Artist Catherine Lee sculpts an elemental language
Artist Catherine Lee has the voice of a provocative child-woman, like a '70s movie star, maybe Sally Struthers or, further back, Judy Garland. It sounds at once untarnished and burdened by knowledge. It's a little disconcerting to hear that voice discuss working in bronze, copper, and ceramic, often on a scale large enough to require special moving equipment. A particularly striking sculpture that will appear in her show at the Southwest School of Art & Craft this month, for instance, began with two large metal skeletons. One is left hollow and roughly in the shape of an enormous spider's egg sack. Its counterpart resembles an organic space capsule; the cement that completely fills the scaffolding is planed so that the entire surface is faceted. The effect is similar to Lee's voice: weight and weightlessness seamlessly tethered.
Physical tension - centrifugal and centripetal forces pushing against one another to create an integral whole - also informs Lee's newest works, solid ceramic blocks frequently detailed with nails, finished in the bubbled and crackled Raku technique. Lee says she was trying to pack the same ideas, energy, and form in her larger bronze sculptures into the Raku objects, and they seem almost to hum with pressurized force.
Distinguishing between art and craft, says Lee, is "just a convenient way of saying something about an artist's intention," but it also seems true that while Lee works in forms generally recognized as "art," her relationship to objects flows from the ritual of everyday use. When Lee divorced recently, she said that of all the art in her and her former spouse's house, she felt she had to have only three things: a Hammadi pot, an African mask, and a small Degas drawing of a horse's business end.
Lee seems engaged and interested in many other art forms. She says she enjoys the baroque aesthetic emerging in visual and performing arts, as well as design, but her own style remains magnetically simple in its lines and earth-tone palette. It is elemental, but not minimal. The clean lines are a serene veneer over a complex thought.
"If your will is strong and you need something to exist, the material is inconsequential," Lee says. The sentence is open to at least two interpretations: you need the object to come in to being, and/or you need the object for your being. Lee, a native of Pampa who is in the process of moving fully back to Texas after a long double life in New York, lost a dog named Alabama a few years ago. She made a set of 60 clay pieces in a shape she riffs on often - a sort of primitive ax head - and using an untried technique she inadvertently made what she came to view as a dark child's band-aid shape over the "heart" of each off-white piece. Not long after moving to her new home near Wimberly, she found her new canine companion, Lola, being chased down a country road by a pickup truck. Lola is a beautiful black lab-like dog with a striking white star on her chest. Lee doesn't think this is just a coincidence, but she doesn't seem to need it be anything more, either. •
By Elaine Wolff