists and made his name during the financial boom of the go-go 1980’s artworld. This period saw a glut of Neo-expressionist painting, before art atomized into many non-hierarchical styles and practices. It is interesting to consider how both Lee and Sultan approach the simple genre of still life via the lens of Minimalism and Process Art (Madoff 11-18). Both artists depict a variety of illusionistic subjects, while simultaneously drawing attention to the physical reality of representation. Lee prefers the fanciful suits, jesters and decorative flourishes of playing cards, while Sultan admires the basic geometries of dominoes, buttons, and lemons. In combing through art history’s pictorial possibilities, they land on a sensual appreciation of physical labor and industry that’s inextricably bound to the art object. In describing his Black Drawings, Lee remarked “I caked the paper surface with grease pencil and carved into it with a printmaker’s gouge to reveal the white layer underneath.” On a much larger scale, Sultans’ sculptural paintings comprise latex and tar on vinyl over Masonite, which he carves to reveal bright hues below, or sometimes fills the incisions with colored plaster (Arnason 627). Sultans’ works are mounted on architectural frameworks and stand away from the wall, while Lee’s drawings are grounded to match the contours of the sculptural motifs he represents.
Fast forward to 2023, where contemporary art faces new realities and discourses, notably the role of institutional critique, market, identity, and globalization. Much has been made of the lack of opportunities for middle class artists, accompanied by concerns that only the voices of upper class creatives are being heard (Tapper). Foregoing the large-scale pomposity of much 80’s art, Lee chooses instead to work on modest, small-scale pieces, using his apartment as a studio and desk as a work station. The materials he uses have a low-key, crafty accessibility that can be easily stored on a shelf or in a flat file. He works as a teacher and art handler, and it it’s true that art imitates life, it is easy to see how the trappings of both professions enter into his art as subject matter. Most notably in the exercises partaken by students learning to draw, and the tools, transport and institutionalization that surround the presentation of artworks. The scope of Cryptographics includes sketches and ephemera that aid in crystallizing the arc of Lee’s creative process over the last eight years. And, the exhibition’s pedagogical leanings bring Lee’s career full circle with works that muse on the realities of life as a working artist, yet installed in a way that is accessible to students.
Although stylistically very different, Lee’s Dealer’s Choice series was developed concurrently with the Black Drawings. On two different creative tracks, he begins here to investigate the imaginative possibilities found within a limited set of parameters and how to rediscover the predefined form of a playing card. He cuts and rearranges fragments of the numbered cards, revealing and concealing the jokers, kings, queens, digits and ornamentation common to the four different suits of spade, heart, diamond, and club. Some of these small works are contained within the standardized card size, others rise in decoupage formations or have found objects affixed, while some are be free-form, pushing past the rectangle. The Dealer’s Choice series might also be the first time Lee presents us with an overt frame-like structure surrounding a central portrait portal. A work like Two Jacks, with its overlapping slats and double portraiture is symmetrically self-contained, where illusion and material fact complement one another with rhyming lattice patterns. These rudimentary assemblages give a glimpse of the complex tiered and latticed wall sculptures that are just on the horizon.
The frame as structural device and subject matter is a constant throughout Lee’s Americana series and takes us one step closer to his Black Frame series, which are highlights of Cryptographics. Although clearly conceived as flat drawings, the Americana and more recent American Songbook drawings allude to the third dimension in their depictions of fanciful inward-facing corners and ornate frames. These works also situate letters, words, phrases and numbers amidst signs and symbols, but are more revealing in their references to American folklore, song lyrics and graphic ephemera. What it means to be American is a fascinating hot-button issue in our polarized political times. Lee presents us with a trove of words and pictures that are familiar but uprooted, patriotic but perverse, in a way that might echo the tumult of an aggrieved nation at war with itself. Images that suggest the occult, arcades, carnivals, game-boards, diners, psychics, hotels, lodges, lobbies, speakeasies and the stage are as comforting as they are unnerving. Perusing them is like a cross country time travel through the decades since the founding of the nation, encountering signature styles of vaudeville, country, mod and hippie culture, with fonts and flourishes that memorialize the heydays of advertising and space travel. An interesting subset of the frames work is Lee’s Hindsight is 20/20 series that introduces a metallic gold gouache to his palette of rich veneers, which also encompasses gleaming silver and matte black. The drawing titled 4:44, in metallic gouache, Flashe, and collage on paper, is incised with small moons and star-like circles. Carefully placed images of spades, cartoon eyes and wavy tendrils are laid out like a game-board, Ouija Board or digital display and evoke a communion of numerology, blasphemy and infidelity.
