Rhys Lee’s painted protagonists slide between shapes and species like hallucinatory projections of subliminal currents. Bestial snouts and anthropoidean faces flicker with the familiar and strange, knocking humanity off its evolutionary throne into a shadowy subterranean world where renegade cowboys and carnivalesque outcasts lurk with predatory stealth.
This year Lee has been working on two shows, in Cologne and Melbourne, amassing a total of 40 medium to large oil paintings. In line with the artist’s practice of forced accidents and willing spontaneity, the paintings for his presentation at Nicholas Thompson Gallery have been randomly selected; a baboon next to a giant pink worm, twin poodles beside a severed hand. This dissonant menagerie chisels an uncanny chink in the edifice of reality, ushering the viewer into a liminal space where the id reigns strong. Navigating the works, we become Joseph Conrad’s ‘Marlow’ drifting up river into the elusive heart of darkness.
Lingering on the edge of abstraction, Lee’s herd of rogue Bosch-like agents function as symbolic proxies for our own repressed fantasies and fears. Smothered in clownish makeup and absurd costumes, the personas are comically alluring as they are threatening – it is as if they have appeared to us either from a mild masquerade party, violent ritual… or both. In this parallel world, contradictory emotions consort in paroxysms as distant echoes of Orwellian doublethink ricochet around the picture plane, marrying melancholy with ecstasy, malevolence with tenderness, pleasure with agony. This cognitive tussle materialises as defined edges are buffeted by loose, fuzzy brushwork, rendering the figures both affectionate and dangerous in a kind of grotesque reverie.
The paintings are luminescent yet dark, their colourful accents battling dense chiaroscuro for pre-eminence. Pinks, blues and yellows are electrified into high pitched rhapsody while sinister smirks are plucked from sadistic nightmares; a Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde scenario that thrusts the viewer into a destabilised surreality where ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are one.
In 2016 Lee showed 30 ‘horse and rider’ works at Paul Nache Gallery in New Zealand, and the artist has since been revisiting this subject. Rendered with an incongruous candy palette, his psychedelic cowboys glimmer with a fetishistic glow as they straddle cartoonish horses. Like all of Lee’s characters, it feels as if these deranged buckaroos are wearing multiple masks that, if stripped off, would leave a faceless void – a spectral absence challenging our own ontology. The strange variety of hats on these humanoids are worn in an absurd expression of propriety; facades of decorum that are glaringly incompatible with the grimacing jokers beneath. For the artist, these accessories are tangible cues to identity: “a particular hat says a lot about a subject and character.” He adds, “Hats are a good shape, and easier than painting hair!”
Elli Walsh is an arts writer based in Sydney.
Nicholas Thompson Gallery
14 October to 5 November, 2017