When Catherine Lee’s angled bronze sculptures appeared in February on the grounds of the Elisabet Ney Museum, adjacent the historic Hyde Park castle-esque limestone building, they delivered a splash of modernity.
Lee’s dramatic, dark pieces dot the museum’s western flank, including one located a quick jaunt across Waller Creek. Together with some of the artist’s smaller works on display inside, the outdoor sculptures form “The Ney Project,” a temporary exhibit at the city-operated museum. On view through May 6, Lee’s exhibit is one of several initiatives in the last several years that has seen work by contemporary women artists spotlighted at the Elisabet Ney Museum, the former studio and home of the boundary-breaking 19th-century German artist who settled in Austin
Last year Lee’s “Hebrides #6 Clach An Trushal” was installed on the Ney Museum grounds, a long-time loan from the Contemporary Austin where it’s part of the permanent collection.
The surfaces of Lee’s bronze rewards close viewing. Lee, who spent decades in New York, now works in a studio outside Wimberley, is also a painter, and her bronze works reveal a painterly touch, for the non-obvious reason that she does, in fact, paint them.
Just as Ney made waves in Texas by making sculptures of famous men in a male-dominated era and profession, Lee has made a career within a genre of art bloated with men like Donald Judd and Richard Serra.
At least as best as one can paint on bronze.
“It’s like painting with fire,” Lee explains in an East Austin coffee house. The sculptures have gone from a series of progressively bigger and bigger models, arriving finally at bronze shapes the size of a respectable boulder, when Lee dons protective gear and prepares to paint. “It’s closer to etching, actually. She heats up the metal surface of the piece with an oversize propane heater, then dips a brush in acid and makes her mark.
“It just goes psshhaaaawwwww,” she says. Sparks fly, there’s smoke, and the acid reveals colors buried below the surface of the metal, or as Lee describes it, “summoning colors out of the bronze. It’s sort of like rusting.”
In the oxidation process, unlike with rusting steel, the chemistry of the bronze can reveal a much wider palette. At the Elisabet Ney Museum, the result is dark metal structures laced with wispy cloud-like brush strokes rendered in a coppery green.
There’s plenty of art in Texas’ Hill Country, a lot of it tends to be of the folk or decorative variety. Out there Lee has few peers when it comes to examining back catalogues and a litany of shows in France, Germany, Ireland, New York and San Francisco. Unlike her former home in New York, where there are hundreds, if not thousands, of gallery shows each month, and a cohort of artists who swim in that milieu, there is no one in the immediate vicinity who has such a history with the minimalism, no one, Lee says, she is “in direct dialogue with.”
Yet there are friends and artists in Austin and the Hill Country, with whom she can talk art. And in any case, Lee says, after commuting for years between Manhattan and Texasgetting out of the metropolis of American art — though a fraught decision — was also why she decided to come back to Texas.
Keeping a base in New York, “seemed to be really necessary at the time,” Lee says. “There are things you can’t do in Manhattan. You can’t fire a kiln legally!” (She did anyway, of course, it was just that her co-op’s neighbors didn’t quite approve.)
“I like New York, and I miss New York, but I’m not one of those people who loves New York.”
Wimberley — or, to be specific, miles past it, along the Blanco River — is the opposite kind of space. Here, for her kiln, Lee built an entire building, open on its sides, keeping embers from drifting out with a mesh screen. “You don’t want to be the one that burned down Texas.”
Maybe it was the constriction of Manhattan that lent Lee to such an appreciation of Texas’ open spaces. “A lot of my work is about things that are found,” she says.
A piece of pottery buried in the Texas dirt, or the monolithic oddness of stones she saw in Scotland. Her art seems to follow a systematic process, and often involves making multiples. She says: “Pretty much everything I do is serial. That’s how I make order out of chaos.”
The serial nature plays out in her grid paintings, her series of wall sculptures which evoke the curves of arrowheads or pottery shards. In both she plays with line and color held in by a repeated shape. Yet the source material is tangential to the work she produces. It’s abstraction, not the thing itself.
One of her square grid paintings, she says might evoke “the way the dirt smelled when she was a child,” in the Texas panhandle. She finds some irony in New York sculptors evoking the land when there is precious little of it around. >
At the Ney, Lee’s “Hebrides #6 Clach An Trushal,” named after the tallest standing stone in Scotland, is an elegant, yet intense, structure, somehow unexpected in the landscape. Feeling at once alien — with its too-clean surface and wispy brush strokes — and a kind of witness to the landscape, one which is now being changed by its weather and surroundings.
The other, smaller works are more recent works, playful, clever variations of the crinkled rock-like form, which reveal small alterations and decisions as the viewer walks around it.
Lee is an ideal fit for the Ney. Just as Ney made waves in Texas by making sculptures (of famous men) in a male-dominated era and profession, Lee has made a career within a genre of art bloated with men like Donald Judd and Richard Serra.
Lee keeps many of her modes of working in the mix, even decades later. She might make more grid paintings, for instance. “I keep dropping threads and picking them up.”
And yet she does not want to look too hard at why she makes the work she makes. “I try not to identify an M.O.”
Still, though Lee says is a fierce editor of her work, she is also able to return to these works years later.
“I’ll make anything and smash it with a hammer, ‘cause it’s not right, but I won’t do that 20 years later.”
She’s moved on.
“The Ney Project” continues through May 6. The grounds are open 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. The museum is open 12 noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Admission is free. austintexas.gov/Elisabetney