You know the feeling when you come across a work of art that instantly resonates inside you. This was my experience when I first encountered Adam Lee’s work at the Volta Art Fair in New York in 2017. Maybe this is because the artist is Australian and I have relatives in the country, creating a feeling of connection bound up with family roots and non-intellectual, emotional bonds to a far-away country.
But it was Lee’s strong visual language that particularly struck me, and the nearly magnetic aura emanating from his work.
Needless to say the paintings I saw then made a huge impact on me, to say the least, and have never really left my system since.
Thus at the start of the Corona crisis it didn’t take long for me to return to Lee’s This Earthen Tent series, looking at each painting and going through the questions I posed of the artist back then.
I realized once again how timeless, relevant and appropriate the paintings – with titles like This Earthen Tent, Self as Hermit, Numbering Our Days, Tabernacle or Ascension – still are, particularly with humanity in the throes of the Corona crisis that currently has most of us isolated in our homes, a paradigm change and huge cosmic shift going on.
The old system is crumbling and dying and the new one is dawning but it isn’t quite there yet. This alone is a hard pill to swallow, especially in this in-between limbo kind of state.
While we don’t know what comes next, this unprecedented situation holds a great opportunity to not only quieten down and tap into other levels of consciousness but also to level up on empathy and let go of ego. One way of doing this is to look at art that touches parts in us we usually ignore or neglect.
In the light of what is going on at present we are thus revisiting the interview we held with Adam Lee in 2017. But first we would like to introduce him, starting off with our signature questions and taking a look at other works by the Australian painter before we explore his Earthen Tent series.
Let´s start at the beginning. Is there a particular artwork or situation you remember that inspired you to become an artist?
I was always drawing, writing my own books and making things right throughout my childhood from as early was I can remember. But there was a print of the painting called Spring Frost (1919) by the Australian painter Elioth Gruner, which hung in our house throughout my childhood. It’s a beautiful painting which I later got to see in the flesh at the Art Gallery of NSW when I was an adult.
The funny thing was that as a child I was convinced it was a painting of the house and farm I grew up on. It looked exactly like it. And I always wondered about how amazing it was to have a painting of our house in our house.
It’s only in recent years that I’ve realized how much looking at that print must have affected me as a boy, looking at it everyday and thinking about how art might be something to reflect one’s own life, surroundings and thoughts.
If we leave the physical concept of home aside, how would you describe it?
It’s an interesting question, which I’ve tried to grapple with in my recent work.
I have always suffered from quite intense homesickness whenever I travel, ever since I was a young boy.
I’ve often wondered at what it is about “home” which affects me so deeply – is it the people, my family, my house and its surroundings, the culture and language, the familiarity?
I think it’s all of those things, but as a concept, for me, “home” is about something much larger and deeper than those things.
I believe it has something to do with what we carry inside of us, wherever we go, and how we relate to the world and how we find our place within that.
All of those other things come out of this larger thing.
And I wonder if that has something to do with human desire for connection with a wider world of what I often call a divine reality.
Threshold, 2016, Watercolour and synthetic polymer paint on paper, 115cm x 85cm, Courtesy the Artist and Angell Gallery
How does spirituality feed into your work?
I think the term spiritual is used so much now that it may have lost much of its original meaning. So I don’t really use it much. But I certainly see the natural world around us and the inner human world as reflections of something much larger in scope, what you might call a “spiritual world” (what the celtic writer, John O’Donahue calls “the invisible world”), something of a Divine presence.
I also come from a family with very strong roots in Christianity and so I’ve spent a lot of time over the years reading from the Scriptural and Hebrew traditions.* I’m fascinated by the influence of those traditions within western art history, and these make up a part of my own personal story too.
I guess I see the act of making art as fundamentally an act which can connect us to that invisible, Divine world.
*A point we will come back to a bit further on, as the concept of the Jewish and Christian traditions is found in the work Tabernacle in the This Earthen Tent series.
Which of these elements (space, air, fire, water, earth) would you choose in relation to your practice or yourself, and why?
Water. For its fluidity.
This not only relates in a very obvious way to the nature of paint as a fluid medium, but to the studio process, which I’m learning more and more needs to be embraced for the very fluid and malleable thing that it is.
Aesthetics and Process aside, which emotion do you want to trigger with your work and why?
