"Nikki S. Lee: Parts and Projects," June 11-July 28, 2004, at Numark Gallery, 625-627 E Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20004
The Korean-born, New York-based Nikki Lee, 34, is the Zelig of the current art world. Her chameleon approach follows Cindy Shermans beacon, but Lee never poses alone, shoots exclusively outside of the studio and does not emulate the theatrics of grade-B cinema or Old Master paintings, as Sherman does. Lees images are snapshot-casual rather than C-print-grandiose.
The show at Numark marked Lees first solo exhibition in Washington. Locals may remember her from the "Open City: Street Photographs since 1950" survey at the Hirshhorn Museum in 2002 that underscored the tradition, begun by Robert Frank, William Klein and others, of turning raw urban images into a new esthetic. That exhibitions works by Lee were from the "Projects" series that occupied her from 1997 to 2002. Six additional examples opened the Numark show.
Lees modus operandi in "Projects," which is often more exciting than the photos themselves, is to find a closed community, identify herself as an artist, gain the trust of her subjects and adapt their looks, wardrobe choices and mannerisms. When the right moment comes, she asks a friend or a passerby to take a group shot with her in it. Lee recasts Diane Arbus skill at gaining the trust of societys outcasts and opens her subjects up to scrutiny -- which borders on mockery -- with similar chutzpah. .
Like Arbus Central Park subjects and magazine images, some of Lees project photos at Numark are delectable cultural icons. A spiky-blonde skateboarder with her hawk-eyed jock companion stares intently ahead, ready to compete in the bright California sun in The Skateboarders Project (31), (2000). A black, two-toned-lipstick Hip-Hop girl in shades sprawls in a limo across her tattooed pals who cease, for the time being, one imagines, with offensive Yo-Bitch poetics in The Hip Hop Project (30), (2002). A decked-out lady punker on a park bench snuggles with her wan, classically alienated boyfriend, a la Dylans Freewheelin in The Punk Project (7) (1997). The costumes and settings in these mise-en-scenes -- produced, directed and starring the artist -- are on target
And no wonder. A graduate in photography at NYU, Lee also studied fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and as a student was influenced, she has said, not by the work of Sherman but by Vogue picture spreads, in which costume changes, quasi-narratives and mannered poses are the norm.
Not every one of Lees projects is a smash hit. Lees impersonation of a buoyant tourist in front of the Statue of Liberty, imitating the monuments upraised arm, comes off as a mundane vacation snapshot, something that should be thrown out. Perhaps thats intentional, since all of her projects display (somewhat distractingly) digital date stamps to underscore their ordinariness as snapshots. But boring is boring.
Lees projects fuse warm-and-fuzzy group dynamics (dressed the same, bonds formed, buoyant pride in being photographed) with guilty voyeurism by we educated, mostly white types -- a disquieting combination.
The artist current series, called "Parts," formed the core of the Numark show, with 14 examples. In these works, Lee abandons group shots for staged photographs with her as the main character, interacting with different individual men who are only partly seen -- literally cropped out of the composition. Edgar Degas, a master cropper in photography-influenced paintings, would have approved.
Punning on actors roles and half-seen images, these photographs are primarily about the politics and pitfalls of coupledom, with Lee as the chief enactor and victim of various mind games. Affectionate interchanges are few. In 14 aluminum-mounted, lacquered prints, all dated 2003, druggies, intellectuals, aristocrats, tourists, sex-industry workers and careerists commingle in sliced splendor in a grungy apartment, litter-strewn street, open-air restaurant, perfume shop and other real-life settings. Its a bit like channel surfing through choose-the-right-husband reality-TV shows. But theres no overdecorated mansion or stupid dialogue here, the bad-news possibilities are more believable, and no one wins.
Lee is a furrow-browed college girl who seems freaked out as she poses in front of what appears to be a Ground Zero construction wall (Part 15). Why is her companion off on the side and not with her, touching her, bolstering her spirits? What is behind the attentiveness of a gold-chained perfume customer (Part 33) preening her high-rolling black companion? Genuine affection or prostitute-to-pimp professionalism? The first-date excitement of a swimmer approaching a hairy arm at poolside is palpable (Part 6), but will the turn-on be returned? Will the post-coital, Nan-Goldinish druggie (Part 10) outlive her mainlining bedmate? Does she care? Lee gives you half the story
(A gimmick I could do without: three white borders appear on each print to underscore the finality of cropping, but the emotional punch is strong enough without calling attention to the desperate act).
In "Parts," Lees ethnicity is more rawly exposed than in "Projects." She is and looks Korean, which was apparent in the previous series, but now, with deeper, more potentially damaging emotional issues at stake, a sense of displacement and vulnerability can be at the heart of a works power. Wiping a particle from (or fixing contact lenses on?) very Asian eyes in Part 28, Lee projects a self-assured Jewish American Princess ego while a husband-figure rests his arm on her thigh, partly reigning her in, partly protecting her from herself. In Part 31, Lee is a delicate, pearly-skinned Asian beauty who is obviously ill at ease as her no-face boyfriend coaxes her into raucous Easter Parade revelry on Fifth Avenue, near St. Patricks Cathedral, by stroking her long black hair.
Lee has the freedom to morph. Neither black nor white nor identifiable to any particular region or class, she is an Alexis de Tocqueville from Asia. As she herself has acknowledged, this identity may account for her ability to blend into groups rather than stand out as an individual, which is a particularly Western concept. Reared in Korea on American TV and McDonalds, she has had plenty of material to work from since moving to the United States in 1994 (with her first fine-arts degree) to join the epicenter of an increasingly jet-and-internet linked, video-overloaded, cell-phoning culture. It will be interesting to see where she goes next.
SIDNEY LAWRENCE is an artist and writer living in Washington, D.C.