Like It Is
Stepping from the red room into the blue, you can’t miss Mr. Blue (2022), with its glossy, rotund butt, propped on a round blue plinth like a well-endowed blueberry. Circling around the sculpture’s shining cleft, you’ll notice it’s holding a paintbrush with its little blue arm. A beret crowns its face. The artist is present, so to speak, and regards his creations on the walls: large, airbrushed canvases depicting a cast of smeary little dudes. Napping, hugging, gardening, and working, these frog-faced inhabitants of Austin Lee’s virtual world look like they’ve been doodled in 3D with spray foam, spritzed with color, then had their portraits done. Their hairdos shine like gelatin; mushrooms and flowers bend toward their watering cans. Lee’s painting technique combines airbrushed volumetric shading and hard-edged blocking to achieve the floating, unreal quality of renderings in untethered space.
Designed with software, the figures and creatures can be output in several ways: as paintings, of course; but also as sculpture, such as Icarus (2022), the dayglo pink, wyrm-like critter suspended from fishing line in the back, blue gallery; or as animation, as with Staring (2022), another winged beastie, this one flapping and panting in place inside a monitor mounted high on the wall (and offered as an NFT). Mirror (2022), a 3D-printed, nearly life-sizesculpture of a man at a lumpy cyan desk, teleconferencing with what appears to be his own double, is positioned near the front windows in a way that parallels, loosely, the gallery’s real front desk in the next room. The walls of each room are painted solid, Crayola red or blue, as if enveloping the viewer in the horizonless optimism of Lee’s wacky imagination. What’s on view is style.
There’s a squishy simplicity to the figures and their activities—whether guilelessly embracing, in 2022’s Love and Pain; watering the grass and frolicking with warpy butterflies in Interaction (2022); or even sizing up a weird meal of lizard garnished with plump flowers in Bezos (2021). The smooth appearance of the figures reflects the smoothness, not to say innocence, of their cartoon existence. They’re like us, Lee seems to say—only smoother, easier, purer. The impish blue artist on his plinth, light-heartedly mooning, has the most puerile energy. For “frightening,” see Run (2022), the tall and slightly ferocious rendering of a panther apparently emerging into focus as it sprints out of the painting’s depths toward the picture plane, its snarling teeth and gums curling around its pale pink mouth. Still, there’s something cute and nostalgic about the predator, like a semi-ironic revival of Thundercats, part of a trend in toys for regressed grownups.
To state the obvious, the work has a generically druggy vibe. Several of the compositions feature Rorschach-like, imperfect symmetry—not fearful or intense so much as pop-psychedelic. The sculptures in particular seem like artifacts of the artist’s trip to the psychic depths, now polished for public consumption in the vein of Takashi Murakami action figures or KAWS dolls. At its best, Lee’s world hugs the line between hell and heaven, as when the influence of psychotropics turns people’s faces or whole bodies both goofy and monstrous at once. At this point, you have two choices: go with the flow—accept that these paintings and their quirky stylization of mundanity exist as an extension of root reality and that, so to speak, you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid––or fight the illusion. Try to plug Lee’s trip into art history or current events, and things will go badly for you. —Travis Diehl
Austin Lee, Notes, 2021 Acrylic on wood 40 x 40 inches. Photo by Genevieve Hanson. Courtesy of the artist and Jeffrey Deitch, New York.