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Born in Arkansas, Lee Maxey lives and works in Brooklyn. Stories from a religious upbringing intertwine with contemporary queer experience by way of Lee Maxey’s purposefully composed still lifes.
How do your paintings negotiate religious motives and queer identity?
That’s a big question. My family is uber-religious so that informed how I was raised and my relationship with my family, my upbringing, and where I am from. Then, especially because of politics for the past five years or so, I’ve become really interested in the means through which religion is used to make people think a certain way. It is used politically and for all different kinds of purposes. I’m not religious but I think spirituality can be useful for some things, such as comfort; sadly I think it is mostly not used for those positives. I’m interested in navigating that through my paintings.
Some of your paintings seem to reinterpret biblical narratives. What are some examples of that in your works?
Yes, especially the works you have on your website. For those, I was using cut felt after buying an old box of felt pieces similar to those used in school classrooms and Sunday school to illustrate a story. I started using them to reinterpret biblical stories. The cutout of a little girl figure appears throughout that series, and she became a way to talk about myself. She became almost like a self-portrait. I also look at historical paintings and pull ideas from them.
Do you have a favorite Bible story?
No, I don’t.
What’s the effect of your collage or papier-mache on your works?
The paintings based on collages are really highly rendered and labor-intensive, which people notice. But the cut-outs themselves allow the paintings to have a child-like quality to them, which relates to the experience of a child interacting with these biblical stories. It is easier to talk about big ideas, like religion, if you simplify them a little bit, and think about them in more elemental terms– thinking about them as a child would.
Is Surrealism also a source of inspiration for you?
No. Surrealism isn’t a source of inspiration for me. However, I am interested in thinking about how people see things, kind of like hallucinations. That’s what we do with our beliefs– we project them onto the world and make our own realities. Through invention, I’m trying to present the question, “Do you see that or are you making it up?” This began with a painting of my bathroom, though in that painting it is very obvious I put drawings on my window, they weren’t real hallucinations. I’m trying to make a very realistic space dream-like. There is a surreal quality to my work but I am not thinking about Surrealist artists.
How did you start using egg tempera and why do you choose it over other mediums?
In grad school, I took a materials and techniques class, which was amazing. Otherwise, I would likely have never been introduced to egg tempera. Previously, I had been primarily using watercolor, and egg tempera kind of works like watercolor in that it dries immediately. Overall, it just felt like the right medium, and I like how it elaborates on my religious subject matter.
What do you do to get into your painting mood? Do you have any rituals you follow before painting?
I wouldn’t say I have a routine I follow before I come into the studio. To work up to a painting I usually make a lot of drawings and a pretty detailed sketch. With egg tempera you need to know what you’re doing; it’s not like oil paint where you can be like, “Oh that didn’t work, I’ll just wipe it out.” So generally, I usually do a lot of prep to get to the painting itself. Once I know what I want to do then I just come in and I do it.
WORKS BY THE ARTIST
Do you listen to certain music while you paint?
Oh yes! I also listen to so many podcasts, I’m an addict.
Out of curiosity, what podcasts do you listen to?
I listen to a lot of political podcasts. I love Who Weekly, that’s my happy podcast. It’s about celebrities who are “who’s”, meaning you don’t recognize them. During strict lockdowns in the pandemic, I was like I need more of this.
How does your work environment affect you? Especially here at the Hercules Studio Program where you are surrounded by other artists.
I originally came here for a six-week residency; generally the program is two years long. My friend Manny Padernos was doing the 2-year program and then he decided to move back to Singapore while I was doing the short residency. As a result, Hercules invited me to stay on. Then, because of Covid, they extended the program. So my studio still looks like I just moved in, and feels weird to me because there are piles of stuff everywhere. It took me a little while to get comfortable, but it always takes me some time to get comfortable in a new space. But it has been amazing to have so much space because I can see everything I’m working on, and see how all the paintings connect to each other. My partner and I share a one-bedroom apartment so previously I was using the bedroom as my studio which was fine but very small, and I could only see three things at a time.
Is there anything new you’re trying this year with either mediums or themes?
Yes, the hallucinations theme I mentioned. Thinking about seeing a reality that isn’t there.
Looking around your studio, I see your works are mostly small-scale but you also have one large canvas, which jumps out. Do you usually only do small-scale?
Yes. When I moved into Hercules I thought, “I have this sizable studio now and I’m going to be here for a little while, so I should try making a big painting.” I do this every two years and always regret it. I didn’t finish the large-scale work. I don’t like it, I like parts of it, but as a whole, it doesn’t work. Egg tempera dries so quickly, which means paintings are made up of tiny marks. It’s really not useful for creating a big painting, and I had to learn that again.
What is your plan for the rest of the day?
I’m going to be painting. I’m working on a painting of bathroom tiles, and I want the tiles to have surprising shapes in them. You know when you’re staring at a ceiling and you see shapes? Sometimes that happens to me with the tiles in my bathroom, and I want to use that in this painting.
Do you have a favorite artist or a favorite period?
That’s such a hard question! I’ve been looking a lot lately at Sienese paintings on the Met’s website, from the 1300s or 1400s. I find them so weird; they have strange perspectives, and the color is very, very limited.
I’ve also been looking at miniature painting. There is this book from the early 2000s called My Name is Red. It’s a really amazing book by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. It’s a mystery murder novel all about miniature painters living in Istanbul. I have loved miniature paintings for years but was always more interested in Indian miniature paintings. After reading the book I became interested in the Turkish region and how it related to European miniature painting; Turkey is situated between Europe and India so it’s interesting to see both of the influences.
Do you have a favorite museum?
I go to the Whitney the most. They have such good shows. I loved the Agnes Pelton exhibition. Her influence probably shows in my recent works.
When is your new show going to open?
In October, so I still have a good amount of time. I made some of the paintings for it at the beginning of quarantine, which makes me wonder how much of that will survive until October. The gallery where the show will be isn’t large. So from now until then, I’ll probably make more things and have to pick and choose.