(1) from "Fragments", silver gelatin/glass/glycerin, variable sizes, 1994.
(2) "Concerning George: the Reading Room", digital prints/documents/table/light, 2.4 x 18 x 3/5', 1994.
(3) from "Concerning George", digital imagery, 1994.
by Suvan Geer
Simayspace, San Diego) There is a temptation to look at Gavin Lee's art, which explores family and belonging, as nostalgic. The photographs he uses feel old, they have the grain and contrast of old black and white snapshots pulled out of family albums. But nostalgia is about memory, and although his photographic images reek of temporality, they are usually presented in carefully constructed formats that freeze time into memorials or emphasize their subject's present alienation from the past. Like the light box displays that mark so many of his works, time is like a burning bulb that seems to scrub away at the portraits. Personal history in all Lee's work feels fugitive.
Lee's pieces don't suggest a longing for the past. Instead they seem to want to pin it down like a specimen, examining it for clues that mean something in the present. In Fragments photographic pieces of correspondence and memorabilia are turned into curling chips of dried out, scattered communication. Laboratory petri dishes and storage jars filled with glycerine hydrate preserve some of the chips. These samples may be more readable but their communication is no less fractured. The information they offer is piecemeal, we can never be sure about what data is missing or how it fits together. It's a clever and visually provocative metaphor for trying to re-construct identity and personal meaning. Many of the works in this show, titled Revisited, are reworkings of earlier installations. Because they pare down his larger works the pieces function, much as the originally selected photographs do, as obscure reference fragments. It's an obscurity that grows as the visual elements are shuffled. For example, the photographs taken from Field of Blue are complete without the artist's visa or his grandfather's letter that were both part of the original installation, which stretched physical and emotional separation over two walls. Yet without those texts or the discontinuity of their separation in space they now give only fragile visual information on the subtle connection of kinship. Their representation here, accompanied by a tri-corner folded canvas that originally tented the images, emphasizes that the shifting and resettling of this family unit continues.
Lee has a particular sensitivity to the anonymity of photographic portraiture. Photo portraits are ubiquitous. In spite of their banality they steadily feed the cultural desire for celebrity, recognition, and a kind of immortal presence. But images of people which are stripped from their context or event, like graduation class pictures or a stranger's photo album, quickly lose meaning. They float in a phantom zone of ghostly identification--preserved but impersonal. By treating his family and his chilhood with this kind of remove Lee creates an art that is part history and part enigma. It's a tender exploration of identity that allows for the ambiguity and confusion of immigration as well as the ongoing flow of change.