“It should have happened a lot sooner,” Lee concedes of her somewhat belated first outing as a solo practitioner. “I’m four or five years late [because] I kept falling pregnant by happy accident,” she adds, laughing. Not unlike the children that delayed what sounds as though it was always inevitable, Lee’s solo outing has been gestating long past its delivery date and has by now grown into something entirely unexpected: a peculiar kind of pressure that has begun evincing itself in pangs of eleventh-hour nerves. She is quick to liken the sensation to that of a painstakingly intimate act of exposure to a friend, or perhaps a new lover – the baring of parts of oneself that heretofore have only inhabited interior spaces.
“I feel a bit exposed, to be honest,” Lee confesses of her newfound vulnerability. “It’s like when you’re in a dream and you realise that you don’t have any pants on.”
While en route to her Paddington studio, where a day spent effecting the finishing touches to her show awaits her, Lee explains that her hesitation stems from the uncertainty over how her work will be received by audiences – the severity of her feelings amplified not only by the time it has taken to mount the show but the deeply personal nature of a practice at which she has arrived through a great deal of trial and error. “There are certain things that are not generally exposed in a public space,” she says of the revelatory nature of her chosen field. “Art is so interesting in that way – it’s exposing something within yourself that is not ordinarily spoken about.”
A self-taught practitioner, Lee was raised in what she describes as a conservative family and, in 2006, graduated from law school before working at a commercial litigation firm. Within the space of 10 months, Lee says she came to the realisation that there was something within her that required release – something once dormant, now awake, that would not be appeased in a court of law. What that thing was remains unclear to this day; its necessary expression, however, soon presented itself. It was around that time that Lee began a painting practice that, she says, entailed finding freedom through embracing a kind of recklessness that often found her throwing paint at the walls. An element of catharsis remained the only constant throughout those early experimental gestures; that, and the invariable lathering of white paint that Lee would coat her works in once they were ‘finished’, obliterating entirely any surface details but underscoring the texture and layers contained therein. “This is the first time that I’ve kept the artworks really,” Lee says of her soon-to-be unveiled body of work, fondly recalling the long lost habit of demolishing her work through whitewashing. “I loved the idea of that finite feeling […] that it was there but it was gone… It was so satisfying.” The tendency to white-out her work is one that Lee says she would love to revisit; the feeling itself is comparable to, say, receiving a drastic haircut that only hints at what was once there and is made all the more buoyant through that very suggestion.
Lee’s new body of work, titled Sillage, is interested in the intangible, and feels in effect like the natural extension of Lee’s ongoing desire to render a presence visible through its very absence. It’s an admittedly paradoxical line of thought, one amplified and embodied by the title of the exhibition. ‘Sillage’, borrowed from the French and pronounced ‘see-yazh,’ is most often used to describe the scent a person’s perfume leaves in their wake. The term refers as much to the sense of someone or something that’s no longer there in an olfactory sense as it is the trail of disturbance left behind in water, or the impression left in any pliable surface. The show itself is comprised of 17 individual works composed from resin and acrylic paint poured onto mirrored Perspex surfaces. The accidental is as much a part of the work as the poured paint itself that Lee tilts and guides around the glossy surface – a canvas chosen out of her love for high-shine finishes. “It’s sort of like a practiced mistake”, Lee says of the works, which, while they do not take long to complete individually, are very much the culmination of years of practice. To create the works within Sillage required that Lee assume a state bordering on the dissociative. Music, in this case the maudlin strains of Adele, The Carpenters or of James Blake’s pining cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’, was often employed to trigger those feelings, as well as a feeling of nostalgia in Lee that would conjure that long-elusive “something else inside [her].
“We could call it a demon,” she says of that inner presence. “I really like that person, or animal, or whatever it is. I let it lead me.
“I feel like I’ve come to a point where I feel confident to show them”, Lee continues. The artist also shares a joint practice with her partner, the photographer Ted O’Donnell, that hinges around painterly, abstract floral arrangement works and inky colour studies that have found a natural home on Instagram. They’ve been collaborating in that capacity since 2012, and are also raising two cherubic young daughters, Yokie and Opia. “The exhibitions we have had I’ve kind of hidden behind him,” says Lee, inadvertently still channeling Mitchell’s immortal lyrics (“I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints” and “Part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time” come to mind). “But now I’m out on my own.”
Sillage by Vicki Lee will exhibit at Comber St Gallery from April 21 – 22. More information is available here.
Tile and cover image: Courtesy of the artist