Synthesizing the collage, text and shaped frame elements that are constants of Lee’s earlier oeuvre, it’s easy to see how he arrived at low-relief paper wall sculptures. The corners, slats, and embellishments of the ink and graphite drawings are redeployed and become more physically assertive and repetitious in the sculptures. Their physical presence exerts a palpable visceral force, as one scans the surface or looks through and around these dimensional works. Complex in construction, Lee layers thick mat-board type papers one on top of the other working broad to narrow from bottom to top. These works are full of compartments, portals, and embossed details that resemble stepped pyramids turned on their sides. The device of concentric staggered levels allows for all manner of anthropological and architectural associations, and we envision things like stages, graves, capsules, labyrinths, art deco moldings or corporate exteriors. The work Every Picture Tells A Story contains many of Lee’s signature motifs and scrambling of styles. It reads like a proscenium arch surrounded by a frame of directional arrows and the words “CLASSIC EDITION” straddle the top and bottom. A mystic eye peers out from below, while dramatic bolts and rays enshrine round, futuristic portals in the center. What reads spatially as a throwback to the “golden age” of Broadway comes across entirely differently when viewed frontally, as a flat black tribal shield or mask. The central sci-fi lenses suggest black-holes into another dimension. The Black Frame series was inspired by turn-of-the-century Tramp Frames made from wooden cigar boxes and decorated with wood chips to show off family photographs. Later, these structures would be collected by future generations as objets d’art, or serve as inspiration for amateur craft projects ranging from jewelry boxes to doll houses. Lee embraces both the genuine and contrived realities of this heritage while elevating the Tramp Frame sentiments to emblems of universal contemplation. Authentic and received experience become entwined in a quest for an original voice. In this way, Lee’s symbols of marching arrows and rippling wave patterns feel both hopeful and harrowing when paired with words like, “There Was a Way” or “We Can’t Talk at All”.
Experiencing The Black Frames, it’s impossible not to remember key aspects of different eras or decades in relation to our own lives or ponder one’s own place in a family of mankind. The frames have a bittersweet quality that foregrounds life passing before our eyes or suggest a desire to be remembered even as just a small speck in the universe. Everyone loves an underdog, and the prospect of some forgotten artist or unsung hero gaining renown after decades or centuries makes for a compelling story. Lee’s signs and symbols have this quality of gaining and losing meaning, of having lived through their glory days only to be rediscovered by a new generation. He has discussed his interest in missing narratives, story-telling experiments and “transforming a cliché back into something mysterious and powerful”. Like other artists operating in the third decade of the twenty-first century, Lee appears to fluctuate between differing states of skepticism, belief, sincerity and irony, reflecting a Metamodern mindset that is knowing but not entirely jaded, hopeful but suspicious. The narrative aspect of Lee’s work can be tied to certain components of Postmodernism, particularly the emphasis on signs existing in relativist conceptual frameworks and texts as unreliable and indeterminate statements (Butler 19-23). Lee enjoys these confusions and limitations and uses his flatbed constructions as arenas to operate, momentarily landing on some consensus before it’s swept away and redefined (Denny). Can one find truth in a history book, family photo album, natural history museum or science report? Lee’s collages, drawings and sculptures suggest wisdom might be evident when reading between the lines, or better yet, captured by an indirect glance. That said, through the miasma of glyphs, novelty, nostalgia, borrowings and bric-a-brac, and a distinct visual style and sensibility that pervades Cryptographics, we get to know something of Michael Aaron Lee, the artist and person.
1. Michael Aaron Lee: A Frame is a Line. March 26-April 30, 2023, Nightshift, Brooklyn, NY.
Marshall, Richard. New Image Painting. Whitney Museum of American Art Print. 1978
Madoff, Steven Henry and Mamet, David. Donald Sultan In the Still-Life Tradition. University of Washington Press. Print. 1999.
Arnason, H.H. History of Modern Art. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Print. 1986.
Tapper, James. Huge decline of working class people in the arts reflects fall in wider society. The Guardian, December 10, 2022.
Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. Print. 2002.
Denny, Phillip. Flatbed. Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Online. Fall of 2017.