On ‘Passages’Passing, passing through, in a passage----the idea of transit and the seclusion and abstraction of moments begin when one passes through a simple grey curtain in Joyce Yu Jean Lee’s new exhibition of photography and video. The installation of the barrier might serve two purposes:  one to seclude the work from the well-lit walls of the gallery’s traditional white cube; the other to transport the viewer into a more traditionally Cinematic space.

The work included in the exhibition features six face-mounted photographs culled from Joyce Yu Jean Lee’s travels abroad throughout Europe and Asia, as well as two more recent videos, all from 2012. The videos incorporate the gallery’s structure as illuminated surfaces, projecting into corners and onto floors, while continuing to explore painterly compositions of isolated figures juxtaposed to ambiguous, or neutral, spaces.

Her Spartan presentation reveals Lee, a multi-media artist at a crossroads in her work, as she continues to find her footing in contemporary picture making.  The challenge was compounded by a Spring and Summer abroad on a travel grant, first on a Grand Tour of Europe, and then to China where she was immersed in a cultural/creative field that bore little similarity to the structures of exchange dominant here in the States. For much of last year, Lee was in transit, passing through unfamiliar spaces, perpetually shifting between known subjects and uncanny contexts.

While her last solo show drew upon her time at a residency in Western Nevada, any reference to the open spaces of America’s West have been judiciously removed. Its warm palette and allusions to landscape and still-life genres are also gone.  Lee has literally cleared the gallery of light, leaving her works lit with dim, highly focused spots that trick the eye into thinking the works are back lit by some extremely slick LCD display. The cool ambiance of the projected works is decidedly urban and continues this dialogue with “pure” image. The “pure” image is one that exists without context, that both simultaneously points to the space where it is installed and yet has no sense of being anchored to that place.  If most of the images reference Renaissance light, upon which her previous work so much relied, here, have dimmed images, the effect of turning the lights out has sequestered her audience in an austere, cinematic chiaroscuro.

All of this questioning of place seems to bridge her Modern concerns for an over-arching structure within an image with the pictorial traditions of her Fine Arts training.  Gone now are the romantic flourishes of the painterly hand of the masterpiece.  The precise brushwork is now replaced by the dizzy focus of her point and shoot camera.  Like her previous solo show at Hamiltonian, the back space of the gallery containing her video work seems at first incongruent with the work just inside the curtain, but closer inspection reveals a shared interest in manipulating the audience’s understanding of the viewing experience. The videos focus on two different tactics for representing space and the figure in relationship to an abstract image, framed as it is by the viewer’s gaze, but the photographic images retain a more complex point of view, one not entirely resolved but still worth looking through.

First Light features another beam of light, a portal that structures the artist’s movements within the ovoid frame, an expanding and contracting white iris projected onto the floor of the gallery. Part of the video features a pair of feet stepping into the image.  They start off uncertainly, testing the solidity of the ground below, maneuvering in very tight quarters, the whole figure is revealed within the video to be the artist herself acknowledging the medium, testing the portal created by a cone of illumination from the digital projector above. In this work the artist is shown climbing out of the image into a dematerialized space, either into the gallery, or more likely, the digital context of video.

This sense of restrained figures in an abstract architectural space is expanded in Last Light, where two figures observe a multi-colored rectangular plane that itself inhabits the corner of the gallery. The audience is made aware of the format of the framing device and its dialogue with the conventions of cinema.  The traditional letter box of cinema-scope film and the scale of video pushes the audience’s backs to the wall, always with the desire to get a comfortable view of the whole image.

The video features two figures, a male and a female, who observe a rectangular colored light expanding and contracting in the corner.  The narrative tension is illustrated by the exaggerated expressions of the actors, both in black against a black background.  The shifting monochrome form glows and grows into the space of the actors, pushing them back to the edges of the frame.  We are reminded of our own conventions of viewing, our backs against the wall in anticipation of the cinematic journey, but we remain stuck as the film loops and continue to watch. Joyce Yu Jean Lee is featured in her video projected onto the floor called First Light.  While the artist in First Light is given a way out, we are not so lucky.  We can either leave the space or spend an eternity watching ourselves watching others, or turn our heads aside to see others watching, commenting on, or chatting  inside’ of the work. We are given the chance to peek in at others enraptured by the glowing light, flashing color, and hint of recognition of vicariously seeing ourselves up there on the screen. This social aspect of viewing art is centered on the pointing to the corner of Last Light, the modernist trope of acknowledging the architecture to acknowledge the subjects that inhabit that space. The total frame of the work is not the image but the space the image occupies, which subsumes the audience.

The true differences in these actual places is neutralized, not commented upon, by the compositional devices, but the series as a whole borrows the genre of travel photography and early Modernist cinema to make beautiful croppings of much larger, historically significant places. The defining structure of these image distills the place, filtering out the noise, odors, and irregularities of (art) travel, a verisimilitude of Lee’s life, and provides visual landmarks in a ceaseless stream of names, images, and places one encounters outside of the gallery. Where this leaves the viewer remains undefined, lulled as we are by their seductive beauty.  Where this leaves the artist is a more interesting concern as she navigates the structure of the image to leave clues to enter and extract ourselves from the artist’s frame of reference.

The show runs until March 10th.