Walking into self-taught artist Richard Lee’s light- and color-filled exhibition, “Life in Reverse: The Remarkable World of Richard Lee,” is to enter his wild, irreverent, mysterious, and thoroughly engrossing imagination. The Island artist’s bright, allusive narratives are filled with flora, fauna, creatures across the animal kingdom dressed in human costumes, mythological beings from indigenous cultures around the world to cherub-like babies, spirits, and human figures, snuggled inside solid-colored backgrounds.
Lee’s exhibit runs until July 25 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Vineyard Haven. On July 3, from 9 to 10 pm, the special event, “NightLife In Reverse Video Mapping Presentation” will take place under the night sky, when the front of the museum will be transformed into a digital canvas, on which the characters that inhabit Richard’s paintings will come to life and run, flutter, and lope across the building with the same playful spirit that Lee brought to his work.
His artwork is fit within old frames Lee salvaged from yard and estate sales and then refinished with faux marbling and gold and silver gilt. Sometimes the frame would influence the painting, which he chose with great intention. Each piece is luminous, which comes from Lee’s reverse painting process in which he first constructs his fantastic drawing on tracing paper, then places the glass on top, copies the images, and then uses opaque acrylic and casein pigments to paint the surface, starting with the eyes and other tiny elements, and working outward before painstakingly filling in the surrounding single-toned background. The paintings become gloriously luminous when turned over, as we see them through glass, which acts somewhat like a prism. Lee, who died in 2012, came upon the technique one day in 1957 when, having no paper around, he couldn’t find anything but glass to paint upon for a birthday card to a friend. Lee said, “Because you are designing everything from behind with everything meant to face out, it’s very exacting, like brain surgery.”
You can get a sense of the process by looking at his last, unfinished piece, which is on Lee’s exhibited work table, crowded with innumerable pieces of inspiration as well as a postcard of the inside of his house, decorated to the hilt not only with his art but oriental rugs, chandeliers, decorated furniture, and the like. Located in the middle of the gallery, the whole ensemble conjures up Lee’s very spirit, as though he has just gotten up and wandered away for a moment from his work.
Although you have no clue as to their specific meaning, his compositions engross you in a process of deep looking as your eyes discover one element after another, encouraging you to roam across the surface. While there is a whimsical air to his work, it is heavily influenced by a wide range of artistic traditions stemming from his travels and studies. There are hints of Mayan, Aztec, Tibetan, Hawaiian, Tahitian, Chinese, Japanese, and European medieval art. Fantastically woven together, they evoke distant echoes of medieval stained glass, Sgt. Pepper, Yellow Submarine, Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Seuss, Pop Art, and Northern Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch’s early 16th-century “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
But don’t let their whimsy fool you. They all come from Lee’s very intentional iconography, with the elements indicating different things. Tania Augustinos, owner of A Gallery (who along with Lee’s widow, Claudia Canerdy, and his son, Hudson Lee, and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum curator Anna Barber curated the show) says, “They are light-hearted, playful, but with an undertone of seriousness. He created a language out of these symbols. For instance, thunderbolts and arrows meant forward motion, butterflies indicated transformation and reincarnation. But he wanted to leave it to the viewer to make their own interpretation from their own experiences.”
Clamoring for attention in the show too are immensely splendid glass-paneled and resurfaced, ornate, American-made cabinets, mostly from the late 19th and early 20th century, and inspired by the curiosity cabinets made to house small treasures in royal households. Lee made 13 of them, with the 13 being the king’s number in the sacred system of ancient numerology. Resting on top of the four cabinets in the gallery are gilt animal skulls, and on the wall hang fantastic, Mardi Gras–reminiscent masks, which he collaborated on with Willa Shalit, opening “Face It.” People would come to the parlor, which they co-ran, in Vineyard Haven to have life mask impressions made, which were then painted and adorned with feathers that Lee collected when he studied with indigenous people all along the West Coast. As the informative exhibition brochure reports, “Island luminaries such as late selectman John Alley to business owners and extended families all submitted to having straws in their nostrils so they could breathe while being plastered over and waiting patiently for the molds to set.” Line etchings and decorative furniture also fill the space.
The tenor of Lee’s work makes it easy to imagine his personality, which Canerdy says was “a very kind, loving, person who accepted all different people and different cultures. And he made art for joy. He wanted people to take away a joyful lesson from it without spelling out what that is.”
What is striking when looking around the museum gallery as a whole is the way Lee used color to its greatest potential. In a catalog of his work, he said, “Color is a pleasure principle. Colors vibrate. We respond to colors psychologically in ways that excite and awaken us …” Lee also noted, “All I ask of anything is that it delight me.”
And that is exactly how you feel amidst his art — the pure pleasure of experiencing it.
For more information, visit bit.ly/3A33RCH.