The Monochromatic World of Mike Lee
The monochromatic rounded characters bend, fold and stretch as if they're floating in mid-air. At times, they appear to be practicing yoga, performing a dive, or playing Twister. Who are they? If you're trying to discern their race or ethnicity, there isn't a single answer. According to New York artist Mike Lee, what it all means could be up to your imagination. He let's you in on very little. For his latest exhibition Rebound, his work has progressed into oil paintings from just a couple of years ago when most of his works were executed in graphite. His day job is working at an animation studio in nearby Connecticut, and his paintings demonstrate his understanding of lighting. A few of his pieces contain a powerful back light that manifests as a slim white outline on his characters. It's slight but powerful.
We caught up with the often smiling Mike Lee during his installation at GR2. The interview began with an insurmountable amount of laughter and it turned into a look at where Mike Lee is in his career.
By Eric Nakamura
Video and Photo by George Ko
GR: You made this show called Rebound, so that has a meaning of some sort. I mean immediately we think of relationship related, but is it?
ML: Yes and no it's not all romantic relationships, I think it's just more like reactions to life and it could be like the political state, it could be just friends, family, heartbreak all of that mixed together. I think I try to generalize a little more so it's not so specific on just one aspect of love, so the overall thing was love but it's not in the traditional sense of just like romantic love.
GR: Yeah, so last one was called Repose so how does that kind of relate to this show because it seems like your names are equally short and there equally mysterious?
ML: You know the first one was the first. It was the first time I was really exploring the idea of emotion through figures and then I really liked that and so I wanted to continue that thing and the later pieces. The ones right behind me, I started to design a little more and I guess it became a little more graphic and I like that too so probably for the next series it will be just a continuation of that.
GR: Whatever happened to that isometric drawings, are you no longer doing those because that kind of had a little more of a narrative feel because it had a background you know in buildings and things like that?
ML: Yeah, I've been talking with a lot of my friends recently because I've been trying to bring it back somehow but I don't know it kind of lacked emotion to it. I think it's less personal because you're so far away from the actual like figures and people things like that so I've been trying to figure out a way to bring it back somehow. But right now, I'm not in that head space to go back into it but I'm trying, maybe someday it will come back.
GR: Are you ever going to use color?
ML: Yeah, I think the next series I was planning on slowly implementing it or it will be a complete 180 and it will be full saturation, yeah.
ML: So, yeah I've done locking of some stuff up but I don't know if, I don't know when that's going to come about yet.
GR: Have you ever shown anyone?
ML: Just like friends here and there just like see what, just to get their thoughts on it but.
GR: Have you put it on social media? Wow Mike Lee's colour mark. That sounds interesting.
ML: So, it's either full color or no color, yeah. So, I tend to like contrast and I try to make each piece or each show like a reaction from the last so, yeah.
GR: So, who are these people in your images, are they repeating or are they all different people?
ML: A little bit of both so it's again I don't like to be specific so I try to generalize and hopefully people can relate to it in a sense of "oh, I know that type of person or I know that type of like head shape." That type of body or even the specific pose hopefully they can relate to it emotionally somehow, but it's supposed to be just everybody and nobody at the same time.
GR: So, who are all these curvy ladies? Are you into the curvy ladies?
ML: It's my wildest fantasy, no it's, I think I just like more of just playing around with different silhouettes so I think curvy bodies tend to have more substance so they can make more interesting shapes and silhouettes.
GR: How did you kind of come to that, you’re kind of figure I guess the figure style drawing or the figures, they have rounded edges I guess. Rounded ends right, where did that come from?
ML: Yeah, I think it was just over the years I used to do really detail oriented. I guess even more so in the environment and then just to counteract that I wanted to go completely in the opposite direction so it was more of how simple can I get with the figure. And sometimes I started abstracting like late last year but I think I pushed it too far to where people couldn't connect with it as much, like it became just a little weird or too weird so I scaled it back and it ended up going a little more 2D. More sausage shapes I guess, yeah and I think people are reacting a lot better to it, yeah so.
GR: You also got rid of the faces?
ML: Yeah, I used to put like little dots on it but even that I thought it was too specific, yeah like almost. Because I didn't really like the word cute so yeah, a lot of people would say, "oh man that's really cute" it kind of irked me the wrong way you know so I just removed the eyes completely. And then I think there was a deeper emotional… I can achieve like a different emotional level to the work, but you know.
GR: So, what happened to all the pencil? You were known as Mr. Pencil.
