Rhys Lee

Rhys Lee doesn’t really like doing interviews. He approaches them with the reticence of someone who has been burnt before and now spends his days avoiding the flames of interlocution. Yet the artist, who typically chooses to let his art speak for itself, still took the time to sit down with Artist Profile.

How do your paintings begin their life?
I never set out with a plan of what I’m doing; I usually just have some kind of inclination – I find an image, a photo or a painting that I like, and I go with it. I don’t have to wait around to be inspired. If I’m not making work then I’m anxious and depressed, so making work is like my medicine. There isn’t a moment when I’m not thinking about my art. For example, I’m currently looking at the floor, I’m staring at this rug. It’s hand-woven, it has symmetry, and someone with a naïve hand has done it. It’s not perfect, which I think is beautiful.

What are you currently working on?
This series of paintings for my New York show, ‘Good Boy’. Initially, I had no idea what I was going to be doing. But then I came across a photograph of a New York subway train from the late 1970s, by this old school graffiti writer named Mitch 77. He had painted a Pluto-esque character on a train. I loved the image and I did a couple of drawings of it. Next thing I knew, I’d made – I don’t even know how many paintings. Repetition is really important for me, I like the idea of repeating the subject matter, because there are so many ways that something can be interpreted. By the fifth painting in the series, Good Boy #5 (2018), the figurative elements had become more abstracted. That’s kind of how I work.

I read a few old articles that described you as a graffiti kid cum artist; can you tell me about that evolution?
You know what, in a much earlier article, I talked about graffiti and then every piece that got written after that referenced it. One of the things that I don’t like about doing these things for magazines is that they regurgitate the same shit over and over. No one wants to write something current or off their own back, you know? They talk a lot about graffiti, which is fair enough, but I’ve kind of rejected it now, I’ve moved on and done different things. Up until my early-to-mid-twenties, I was involved in graffiti – and, of course, the thing about graffiti is that once you’re involved in it, it’s in your blood – but I’m not excited about it being still focused on.

Well, let me ask you this: if we traded places, and you were the writer and I was the artist, what would you ask?
I don’t have questions to ask myself, I answer all my own questions through my paintings.

How do you pick the subjects for your paintings?
They kind of pick themselves. It’s not a deep and meaningful thing for me. There is no hidden stuff; it’s about images that have interesting shapes and that might have a bit of humour, works like my sculpture Good Boy (2018) and my pastel piece Good Boy #19 (2018). I don’t really see my works as figurative or abstract, because to me it’s the same thing. The subject matter is almost irrelevant. My works are as much about just carrying colour and form as they are about the subject. Although the colours aren’t really thought about, they are mostly automatic.

What do you mean by automatic?
Well, I just have a bunch of tubes of paint sitting out. I don’t deliberate over the colours I use, either it works or it gets painted over. I wouldn’t say it’s by chance – it’s by intuition more than anything. I don’t sit back in a chair and go ‘ah’; it just happens. For me, the more I think about the work, the more problems I run into. I prefer to let the thing direct me. It’s about reacting to what is in front of you, about letting the mark inform the next mark, inform the next mark, inform the next mark.

Can you tell me what the future looks like for Rhys Lee?
As funny as it may sound, I’m just trying to be a better person; I’m just trying to be a good father and a good partner. I’m trying to evolve as a human being and become a better painter. Every time I go into the studio, I’m trying to progress – and that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s about putting the work in and showing up, and showing up with intent, it’s not about fucking around. In the past, I had a studio in the city, and I had a big armchair there. I did a lot of sitting around and looking at the wall, looking at the canvas and deliberating. But I haven’t done that for a long time. I think having kids makes you realise how valuable time is. When I get to the studio, I have intent. I used to drink in the studio as well, but I don’t do that anymore. When I stopped drinking in the studio, I was scared that things were going to go wrong, and I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m able to do. I was scared, yet now I have this clarity that I never had before. It’s a real revelation.

Do you think being a good father makes you a better artist?
One of my biggest inspirations is my son. He is six and a half and I sometimes work from the drawings and paintings that he does, because they are so inspiring. I wish I had that lack of inhibition and that innocent childlike quality when making art. To me, they are some of the best kinds of marks. Last year, I had a show in Germany and one of my big paintings, A Knife Through a Hand Through a Table (2017) that I sent over was inspired by my son’s work, Untitled Head (2017). In fact, sometimes he has even worked on a couple of paintings that I have done.

Lastly, why do you think you gravitate towards paint?
Paint has a life of its own. It’s a difficult medium to harness and take control of. You really never have 100 per cent control of it – which is great. You go with it, and you have these unexpected things that happen. I am constantly surprised. You learn how to manipulate it, but it still does its own thing. It’s always going to do its own thing. It’s a constant battle and that is what keeps me interested in it. If I have control or command over something, I lose interest. I like the fight.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 45, 2019

EXHIBITION
Rhys Lee: Recent Paintings
24 July – 11 August 2019
Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne

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