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Blogger profile: Lee Devonish
Richard Taylor talks to Lee in the final year of her Fine Art course at the University of Kent as she moves across disciplines and kick starts degree show plans for the year group.
"Originally from Barbados, I emigrated to Boston as a teenager and enrolled at MassArt. Although a painter, whilst there, I decided to major in ceramics. After a year I dropped out of college to get married and move to the UK, where I set up a ceramics studio at home. After my son was born I began making and selling children's clothes, which led to large retail fairs in London. I found my craftwork unfulfilling though, and thanks to divorce and single parenthood I found the impetus and confidence to return to my fine art practice after ten years."
Drawing and painting are the foundations of Lee's practice, which encounters printmaking and sculpture, whilst focusing primarily on the human figure. Her current work explores the beauty of the individual male as well as the viewer's expectations of men in works of art. Her recent male portraits reflect the sitter's attitudes towards objectification on a personal level as well as eliciting a response from the viewer, inviting him or her to question their assumptions about art, beauty and modern masculinity.
Richard Taylor: From what I gather, your work does contain a lot of 'you' - as in you seem to have done a lot and experienced a lot. Is your work, in a way, a form of self-portraiture - as in, does it spell the attitudes you have as woman to the perception of masculinity?
Lee Devonish: The work was never intended to contain my personal feelings about masculinity as a whole, but rather to point towards other people's perceptions.
Originally it was as much about the roles assigned to each gender, and where I was expected to fit into this. I started to notice people's reactions to my paintings, which were simply paintings of what I was interested in, and found that they viewed them quite differently. What I started thinking about later was the wider issue of where men fit in to our newer, softer world, why there seems to be this latent element of threat within the male body, and why my interest in them should be viewed with curiosity or distrust. Within this framework it was about the viewer, whether male or female, and their preconceptions of what men are for.
Self-portraiture - that threw me. Purposefully turning the focus onto others, as different from myself as possible, yet creating work about myself - actually it makes perfect sense. Making these portraits involves moving from asking questions into making a statement about my relationships with these men, placing myself in a position of parity, or of power. Adding the element of growing up in a deeply matriarchal society, it seems quite likely!
It could be argued that all artists' work would function as self-portraiture on a simple level; we can only reflect our own experiences and understanding of the world, or use someone else's to reflect our aspirations.
How much of myself I can remove is an interesting question. How much of a disinterested observer can I remain when I am presenting these objects filtered through the process of my creation? They aren't simply images of men, they are my choices, my men, my productions. I suppose that, because I am 'a maker', my work will unavoidably contain a lot of me.
RT: There was an interesting show at The Modern Institute in Glasgow recently, where artists Urs Fischer and Georg Herold placed live female nudes in the gallery space amongst other sculptures and installation processes. What is your attitude to this, in terms of the use/over-use of the female body, upon reflection of the time you spend as both a viewer of and artist responding to the male models depicted in your work?
LD: It occurs to me that Fischer and Herold are creating work about themselves as well. It certainly isn't about the models depicted in the sculptures. The process of working, of being the author, that's what the subject is. By staging their installation as a studio interior, they are consciously tapping into longstanding expectations of what artists are and how they work. Live models impart a sense of traditional values, with serious, worthy connotations. And the serious, worthy, traditional practitioners are in complete control.
The women are no more than part of the furnishings, the mundane trappings of the profession, just as much as the plinths and armatures. In the instant they take off their clothes they take on the attributes of the model, but the artists are required to elevate this into the nude. When we see these models, we may not even think of the female body being over-used; they appear unremarkable, simply because they are the industry standard. There's no personality, and definitely no sex involved; their bodies have become so blank as to be meaningless. The artists presenting them as part of the work, showing them to the public is only a breath away from Manzoni signing their bodies.
For me, it's this situation that I find interesting - that I would be assumed to be trying to make a point by replacing the standard issue with male versions. I wouldn't be tempted to replicate the scene with my cast of characters. I don't feel that I need to! Most of my models are my friends. Going from passive viewer to active translator is an interesting process, and I spend quite a bit of time questioning my own intentions when I'm making a piece. I couldn't get the same feelings from a bland position of complete authority. I like that I have those varying relationships to draw on. I think once you start from a presumption of equality and entitlement, you don't feel threatened, and I want to spend some time exploring what happens when I invite others to look at the things I find interesting.
