“Every civilisation that disavows its barbarian potential has already capitulated to barbarism.” Slavoj Žižek
Asked to describe Tim Hon Hung Lee's ink paintings of sumptuous, knotted bouquets held in exquisite porcelain vases, one would likely call them still lives. Yet, this description might not be appropriate. Not at least if you consider still lives in the traditional sense; the practice of faithfully depicting objects from observation. It is telling that Lee's studio is practically devoid of any visual reference material. There are no cutouts from catalogues or magazines surrounding his workspace, let alone any physical items to study. Whilst they appear anatomically correct, the flowers, vases and creatures of his paintings are purely a construct from memory and the imagination. But if they are not studies from life, neither are the objects being deployed for their symbolic value, which is another of the key features of still life painting, particularly the tenebrous vanitas paintings that share a visual likeness with Lee’s work.
If not still lives, then to decide what these paintings in fact are, we might turn to Lee's newer portrait work to aid our understanding. What is depicted in these paintings are not specific people, but rather the idea of a person, or possibly the idea of depicting a person: the idea of portraiture per se. The snaking, lugubrious forms that are shown seeping and sprouting from within the cavity left by the sitter's absent face are an assemblage of repeated layers of painting. Recurring motifs fight for space and worm their way grotesquely towards the surface. The slow, laborious, yet aleatory creation of these shapes provides the artist with a springboard towards a near meditative state within which to explore a torrent of ideas and emotions down to the most infinitesimal detail. This stream of sensations will then find their expression somewhere in the formation of these snarled, tuberculous faces. As a recording method this is of course tragically ineffectual, and the futile nature of even attempting to transcribe these undocumentable thoughts onto paper is not lost on Lee. The very nature of the works, the painting itself, then, becomes a residual skin which once was shaped and moulded by an onslaught of thought and feeling, but now provides only a hopelessly deformed and vague trace of what was once within. In this exploration of futility and meaninglessness, the comparison to vanitas paintings might not be so ill fitting after all.
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