Jocelyn Lee: The Appearance of Things
19 April - 10 May, 2018
Review by Kristina Foster
It would be hard for anyone, man or woman, to walk into the Jocelyn Lee’s exhibition at Huxley-Parlour and not feel surrounded by the regenerative power of nature and its symbiotic connection to the female body. Of course, these themes have walked hand-in-hand since the earliest forms of visual art, but Lee manages to shed a new light on this age-old allegory in her photography by capturing the physical world in all its transience and fragility.
The American artist’s first solo exhibition in the UK is a welcome addition to London’s spring art season as flora and fauna stir into life once more. What is most striking about Lee’s photography is its rich painterly aesthetic, as she espouses landscape, still-life and portraiture and locates Rubenesque female forms within these settings. However, whilst some of her models do indeed possess the alabaster skin and auburn tresses of pre-raphaelite standards, Lee also uses black models and older models, as in ‘Jill with the Crashing Wave’ (2015), which recalls Botticelli’s most famous work as Jill poses like a triumphant, silver-haired Venus with the rolling ocean behind her. Lee thereby at once appropriates and challenges these neoclassical tropes by interpolating unconventional forms of beauty into these environments. The result is a powerful convergence between the themes of life and death, aging and rebirth.
These contrasts mean that there is always a melancholic darkness lurking beneath the surface of Lee’s photographs, a depth emphasised by her abundant use of water as background, such as in ‘Dark Matter #3, Wedding Flowers’ (2015). This discarded bouquet is a fragrant (de)composition, mingling withered blooms and decaying fruit with fresh flowers. Lee’s success in the conceptual marriage between the body and nature is seen in this piece as these natural materials evoke the image of flesh in a manner that is almost visceral, and certainly devastating.
Perhaps what is so haunting about Lee’s work is its unsentimental approach to existentialism. As the exhibition’s title, ‘The Appearance of Things’, suggests, Lee’s photography portrays the human body as just a ‘thing’ amongst other ‘things’: plants, rocks, trees, flowers. As bodies are ‘enmeshed in an ephemeral environment’, the tactile differences between ‘foliage, fabrics and flesh’ become almost indistinguishable.
Whilst the transience of the material world is a key theme in this exhibition, the feel of Lee’s photography is not one of captured fleeting moments, but rather, that her compositions have been meticulously styled. Choreographed angles of light illuminate the seated figure in in ‘The Empty Mirror’ (2016) and the defiant over-the-shoulder stare of the model in ‘July Burn’ (2016), daring you to laugh at her sunburn, is anything but candid. Like models sitting for their portrait, the close relationship between subject and artist is palpable. It is this kind of connection that opens up an honesty in Lee’s work, making it hard to look away.