Lee Maxey: Teasing out the uneasy
April 17, 2024 1:34 pm

Contributed by Patrick Neal / Many years ago, I saw a strange and seductive specter on a cold winter night in Troy, New York, that has haunted me to this day. Through the glass windows of a gloomily defunct department store, a neon shock of orange letters hovered in the air spelling out the word EXIST. This enigma was the work of the artist Sharon Bates, part of an installation in which she cleverly riffed on the authority of an EXIT sign, transforming an everyday sight into a glowing spiritual command. I was reminded of Bates’s sculpture while taking in Lee Maxey’s new exhibition of paintings, titled “Wait Here,” at Olympia.

Maxey has a similar gift of elevating the mundane to the ecstatic by exploiting the sensual materiality of texture, heat, and light. Her small paintings are minimal and beautifully rendered with matte egg tempera on panel. Her subjects are cryptic, seemingly with hidden messages, akin to Magritte’s surreal vignettes. Images of games, hardware, lamps, landscapes, and signage communicate with direct efficiency. The compositions are cropped tight, and the dimensions of each panel accentuate her subjects’ shape, character, and orientation. The backgrounds, often with vibrant under-painting peeking though, are as interesting as the foregrounds. Phenomena like shadows, grains, halos, and scratches are all meticulously observed and finely articulated, and often take center-stage.

Maxey focuses on ordinary household and outdoor sights – doors, pigeons, screws, trees, wall lettering – but isolates them in her compositions eerily and precariously. They are observed from a variety of oblique angles, thrusting, zig-zagging, and jutting out with an in-your-face assertiveness. The paintings have imperative titles like, Pay Attention, Listen Carefully, and Think Fast, which, paired with the confrontational images, suggest authoritarianism. Maxey bases them on preliminary drawings accompanied by watercolor studies and photographic references. She derives some drawings from photos she takes herself, editing out details to ensure a more universal sweep, others from direct observation of still life arrangements. “Wait Here” also includes an artist book combining an inspirational multimedia sketchbook with a childhood scrapbook that provides clues about how she arrives at her iconography.

Three paintings depict the game pick-up sticks, in which colorful, wooden skewers are tossed about in freewheeling arrangements that at once reflect deliberation and randomness. The support panels are strategically shaped as long, narrow rectangles to encase the spiky dowels and elicit taut, nerve-wracking moves and counter-moves. Other paintings, like What is Death and This Way, are amalgamations of text, image, and symbol, satisfying as purely abstract fields of color and shape. Glyphs, numbers, and words add an intriguing philosophical dimension, not unlike photographer Erica Baum’s pictures utilizing fragments of sewing patterns and index cards. Follow Along and Watch Closely depict streamlined lamps rimmed in purple seen from directly overhead, and capture the brassy gleam and smudges of burnished metal. Here, Maxey puts viewers in a submissive position, as though blinded by light or under surveillance.

There are many images of hardware, like a black screwhead buried in a wall and a gold slide-bolt latch, and other household bric-a-brac that conjure negative/positive space and penetration and binding. Maxey’s pictures of the game Tricky Triangle explore holes and pegs. Enter presents the side view of a door, revealing the handle plates, a latch bolt, and glimpses of the two zones it separates. Painted in warm margarine and walnut hues with rich, distorted reflections, the painting recalls Julia Jacquette’s series of glistening liquor and cocktail glasses. In Look Here, a pigeon straddles an ominous void in the sidewalk, lined with blue faceted gravel that is mirrored in the bird’s iridescent plumage. Its pink, rubbery claws and beady red eye evoke the paintings of Phoebe Helander, who also brings eccentric and finely wrought stylings to her portraits and still lifes.

According to the press release for “Wait Here,” Maxey’s having shaken off early indoctrination into Christian Evangelicalism is a strong influence in her work. In viewing the show, I didn’t necessarily think of religion at first, but a certain kind of symbology began to seep in. There are recurrent images of spikes and gashes, trinity formations, sermonizing, bondage, and liberation, radiating light and a burning bush. Rendered in an ancient medium – egg tempera – these motifs are intensified by an almost ecclesiastical aura of chilly aloofness. The paintings share ground with the films of Paul Schrader – especially Hardcore and Affliction – in which the tension between freedom and oppression, and puritanism and depravity, reaches a breaking point.

At the moment, the art world is inundated with sophomoric figurative art – work that, while laudably injecting the long overdue element of identity, is often lacking in conceptual innovation. Working in a representational mode with penetrating ideas and the technical facility required to bring them to life, Maxey is an exception. She has established her own low-key Hauntology. Drawing from the vernacular of sacred art, she applies clinical sobriety to the folly of magical thinking through an anxious lens. You’ll spend equal time looking at her paintings and parsing the meanings and spells they cast.

“Lee Maxey: Wait Here,” Olympia, 41 Orchard Street, New York, NY. Through May 11, 2024.

Lee Maxey: Teasing out the uneasy