RT: It seems to me that the relationship between the artist and the subject (and the traditions of observation / interaction that happen in between) is of much value in your work. Have you thought of using still shots with video to embark on further investigations?
LD: I have! Although in a very specific context: I spent some time last year drawing over Skype, and a strange situation unfolded that led me to question what I was trying to represent. The point was, not just to draw a generic figure, but to capture these long-distance connections; to have people essentially present whilst physically absent was an interesting concept to work around.
The concept of drawing from life over streamed video was fascinating, but I started to rationalise it and began taking screen shots during conversations. I liked the way that the screen shots of the Skype window would document the caller's details and the precise moment in the duration of the conversation, and this framework became as important as the picture on the screen. In fact, it became even more interesting as the picture distorted, as the artifice of the situation was even more apparent. I ended up with a collection of hundreds of screen shots, and looking through them now, they are almost like movie stills, as my memory fills in the gaps and condenses the many months it took to amass the pictures and the accompanying stories.
My first response was to use them to create a series of paintings, which didn't materialise, but I did make one, called "46:30", about a particularly sad conversation made worse by the picture and sound breaking down. It's a very personally indulgent painting, anyone looking at it will be unaware of the full story, but I like that it is a second snipped out of that dialogue and glorified in paint. Now, I know that painting isn't the right way for me to approach the subject, so I'm sitting on my screenshot collection and editing them, until I can concentrate on them and realise it as a different project.
RT: You talk of packing away and editing ready for another project. I can't help but think that you attach a certain material to each 'project' that you do - is there no room to make your current project (that being your degree show) multidisciplinary: for instance to have paintings and recorded sound or actual video portraits of people? Have you seen the work of Fiona Tan?
LD: I hope I don't appear that regimented - although maybe I am. When I think of the Skype pictures I think of a different 'project' because they are essentially about a different subject: one particular relationship that deserves its own space. Perhaps I've drawn Venn diagrams in my head and sorted where everything belongs and overlaps. With music and images I often envision an end product and work backwards in my mind. It may sound unappealing to some who are more process driven than results driven, but the process plays a major part as well. The idea picks the method, as there are some thoughts, which I can only articulate through writing prose, and some through singing and playing music. Combining those things in my artwork would be interesting, but challenging, as I've tended to use them for such different purposes.
I hadn't previously seen Fiona Tan's work, but I definitely found myself responding most to her photography; video is probably the medium, which I'm least likely to use. Although I'd never rule anything out - I just prefer getting my fingers into things. I'd have a hard time incorporating sound without codifying it into musical form. I could try to write a piece of music to relate to my work but I'd need to take the time to separate myself into that way of thinking; I need to be immersed to make it work.
The nature of third part of my course is very different from the previous two years (or one in my case as I joined in halfway), we're expected to funnel and concentrate our work. I felt that I had to particularly insist on combining painting and carving at the beginning of the course and clearly define my intentions so that I didn't take on too much. It just happened that I hit on a subject earlier this year that I could address in my writing too: with this subject I need the reference to conventionality, which painting and carving create. So for the time being, I'll have to confine myself to those two disciplines: there's so much more to learn about both that I'll have my hands and mind occupied.
RT: When do you think you will open the front gate to allow new ideas and new projects to not sit on the fence, but join in with your methodologies? Final year study and degree show preparation take a slowing down of process with more intricate decisions - do you use graduation as a marker for when a 'new' project will begin?
LD: My life is punctuated by the academic year, not because of my own studies but also because of my son's, so I do have to draw lines around responsibilities to set time out in advance if I want to get anything done. I'm not a naturally organised person and it's the deadlines that make me work efficiently, so I've come to appreciate them! Certainly having all of my academic deadlines out of the way will mean I can shake off the grid work.
I am looking forward to having a bit of space once the show is up and the dust has settled, when I can work on my other interests. I'm very keen to work on my creative writing and record some of my songs once I've got some breathing space. And I'm thinking about making a book out of those screen shots, and if I want to have any peace in my life at all I'm going to have to make the painting my mother's been nagging me about for years!
I am hoping to go onto an MA course soon afterwards so I'm not sure how much freedom that will leave me for playing around, or if I'll have done enough experimenting over the summer to have a clearer idea of how to integrate my interests. I've been thinking about making work about my previous experiences in craft and design, and the unequal value we ascribe to material things and brands. But for now I've decided to throw myself at my current work and not worry too much about connecting the dots.
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First published: a-n.co.uk October 2011
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