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St. Petersburg exhibition of Lee Lee paintings highlights degradation of environment

BY LENNIE BENNETT

Times Art Critic

ST. PETERSBURG

As the Good Book tells us, we reap what we sow. In the eyes of artist Lee Lee, the harvest is not heartening. She provides a persuasive visual argument for her conclusion in a large exhibition of her work at C. Emerson Fine Arts titled, appropriately, "Reap."

As sobering as her subject matter — environmental desecration — the works are less grim than you'd expect, mostly because they're also beautiful.

Yes, roadkill can be lovely when the dead animals are drawn with such elegance and laid out over patterns of tar tire tracks.

Still, Lee's paintings contain a strong element of didactic anger that technique can't mute. Red plays a dominant role in most works. It's sprinkled liberally through the Slaughterhouse series in portraying a place of animal death. The paper is shot through with bullets, then laid over a red backing. More red is spattered over the slaughterhouse interior. Red is also used metaphorically both in the slaughterhouse, to reference the damage of large carbon footprints, and in paintings of a missile silo where no killing actually occurs, rather its conveyance as a launching pad.

The stylistic middle ground Lee favors, between representational and abstract, is well served in Crop — The American Heartland, three paintings from an aerial perspective showing grids of fields compromised by industrial manufacturing plants. I should say that's probably what Lee paints because the works are blurred by a thin coat of white paint that resembles a dusting of snow or a bank of clouds.

The two largest paintings, both titled Rain — Oil Refinery, are divided in half by their treatments. The tops are realistic depictions of the refinery that melt into drips and pools of color at the bottom. In some ways they hearken back to Charles Sheeler's industrial landscapes of the mid 20th century. But Sheeler celebrated a generally held faith back then in industry's power to create a stronger, better nation. Lee, too, portrays her subject as a grand edifice but footnotes it with a murky pool of contaminated water that dispels the old optimism.

Bleed is the most visceral group, 12 paintings on plywood of aspen trunks blighted by a new strain of canker disease. Stands of trees cluster in a green wash of early morning light. Their gray bark is gouged and painted a blood red to resemble and exaggerate the effect of the virus.

Like all the works here — fallen birds resting on softly colored backgrounds, bees in various stages of decomposition yet still with their sprightly yellow and black markings, even the slaughterhouse and missile silo — we are left with a strange ambivalence about ignominious ends somehow ennobled through art.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

>> Reap

The exhibition is at C. Emerson Fine Arts, 909 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, through Nov. 21. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Free.

c-emersonfinearts.com or (727) 898-6068.

St. Petersburg exhibition of Lee Lee paintings highlights degradation of environment 10/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 4:30am]
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