I’m interested in how painting can trigger all sorts of emotions in people, not any one emotion in particular.
I think art that is powerful has the capacity to reveal all sorts of things about the people who spend time engaging with it.
I’ve made paintings which one person looks at and talks about feeling a sense of light, and transcendence. And then another person looks at the same painting and talks about seeing only death, feeling depressive and lost.
So I’m interested in the ways art can reveal things hidden deep down in us, and how it might bring some of those things to the surface.
This leads us to Tabernacle one of four works of the This Earthen Tent series which particular grabbed me and that refers to the before mentioned religious traditions. In the Jewish belief the body is thought as the tabernacle that holds all secrets and all wisdom. So the concept of the tabernacle refers to a higher level of reality. It is about the idea of God taking up residence in the human body.
Yes, the imagery within the Jewish and Christian traditions are of the human body (and the community of people as a „body“) existing as something embodied by God’s spirit.
I find the powerful symbolism of this totally fascinating.
And then there is a feeling of closeness.
The earth is our home and we always carry this home with and in us.
Coming to Self as Hermit. The question I asked myself was, when is a hermit really on his own? Being surrounded by the world, “This earthen tent”, is he enough for himself? He lives within this tent, but he is also part of it, which I see symbolized in the painting by the small particles of light forming and surrounding his head.
And is the hermit referring to a feeling that he, Adam, knows for himself?
Yes, I’ve been fascinated with the image of the hermit for some years now, as a symbol for something larger. I’m still trying to understand it myself, to be honest.
In some ways it is certainly used in my work as a kind of self-portrait, embodying a feeling of positive retreat from the world, a building of my own interior world and experience.
Connected with this is the fact that there is something monastic about working as a painter, spending long hours in the studio alone, something which does require a certain amount of isolation or a feeling of „drawing aside“ from the wider world.
The hermit is an opaque figure, shrouded in a certain mystery.
How did Tabernacle, Self as Hermit, Monument and The Earthen Tent in particular appear in your mind? How did they take on form and how did you manage to finish these works, which I see as immaculate in terms of their timeless truth?
I can’t really answer that very clearly. These works started out as something which I could not fully grasp and via a journey of sorts, they arrived where they are.
It is for me as much a road being travelled, which I have not walked before.
This is both thrilling and frightening.
Can you explain Monument in combination to the other paintings, or does it stand on its own? What is going on in this work?
Monument as a work (like all works) needs to be experienced in the flesh. There is no real way that a camera can catch the surface or presence of a work like that. It is probably the most sparse painting I have ever made, referencing religious artworks often encountered as part of altar pieces.
It ties all the other works of this series together, in a sense.
If you could, what would you change in the art market?
That’s a little tricky to answer.
I’m aware that in so many ways we artists become as complicit in art markets as anyone else.
On a fundamental level, I earn a living from painting and I consider that a great privilege, even though I’ve worked my ass off at it for years.
But of course there are so many aspects to the art market (and what we’re talking about is really a vast, layered beast here) which disgust and confound me, which I’d like to avoid if possible.
One thing I’m curious about in our current times of crises (answering this at the time of the Corona virus lockdown) is whether we might see more of a return to an engagement with art as something fundamental to our humanity;
where the making of art is no longer so much about commerce and status, or fame and notoriety, but more about ways of trying to understand our experience of the world, both around us and within us.
Tiller of the Ground, 2015, oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 87.5 x 72.5 cm, Courtesy the Artist and STATION
I think people make art and want to engage with art fundamentally because human beings are pregnant with a desire to make marks, objects, spaces which articulate something larger we are grasping for.
I read recently about “The Red Dancers” – cave paintings found in very remote caves on the coasts of Norway.
These are art works made thousands of years ago in locations which were extremely difficult and perilous to reach.
They say something about our nature as human beings, that long before art was a commodity, and before art markets and galleries or museums which dictate and decide the credibility and importance of artists and their work, human beings travelled to remote parts of the earth, often at the risk of their own lives, to make ”things” which expressed something about their world.
I wonder if the times we are living through right now might bring us back to a realization of the need for that kind of art again.
Header Image: All The World And All There In, 2013, oil and synthetic, polymer paint on canvas, 200 x 280 cm, Courtesy the artist and STATION
Author: Esther Harrison