Since his death, Michael Jackson has become a melancholic icon, a new pop-saint that becomes the subject of tragic shrines that remind us of mortality, a theme that recurs in much of Lees work. In Lees nude studies, there is a focus on fertility that emerges from an emphasis on the female form and genitalia. They are dark, primal and raw, highlighted with traces of red like a bloody life force. His landscapes are equally darkened, usually with just a glimmer of light like a beacon of hope. One work features a reddened unborn child in a dark crevasse, light beckoning from above and connected by umbilical cord to the landscape. It is reminiscent of Maori painter Robyn Kahukiwa, who references local creation stories and the blood of birth, life and death through reddened landscapes. Kahukiwa creates bloody lifelines that remind us of the Maoris sacred connections to the landscape that has played an important role in New Zealand colonial politics.
But there is much that can be gained from describing Lees work against the unlikely backdrop of the distant traditions of New Zealand. By trying to make these unusual connections, we find new ways to think about Lee, as well as new perspectives from which to consider the traditions of New Zealand. Through this discussion of similarities and differences, anchored by Lees paintings we are able to exchange ideas that help build a bridge between China and New Zealand.
49彩票集团，Among Lees drawings and sketches from New Zealand is a series of images of rugby players. Rugby is a popular sport in New Zealand that often dominates the media, especially at the time of these drawings when New Zealand was host to the international Rugby World Cup and rugby promotion and coverage saturated the country. As mass-produced imagery, it becomes a kind of pop art, much like the ubiquitous American flag for Jasper Johns, or Lees own paintings of Michael Jackson, who had just died and had also taken on an increased iconic status. Through a story as universally understood as Michael Jacksons, Lee is able to make a connection with his environment and his own experience. But unlike Andy Warhols depersonalised factory-like mass-productions of figures like Marilyn Munro, Lee adopts an expressive style to assert his own process and presence through constant obsessive production.
Writing as a New Zealander, it is interesting to consider how to best approach the work of Reagan Lee. My entire life so far has been experienced from this remote, South Pacific country, at least three hours flight from most Australian destinations, 12 hours from Hong Kong or Los Angeles, and more than 24 hours to London at the opposite side of the world. Despite regular travel, most of my primary encounters with art have either taken place in New Zealand or are filtered through my dominant experience of art from New Zealand. When encountering unfamiliar work, it is hard not to attempt to find meaning by trying to fit the work within the familiar frameworks of New Zealand and Western art histories. Although perhaps more appropriate, the bigger challenge for a New Zealand writer would be to explain how Lees work relates to developments in Asian art, particularly the great changes that have taken place in contemporary Chinese painting since the early 1990s, just as Lee was first establishing himself as a new graduate from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, as well as the radical social, economic and political changes that have transformed China over the same period.
It is not clear whether Lee has specifically studied artists from New Zealand but Wendy Harsant, writing for a 2010 exhibition at Aucklands NorthArt Gallery, notes similarities to the landscapes of leading New Zealand modernist painter Toss Woollaston (1910-1998), likely from a common influence from French impressionism. Harsant also observes in Lees portraits of Maori subjects, similarities to the work of colonial painter Charles Goldie (1870-1947), who at the time felt he was documenting a dying culture. For Lee, the observation of these local reference points situates him in a time and place, responding to active images and ideas.
Andrew Clifford is Director of Te Uru (formerly Lopdell House Gallery), the regional contemporary gallery for West Auckland, New Zealand. He previously worked as Curator and Acting Director at the University of Aucklands Gus Fisher Gallery. He is also a well-known writer with many articles published throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
Since 2003, Lee and his family have spent a substantial period of time living and working in New Zealand, still visiting on a regular basis. This much is not unusual. Lee joins a long line of migrant people who have come to define New Zealands multicultural population, from the first settlement of the indigenous Maori people 700 years ago, to the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century and countless groups since. In the late 19th century, many Chinese arrived to work on goldfields, most coming from Guangdong province, many Polynesians labourers arrived in New Zealand from the 1950s, and renewed immigration from throughout Asia has become widespread in recent decades, as well as from many other parts of the world. (In a 2013 census, China was listed as the third most common country of birth for resident New Zealanders after New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and followed by India, Australia, South Africa, Fiji, Samoa, Philippines and South Korea.)
Many of these stories are now represented by a range of New Zealand artists with different ethnic backgrounds, some born in New Zealand to first, second or older generation parents, while others have arrived in New Zealand as young adults for the purpose of study or with parents seeking work. For many of them, there is a constant questioning of cultural identity, recognising that they are now considered foreign in both their country of origin and in New Zealand.
Lees recent works have demonstrated a similar approach to overlaying texts, signatures and calligraphic marks, as if repeatedly reasserting his presence and identity through his work and as the author of the work. Although it is difficult to characterise Lees practice with its ever-changing techniques, formats and content, this constant variation could also be a form of self-testing and self-assertion. It shows a determination towards constant renewal as an expression of his mortality. Through life we come to understand death and the cycles of the world we live in, whether in China or New Zealand.
Many of Lees landscapes are dark and barren, drawing attention to any trace of life through the lack of it. Fields of scorched trees are like graveyards, many taking the form of crosses a symbol of death and resurrection, especially in the Christian faith. These sombre, bare scenes recall one of New Zealands leading modernist painters, Colin McCahon, who stripped his landscapes back to elemental forms, stripped of any sign of human life or cultivation. Suggesting a pre-human world, McCahons landscapes also used light sparingly and dramatically, suggesting hope and spiritual powers. McCahon was a pioneer of the use of text in painting, and many works incorporated poetic or biblical writing scrawled across his canvases, expressionistically asserting and testing his own presence, but also questioning and challenging the power of faith, in himself, his art and religion too.