ML: It, the pencil just took away too much time, yeah honestly and I think as soon as I got into paints I think I was producing maybe ten to twenty times more work than a single drawing. And the range of values, I could get the full spectrum and paints both pencil it's like but maybe to like 80% or something so, it's a lot more limiting.
GR: What else can you get out of paints that you don't get out of pencil? Because there a method of let's say changing an idea easier or is pencil, I don't know if you could change something once you’re getting going.
ML: I think with the pencil the early on design process was a lot more intense so once I got to the actual rendering, I think the longest piece took eight months. So because of that like you can't really afford to be free flowing with it. So, on the front end, I would just, I'd spend like a month, two months just designing the entire image first. Do a lighting pass just do all of these studies and then once I got to the final. Actually, making the original art it would, I would just like everything would be solved already so I'm not searching for anything new. But with these I can just bang out paintings if I don't like it well, you know it didn't take that long so I can explore a lot more ideas, just try different things. And I think with these themes I think I was able to explore a lot more options and if I messed up then it's okay, I didn't spend three years working on a piece or something.
GR: Are any of these characters Asian?
ML: Yeah, a lot of the guys are more self-portraits I think yeah. But yeah it could be Asian, it could be any ethnicity really, it's whatever people want or whatever people see I guess.
GR: How wrong are people when they kind of tell you their meaning of your piece are they ever wrong?
ML: No, they're never wrong. I have like a general idea of what the piece is about but it's really whatever each person wants it to be.
GR: You're getting more and more abstract.
ML: Yeah, I've been working on some new pieces and yeah it might get more abstract.
GR: So where does it go from here like what's the direction of the works? It's not color right away obviously.
ML: Yeah, I'm not sure I might take a month off just to like sketching and thinking about things. I think I've been on a constant flow of just producing work and I think the next month or two might be a good time to just to sit and let things brew a little bit.
GR: Do you work with Blue Sky Studios how does that intersect with your art or does it?
ML: No, a lot of the fundamental drawing, painting and especially the lighting I learned pretty much like all from animation and even though a lot of it is not represented here as far as like it looking like animation work. A lot of the fundamental principles of just regular just basic drawing and painting are all applied though… I learned through the studio and applied it to my work.
GR: I don't think it looks anything like your collegiate work. Okay, so all the collegiate work.
ML: Yeah, it's, that's long gone but yeah.
GR: So no Otis College influence?
ML: No, I mean like I learned a lot there but like it's like stylistically and totally different. It's yeah, because all of that work was geared toward getting the studio job but once I got there it's like I think I started wanting to just have more of a personal voice. And it was hard to do that trying to implement or do work for both that would fit both sides so I just had to split it completely.
GR: When did you leave the studio job for good?
ML: For good?
GR: Yeah, how about the half maybe or a lot of the artist I work with most of them have found a point where they were like, “okay I've given enough to the studio I want to give more to myself right.” I've seen that through and through so many artists so I'm wondering if that's ever come to your way?
ML: No, I've. I mean I thought about it for a really long time but I think right now it's even though I don't sleep a lot because I end up working from like roughly like 10 to 3 or 4 in the morning every day. And I've gotten used to that cycle and like I can work with it so until I'm like completely gassed out then yeah, we'll see but it's not too bad to the point. And I actually still like going to work so, yeah and everyone I like the people and all that. I'm not like a hermit.
GR: Are you going to switch now from oil to acrylic? What's going to happen when you do that like to the work?
ML: I've been thinking about that. Because I can make the acrylic paintings look like my pencil drawings so I kind of like that aspect of it and just bringing back where like how I started. Sort of all the personal work. I'm trying to still figure out how to go forward.
GR: But technically it's faster, right?
ML: Which one?
GR: Acrylic's faster than oil, isn't it? Or is oil faster because it's kind of like one passing away that you kind of take time to dry so you can work on more right?
ML: Yeah, but oil is just I think I can finish in like one or two sittings but with acrylic, it's still going to be that. It's faster than pencil but it's still tedious. You’ll get carpal tunnel. You know because you're just like rendering but. Because you're still painting in each I guess pencil mark to make it look like pencil but I don't know.
GR: Any other last comment about your Rebound show?
ML: No, I don't think so I think it's just yeah, just where I am now artistically.
GR: Is this mid-career?
ML: No, I'm trying to, I think I'm still paying my dues for sure. I think it's still long I still see it as a twenty-year thing so I just have to keep working at it.
See Mike Lee's art pieces at Giantrobot.com