Robert Raucshenberg’s work and biography is often discussed as a contextual precedent for Paul Lee’s sculptures. Raucshenberg’s ‘combines’ were assemblages of objects and paintings that pioneered cross-media and pop art, and his personal relationship with Jasper Johns is a well cited reference point in queer history. Using everyday objects such as soda cans, light bulbs, and socks, Lee’s Untitled (Can Sculpture) series explores the relationships between materials and their coded cultural and sexual meanings.
Each of the pieces in Untitled (Can Sculpture) begins with a soda can with a photocopy of a young man’s face pasted over the label. The image is taken from a 70s naturist magazine and was chosen because the boy’s strong classical features exemplify archetypical ideals of beauty and youth. In this work, a red light bulb is embedded inside a torn can to denote sexual attraction, its seedy glow visible through the peep hole opening of another. Desire and fixation are amplified through a small magnifying lens which focuses on the bulb’s phallic screw-grooved base.
In Untitled (Can Sculpture) Lee’s materials take on a performative dimension, their readymade shapes and loaded meanings creating an image with evocative narrative innuendo. Here a crunched soda can, magnifying glass, and a lump of coal dangle above a man’s face like a crude appendage; the lens is fixed on the face as libidinous source. Hanging from the portrait, a well-worn sock – the ‘handy’ accessory of teen boys everywhere – limply dangles with the promise of polishing a diamond from the hunk of rough.
The tactile quality of Lee’s materials provoke an intensified mode of viewing. Their familiar textures are set in jarring juxtaposition: the cool smoothness of metal, rough squishiness of sponge, and dull softness of paper, triggering a longing of touch in physical memory. Through this sensual fetishisation of everyday consumer objects Lee’s sculptures explore the nature of personal identity, their disposable nature highlighting the ephemeral transience and guilty pleasures of desire.
Photocopies, light bulbs and magnifying lenses appear throughout Lee’s Untitled (Can Sculpture) series. With these materials, Lee explores the nature of the photographic image. In this work the power of a picture to create a strong somatic and psychological reaction is dissembled through the devices of image production: a photo that has been created with a lens and light is viewed through both a light bulb and looking glass. By reducing a sensual image to its bare physical mechanics, Lee illustrates a kind of technical porn, exposing both instinctive attraction and its emotional detachment.
The sense of haptic memory is overwhelmingly in every aspect of Lee’s sculptures. Here soft drink cans and bath towelling evoke a lingering evidence of intimacy: saliva on lip, damp scent of sweat; while the translucent and swollen light bulbs suggest something that was once ‘turned on’. Awkwardly bound together by the frayed remnants of a shoe string, Lee’s assemblage conveys the fragility and pathos of lost love and its detritus in this precariously balanced composition.
Hanging from the central can, two black and white socks frame a young man’s angelic face in a yin and yang embrace, their polarities of colour echoed in the brick of coal and light bulb which anchor the piece at top and bottom. This visual tension is compounded by the optical disc dangling by a bit of crudely tied string from the base of the can. Intensely magnifying a view of a lighting filament to microcosmic proportions, it creates a mystical sense of wonder and meditation.