Friday, July 21

Failures of the Interview: Nikki S. Lee

I’ve always felt that the artist’s interview is the best kind of reading about art, especially the standard Q&A format. Not only does the reader get the sense of an artist’s personality—and occasionally the interviewer’s—but he or she also hears first hand an artist’s intentions, attitudes, and feelings about the work. Of course, conducting a number of interviews myself and working as an editor, I realize that published interviews are often highly mediated: who really wants to wade through a direct transcriptions of “um”s and “err”s, awkward grammar, and incomplete sentences—not to mention incomplete thoughts. But still, that personality, that point of view directly from the source, always holds my interest.

In recent months I’ve become a fan of brief interviews published on the website, an affiliate of the magazine Modern Painters (which moved its offices from London to New York this summer). The website’s writers cover the entire range of art-world figures and personalities, including artists such as Luc Tuymans, Jim Dine, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, dealers Zach Feuer and Jeffrey Deitch, curators Okwui Enwezor and Klaus Ottmann, and administrators like Alexis Hubshman (Scope) and Robert Manley (Christies)—basically a who’s who of the contemporary art world. I check in with regularly, looking forward to each interview.

I was excited last month when an interview with the photographer Nikki S. Lee was published last month. I must admit that I’ve always had a problem with her work since first seeing and reading about it in the late 1990s. At that time she was working on her “Projects” series, in which the artist befriended a preexisting minority or social group, type, or clique (e.g., urban Latinos and blacks, yuppies, white trash, strippers, etc.) by dressing and (probably) acting like them in order to gain their trust. She then had her new friends take photographs of her with them in informal situations; these photographs were then exhibited.

My primary criticism is that her work so perfectly embodied the 1990s, a time when identity politics and critical theory all but replaced traditional art making and art history. Lee’s photographs complete the mental checklist of what's good in critical art—the snapshot aesthetic, the deskilling of the photograph (time and date stamp imprinted on the photo, which wasn’t even taken by the artist!), a minority artist depicting (mostly) minority groups or infiltrating majority ones, a destablilized, postmodern female identity—so completely that I can picture drooling art critics racing from the gallery to their desks to write about how her photographs subvert the dominant aesthetic and social paradigms. Collectors, perhaps encouraged by the art establishment’s garrulous praise as well as the booming market for photography—snatched up the work. The praise and sales kept coming. But it’s paint-by-numbers art.

I’m not saying that I smell as rat, because the identity politics, the formal aspects, the content and subject matter—it’s all there in the work. There's a lot to talk about. Identity politics, we know, has been an undeniably critical force in art, academia, and beyond and has opened so many doors and leveled the playing field. But really, Lee’s work simply illustrates all too easily, all too perfectly, what critics and theorists were discussing in the 1990s and even up to today. Lee's “Projects” series is essentially a glorified art-school assignment designed to maintain the academic and theoretical status quo. A familiar complaint, and not an unfounded one, against some art writers is that the work they write about seems only to serve the theories being engaged. Perhaps both the artist and the critics are painting-by-numbers, slapping each other’s back.

I mention all this by way of saying that nothing in her interview gives me reason to change my mind. She never truly clarifies her intentions in the “Projects” series and the work that comes after, while dodging valid interpretations of work under the guise of … I'm not sure.

For example, the interviewer Magdalene Perez asks:
There’s such a theatrical or cinematic element to much of your work. I have read that you picked up photography because you were ‘looking for a side door into film.
To which Lee responds:
I agree that there is probably a theatrical aesthetic in my work, but it’s not my intention. I would like a lot of layers in my work and if people see a theatrical element that’s fine. Some people see my work as snapshots or see a documentary aspect in my work. I like that people can see my work from different perspectives.
Okay. Of course art has different interpretations. Some valid, some arguable, some off the wall. We all know that. Yet in the next question, Lee brushes off what probably is the dominant interpretation of her work:
Your work is clearly about issues of identity, both personal and cultural.
Lee responds, and I can picture her getting a little worked up about this assertion (and, tellingly, not a question):
I don’t want to say my work is about identity or my work is about acting or about relationships. I don’t like to use just one word. I think it can be about many things. People say that it is about identity, but it’s too easy and too simple to say my work is about identity. It’s too limiting.
Lee’s work is about identity more than anything else. Her artistic strategy is so obvious, which may explain her defensiveness. But if there's something else going on, something deeper, well, I’d love to hear about it. A moment later Perez queries:
The Projects were probably compared to the work of Cindy Sherman about a million times. Were you influenced by her work, or do you feel you were doing something completely different?

This is about the millionth time, and I’m really, really tired of it.
Why might she be tired of it? She’s tired of it because the comparison is dead on. What shame is there in admitting an influence? Sherman is probably one of the most influential artists today, perhaps behind Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. Lee’s work undeniably builds on Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” of the late 1970s, adding a deeper dimension of identity politics. But she apparently doesn’t think it's important enough to articulate. Still more:
In the 1990s you studied at the Fashion Institute in New York and later worked as a fashion photographer’s assistant. How do you think studying within the fashion genre has influenced your work?

Not at all. I feel it’s not related to my work in any way.
Lee’s more recent “Parts” series depicts the artist posing in various dress and in varying locations, for example, in a taxi, a swanky apartment, and a pawn shop. Body parts of a man—a leg, arm, or shoulder, and never a face—are visible, but a whole, recognizable person never is. Similarities are present: social class and female identity and independence are address, for instance. But the series is undoubtably referencing, in some way, fashion photography. The difference between the “Projects” and “Parts” is that the latter group of photographs are highly stylized with high production values. These photographs distinctly resemble fashion-magazine editorial spreads, with the main difference being that the brand names or prices of clothing aren’t listed on a wall label or caption. The “Parts” series, we learn from Lee, was a commissioned work, although it’s unclear who commissioned the photographs and for what purpose. Lee says:
Those pictures … It was all commissioned work. So it doesn’t reflect so much on my other work. In terms of fashion or other statements, there’s nothing I am trying to say – there’s nothing related to the concept of the “rich life” or something [to that effect]. I was just invited to do it, that’s it.
So the work neither critiques nor celebrates its subject, nor does it sell anything as a fashion spread does—it just is.

Finally, the interviewer asks in which direction Lee might be headed. The artist says:
I cannot say anything right now because I don’t want to have any limitation. I don’t have any idea what I might do. I can even do painting or sculpture, who knows.
Lee’s obsession with avoiding limitations, pigeonholing, and labels overshadows anything meaningful she has to say about her work. Wait—she actually doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about her work. Such a noncommittal attitude makes me wonder exactly why Lee is making art at all.

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